Mike Cottingham is a teacher. Only his classroom is 13,770 feet up on top of Wyoming’s Grand Teton mountain. It’s also in a kayak next to a humpback whale just off Alaska’s Chochagoff Island. And in the middle of the Jatbula Track in Australia’s Northern Territory. No blackboards. No cramped little desks. No annoying intercoms with endless interruptions from the vice principal. Just nature. Lots and lots of nature.
And that’s exactly how he planned it. The 1972 MEd graduate scrapped the traditional pencils and books and created Wilderness Ventures, a school (of sorts) that teaches teenagers about all the stuff that most schools don’t: life, nature, cooperation, interdependency. The students spend anywhere from 16 days to six weeks in a remote wilderness area with no phones, no TVs, no computers. They camp, cook and clean outdoors. It’s intense and in tents.
But they leave with a new view of the world.
“Teenagers can be a challenge,” says Cottingham. “They’re not always kind to one another. They’re very into themselves and don’t typically think of others. So what we realized early on is that the greatest gift we can give them is teach them how to live in a community, how to team-build, to share, to care for one another, to be tolerant and accepting of one another. Our students all come from different backgrounds, different socioeconomic situations. Some are jocks, some are intellectuals, but out in the wilderness they all have to work together. It’s all about community.
“They learn the hard skills of being in the wilderness, but we also teach them the soft skills—how to talk, how to communicate face to face instead of sending a text message. We sit around a campfire and sing songs, talk about leadership, talk about the big questions of life. And, in the end, it makes a huge impact. We get feedback all the time from kids or their parents who see the impact, either immediately or later in life. We’ve had 30 kids who are second-generation campers.”
In the 40 years since Cottingham began his venture, he’s led more than 22,000 teenagers into the wilderness, expanding from sites scattered around the American Northwest to the wilds of Alaska. He’s taken kids to South America (Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Belize, the Galapagos) and Europe (the Alps and Pyrenees mountains). He’s expanded to the South Pacific (Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Tahiti, Thailand) and is venturing for the first time this year into Africa.
Since primitive camping and unlimited exploration is unique to America, the international trips are slightly different, with the students hiking from village to village or hut to hut. And they’re focused more on community service work. Over the course of three summers, for instance, Wilderness Ventures built a school in Fiji.
For Cottingham, it all began with, well, an effort to keep from being sent to Vietnam. He took the lessons from his own socially active childhood and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Notre Dame. He then returned to Cincinnati and entered graduate school to study teaching—specifically alternative education models—because he loved teaching young adults. And, it offered a deferment from the draft.
By the time he graduated, the war was over and life was safe to resume. He got a job as a high school substitute teacher while his wife, Helen, worked as a middle school teacher full time. With their summers free, they spent a lot of time camping and backpacking throughout the West with the Sierra Club. Looking to combine their love of teaching with their passion for the outdoors, the two created Wilderness Ventures as a summer job in 1973.
“It began because I convinced 10 families I knew what I was doing,” he says.
It grew to 13 the second year, then 24. “I said, ‘I think we can make a living doing this.’” The two quit their teaching jobs and moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo., a place they discovered during their summer treks. “Jackson Hole was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen,” he says. “When we moved out here, it felt like we were coming home.”
By the ninth year, the Cottinghams started their own family and turned the teaching and leading over to younger souls, focusing instead on the business aspects—recruiting teenagers, overseeing the 11 full-time and 120 seasonal employees—and making sure their vision of impacting the lives of teenagers didn’t change even though the times did.
“Ten years ago, there wasn’t the Internet or Facebook or smartphones,” he says. “We have kids who don’t sign up when we tell them they can’t bring their phones or music. But if we can convince them that giving them up for a while will open up a new world to them, their lives will be changed. So what we offer is even more relevant today than ever.”