Dave Patton: Bringing Recreation to the Cornfields

Dave Patton is the director of the University of Iowa’s Touch the Earth Outdoor Program, a program recognized by Outside Magazine as the 19th best outdoor program in the U.S. – not bad considering the “geographic disadvantages” the state of Iowa poses for recreational purposes. I pulled Dave from his busy schedule for a minute to figure out how he’s made a thriving outdoor program in the flat-lands of the Mid-West, and this is what he had to say:

Brad LaneCan you give us a little history of the program and your involvement in it?

Dave Patton: In 1996 I was a student at the University of Iowa (go Hawks!) and I was a part-time employee of the outdoor program as it was back then. I belayed at the miniature climbing wall and took weekend trips with the program to Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. I got an unpaid internship with the program and stepped up my responsibilities. When I graduated in 2000, I hit the road and lived the adventure lifestyle. I lived in the back of my truck and really focused on a lot of the hard skills involved in the recreation field (trad climbing, all-weather camping, white-water kayaking, etc.). When the position opened in 2005, I was at the top of the list of experienced and capable applicants.

B.L.: How do you get a community involved with the outdoors with a landscape not traditionally referred to as a recreational playground? Simply, how do you get people outside?

D.P.: That’s the million dollar question! My take on it is that programs like ours, programs that are “geographically challenged”, have to facilitate a welcoming culture. No one goes to the University of Iowa because of the great climbing near by, like some may do for schools like Colorado University, but they do come for the academics. That’s when we come in. Once students come to the University, we act as their  first introduction to adventure sports and show them that even in Iowa, their are plenty or resources available. That’s why I try and stress to my employees that this concept of exclusiveness has to be thrown out the window. That what I need from my staff is for them to encourage people to try new things, to remember what it is like to be beginners. This is essential in building a recreational program where it may not seem obvious that their can be a recreational program as big as ours.

B.L.: Where do you see programs such as the Iowa’s Touch the Earth program going in the future? What is the future of the outdoor recreation community and industry in general?

D.P.: It’s a tough answer to articulate. But it seems clear that across the nation their is a wellness movement going on. A sudden realization and concern about the state of our health, environment, and overall happiness. This really plays well into outdoor programs and organizations. And in my eyes, programs such as ours is the answer to a lot of these concerns. It’s a perfect storm really and it goes beyond just the weekend trips. The best way I can describe it is by the example of the new low-head dam and white-water park being built on campus. Sure it’s a good push for recreation, but it’s a lot bigger then just the kayaking. It’s going to bring business by making the area more attractive, it will be a selling point for some students to come to the University, it improves the environment by decreasing unnatural water flow, it will make the river safer by preventing drowning accidents, and it will also simply be another benefit of living in Iowa City. Like I said, it’s much bigger then just kayaking.

B.L.: If someone is interested in positions like the one you hold, what path would you recommend?

D.P.: Getting involved is the first step. You gotta start somewhere and it’s usually near the bottom. Apply to be a part of your college’s or community’s outdoor program. Get the experience and the networking opportunities. From there, I would strongly recommend getting a master’s degree in some sort of environment or recreational management field. This isn’t always necessary, but just having your name to that degree will open a lot of doors for you. On the other side of the spectrum, you need the motivation, passion, and experience of being outdoors, specifically leading in the outdoors. An education is great, but experience will pave the way towards knowing where and how you can contribute the best to the outdoor industry.