SHERIDAN — Seth Ulvestad has spent plenty of time in the Bighorn Mountains. Some of his finest childhood memories, and memories made later in life, took place in the vast wilderness just west of Sheridan.
Ulvestad wanted kids today to have similar positive experiences in nature. And with that in mind, Fresh Air Fridays were born.
The Sheridan Recreation District’s interim executive director started the program three summers ago when he took the job as SRD recreation program supervisor. Initially, the new outdoor activity had trouble enticing participants.
Ulvestad, who can take a group of up to seven with him — if more were to come he’d need another supervisor on hand — guided hikes his first year with groups as small as two.
Fresh Air Fridays also had a little bit of a trial-and-error period. Ulvestad didn’t know how long it would take a group to complete different hikes. For instance, Steamboat Point, which isn’t an overbearingly-long hike — spanning just over a mile — ascends quite drastically for a majority of the hike and can gobble up more time than a hike on relatively level ground.
Hundreds of trails of various lengths and difficulty ratings call the Bighorn Mountains home, and Fresh Air Fridays incorporate hikes that take anywhere from six to eight hours in duration. Participants pack a lunch, snacks and water with them to enjoy throughout the day.
Uvlestad includes an education component to every hike — teaching kids about their surroundings, how to fish and, most importantly, how to conduct themselves appropriately in nature.
“Outdoor education is a great way to show kids independence and responsibility,” Ulvestad said. “Before we go I say, ‘Don’t leave my sight. You can go ahead of me, but if I can’t see you, that’s not OK.’ I want them to be careful and watch their footing and not go off the trail and be respectful for where they’re at.
“It’s really amazing how independent kids are and how quick they are to learn when they’re in that situation. They know it’s serious, but they know they’re out there to have fun.”
The kids also learn a little bit about adaptability. When the group traveled to Tongue River Canyon earlier this year, it rained, so they slipped on the proper attire and persevered.
In addition to Steamboat Point and Tongue River Canyon, Fresh Air Fridays have traversed paths at Black Mountain, Coney Lake, Paradise Falls, Red Grade Trails and Sawmill Lake.
“Most of these are some of my favorite hikes in the Bighorns,” Ulvestad said. “It makes me feel good when they haven’t been there and they enjoyed the experience. Then, at some point in the their life — whether it’s in high school or when they come back from college in the summer — they can go, ‘Hey guys, I know a cool hiking spot.’ They’re going to introduce people someday, and I think that’s a great thing for kids to be able to do.”
Darien Good has taken part in every hike so far this summer. His mother, Cecilia Good, heard about Fresh Air Fridays via word-of-mouth and understands the importance and beneficial components of the program.
“I think it’s critical,” Cecilia Good said. “It’s a great way to get out there and find some new areas. Some of the new areas they’re going are places I’m unfamiliar with. I grew up not really going up to the mountains as much as I could have, which is unfortunate. I think getting that youth participation is really a fantastic opportunity, and I think it’s a great program.”
Ulvestad has plans to grow the program in the coming years. Just this summer, the SRD offered a youth climbing program in conjunction with Bighorn Summit, and Ulvestad would like to pair the climbing exhibition and Fresh Air Fridays under a larger umbrella of outdoor education.
“I think that’s [the SRD’s] next big niche and something we can really push forward,” Ulvestad said. “I’d like to do some outdoor education stuff, and I think [the climbing program] was a good step toward doing that.”
Ulvestad has dreams of growing the program into one that encompasses backpacking and camping, among other activities. He’d like to reach a point where perhaps some past participants grow up and blossom into high school leaders among the outdoor program.
But for now, Ulvestad will continue to guide his group of enthusiastic adventurers on trips in the mountains, grabbing some fresh air on Fridays throughout the summer.