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WCSU students overcome fears, face challenges and move mountains through Adventure Club expeditions

Image of WCSU Adventure Club at Hat Point, Oregon
WCSU Adventure Club at Hat Point, Oregon

DANBURY, CONN. – The Western Connecticut State University Adventure Club is more than just an outdoorsy way to pass the time. Paintballing, hiking, whitewater rafting, camping and indoor rock climbing are some of the many activities that Adventure Club members have enjoyed. Recently, the club took things to a new level.

Adventure Club members Adam Quattro, a health promotion and exercise science (HPX) major from Brookfield; Jenna Pisano, an elementary education major from Orange; Leland Roberts, a mathematics major from Danbury; Roni Woods, an art major from Danbury; and Eric Gottier, a meteorology major from Tolland, were tested both physically and mentally as they embarked on a hardcore backpacking trip to Hells Canyon in Riggins, Oregon. Hells Canyon hugs the borders of northeastern Oregon and western Idaho and boasts an expansive 652,488 acres of wilderness. It is the deepest river gorge in North America.

“This trip was one of the best and most challenging experiences of my life,” Roberts said. “We hiked through almost every type of weather, several different climates and many dangers I was not expecting. It turned out to be a humbling experience.”

There were several different types of hurdles to overcome as well — not just the mileage. Some students had never experienced extreme outdoor activities or camping before joining the Adventure Club.

“I had not slept in a tent, cooked over a gas stove, done my business outdoors, failed to bathe for more than a day or two, hiked more than eight miles a day … while carrying a large load,” added Gottier.

In spite of the challenging physical and mental strain, students learned from each other and gained a sense of what it’s like to grow together as a team. They also spoke about overcoming their fears and other risks while out on the trail.

“I once read a quote that said, ‘We grow fearless by walking steadily into our fears,’” said Pisano, who added that the group worked “relentlessly” to overcome the canyon where together, they learned what it’s like to be a part of a group, learn from and rely on each other along the way.

Director of the Environmental Health and Safety branch of Facilities Pano Koukopoulos was asked by some founding members in August 2013 to be the Adventure Club adviser. He noticed a massive shift in the students who he accompanied to Hells Canyon.

“We all came back as different people than when we started,” Koukopoulos said. “After 10 days in the wilderness, I didn’t think I would have seen such a transformation from, ‘Let’s go hiking!’ to ‘Let’s plan a trip that will challenge every physical, psychological and emotional cell in your body.’”

While teamwork, leadership, perseverance and maturity all come into play, challenging trips like the one to Hells Canyon are the culmination of months of planning, phone calls, emails and researching. Having to know where the trails are, where to access water, or having an exit strategy is crucial for Adventure Club expeditions. The team members have to formulate a “Plan B” and “Plan C” before showing up to backpack, where nobody else may be around in case of emergencies.

Pisano said that after the group emerged from Hells Canyon and spoke with the local townspeople about it, they didn’t believe the weary group of WCSU travelers. “They looked at us like we were crazy. They thought we were joking,” she said. “They told us that about eight to twelve people die there every year.”

As a WCSU senior, Pisano has been part of the Adventure Club for three years. Since then, she has journeyed to Yosemite, the Maze and Hells Canyon. Maze is the most remote and least visited of the three districts of Canyonlands National Park. “Before all this, I’ve previously gone hiking, but never backpacking like that before,” she said.

Similarly, Adventure Club president Quattro had only been on one overnight backpacking trip before joining the ranks. But with three years of experience as a Boy Scout, Quattro’s previous knowledge and wilderness skills helped him along the way. He agreed with Pisano: “We can tell you all about our experience, but you’ll never really know what it’s like unless you were there with us.”

After an expedition of this nature, Adventure Club members believe that what we in our modern society consider “needs” are merely wants. Their perspectives on what’s necessary have changed dramatically. “Out there it’s different,” they said. “For 10 days we didn’t shower. Water was strictly for cooking and drinking.”

For the students, a sense of empowerment and accomplishment trumped the various challenges of their extreme backpacking adventures. “For instance, when we got out of the Maze I said there is literally nothing I can’t do. I did that. So I can literally do anything,” said Pisano. “You don’t get that from going to school, taking classes and playing sports.”

With a grin, Koukopoulos responded to her: “And to me as an educator, I’ve done my job. I’m done. If I accomplish nothing for the rest of my life, I’d be okay knowing that my students can feel like they can do anything.”



Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high-quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals and leaders in a global society. Our vision: To be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.