Enlarged Culver ropes course helps teach new ways of acting, learning, being

If you’ve ventured into the Culver Academies’ Bird Sanctuary this spring, you may have noticed that the high ropes course has undergone quite a transformation over the winter. The new course, constructed over 240 hours by Woodcraft and Ropes Course Director Sonny Adkins, is about six times bigger than the previous one— with two levels and 18 elements, including two zipline exits.

Culver’s ropes course is used by Woodcraft Camp, Family Camp, and Upper Camp in the summer, and by Culver Academies students, as well as by outside school and sports groups in the fall and spring. The program, first begun in the 1999, includes many of the industry’s standard low and high elements.

Unlike the high ropes course and the 50-foot climbing tower, Culver’s low ropes elements do not require harnesses, ropes, or other safety gear. Rather, these structures challenge groups to work together to accomplish a goal. In addition to constructing the high ropes course, Adkins also added several new low ropes elements in the Bird Sanctuary this year.

Adkins, who has spent over 20 years working in the camping and ropes course industries, explained, “Ropes course is a combination of opportunities that are presented to teams or collective groups that have a common goal.”

In the process, he added, participants “learn about themselves, take risks, grow personally, grow within the relationship with the team. It’s about discovery. It’s about challenge.”

The new high ropes course is an obstacle course located on two levels 20 and 45 feet up in the air. Participants are attached to a cable located just above their heads as they travel throughout the course.

The newly expanded course allows for a group with as many as 15 or 20 people to all travel through the course at the same time, finally exiting the off of either of two ziplines. Although the ropes course offers an exciting and exhilarating personal challenge, Adkins notes that it serves a broader purpose within any challenge course program.

“There’s a misconception that it’s just a bunch of obstacles really high up that scare the crap out of you,” said Adkins. “I think the facilitator makes the experiences. All the elements— the walls, the low ropes— those are all tools to help the facilitator.”

According to Adkins, teambuilding and ropes course challenges further Culver’s own philosophy.

“I think the ropes course philosophy takes the Culver philosophy a step further,” said Adkins. “Culver talks about developing leaders through programs and ropes course teaches them how.”

However, Adkins added that the ropes course philosophy does diverge from Culver’s in certain ways, such as in the way it defines leadership.

“I don’t think everyone can be a leader in the way Culver defines it- out front…I think there are different kinds of leaders, ...like being a follower, serving others, that’s leadership.”

Adkins added that he does not consider himself a leader.

“I’m somebody who helps people position themselves for discovery and successful opportunities. I don’t know if that’s leadership. I like to feel more a part of the team.”

Adkins said his facilitation style has changed over the years as he’s gained experience in how teambuilding programs really work. "We have this expectation that groups go back into their day to day lives and are changed forever," he explained, adding that the reality is different— most people inevitably return to their own routines.

Yet, he added, “I do think there’ll be pieces of their experiences that will surface at random times throughout the year. It also depends on the program. If you work with a school for three days you have a better chance that that experience will be retained.”

Adkins recalled one memorable ropes course experience with a group of at-risk youth: “It was a three-day program, so we were able to do a lot of work with them. By the end of this session these kids didn’t want to leave. The processing piece was very deep, things were surfacing; it brought people to tears.”

Processing, which typically occurs at the end of a teambuilding or ropes course activity, is a discussion led by ropes facilitators wherein participants are encouraged to reflect upon their experiences on the course, and to connect their learning with their outside lives.
At Woodcraft and Upper Camp, explained Adkins, the ropes course program teaches “more ways to learn about certain life skills, like listening and leadership.”

Adkins added that these same skills that make for a successful group experience on the course are necessary in all parts of life, but that it’s harder to apply them in the outside world: “Even things that I practice as a facilitator, sometimes I forget to apply as a person— listening skills, accountability.”

“When you teach a way of acting, a way of learning, a way of being, and you can see how that could positively effect your current environment, it could drive you crazy sometimes,” he said. “Or if you facilitate a group where you work, a lot of times what happens is, they just go back into the rut. It’s very difficult to facilitate your own team members.”

Adkins is excited at the opportunities the new ropes course will open up, both for summer campers and outside groups.

“I can’t just build something like this and not have it available,” said Adkins, explaining that he’d like to make market the course and make it more available to outside groups this coming fall. It’s never been advertised in the past—with groups set up through word of mouth instead. In previous years, school groups have come for overnights from as far as Indianapolis and Chicago, while local groups such as Culver Boys and Girls Club, and the Culver, Plymouth, and Bremen schools have also used the course.