Aaron Ernst stands in a field.

Aaron Ernst

As part of his job, Carolina graduate Aaron Ernst canoed for eight hours down the Tuckaseegee River in Western North Carolina one day. A day earlier, he and his colleagues ran eight miles through the mountains “just to challenge ourselves,” Ernst says.

Ernst graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 and works at the North Carolina Outward Bound School, one of the top outdoor education organizations in the world. He leads groups into the wilderness from five to 70 days at a time for the program.

“We teach (the participants) how to backpack, climb and whitewater canoe, but what we’re really doing is using nature to teach people how to care for themselves and the world around them and discover how awesome both of those are,” Ernst says.

At Carolina at first, Ernst wasn’t content with “my life being academic.”

“I always had the sense that there was a big world out there just waiting for someone to finally look out and see it,” he says.

He says he would have dropped out of school if he hadn’t found the Outdoor Education Center. He sought a position with Campus Recreation after friends told him about the Outdoor Leadership Series through the Outdoor Education Center.

He was hired to lead the Expeditions program, which offers opportunities for backpacking, rock climbing and sea kayaking trips. In the summer, the Expeditions program hosts Wilderness Adventures For First-Year Students, a multi-day backpacking trip meant to help new students adjust to the changes of coming to college. He also began working for the Challenge Course and eventually became lead instructor, which allowed him to train staff, lead trips and run challenge courses.

“My favorite memories there are mostly about the time I got to spend with other instructors,” he says. “There are few jobs that require you to sleep in a tent with your coworkers, or put your life in their hands as you climb up to the zip line,” he adds.

Ernst said that he had a notorious reputation as a trip leader, accumulating bad luck that included hail storms, high winds, blocked roads and close calls with vultures. Ernst loved it and says he wouldn’t trade the memories for anything.

“The best part was seeing how much groups could grow through those challenging times,” he says.

Published March 5, 2014.

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