Montana-Style Field Trip

Stricken with the struggles of puberty, awkward attempts at dating, and the ever-precarious Rubik’s cube of social acceptance, middle school is a hard time in every kid’s life. But one private school, Headwaters Academy, tries to change one of the most difficult stages in life into one of the most rewarding. For over two decades, this private, college-prep middle school has provided Montana youth a chance to make the most of their early teen years with small class sizes, hands-on learning, and, most importantly, outdoor education.

Outside Bozeman sat down with Tim McWilliams, Headmaster of Headwaters Academy, to learn more. “We truly live in one of the greatest places in the world for outdoor education,” McWilliams says. A licensed wilderness and fly-fishing guide with over three decades of experience in the educational field, Tim dedicates eight full days each year to outdoor education, ranging from simple ski days at Bridger to multiple-day trips to Yellowstone, to a plethora of seasonal outdoor activities like canoeing, backpacking, and camping. “Basically,” McWilliams explains, “we have three aims for our outdoor program: to learn life-long outdoor skills, to engage in leadership activities and group dynamics, and to teach our kids location-based natural science.”

Backpacking in the Porcupine drainage near Big Sky, camping by Big Timber Creek in the Crazy Mountains... these are the kinds of outings that put that mission into practice, providing valuable outdoor skill sets that some adults don’t even have. Integrating these confidence-building excursions with group projects, class discussion, and public speaking, Headwaters manages to create well-adjusted, self-possessed students who can transition to public school easily. The idea seems to be that competence in the woods—as any outdoorsperson will tell you—translates into increased confidence within society. “We help create a kind of realistic self-esteem for our kids,” McWilliams says.

Megan Dumas, counselor and head of school admissions, agrees. “The trip down to Yellowstone was educational in so many ways,” she says, explaining how the students benefited from studying in a wilderness environment. Staying in a dorm outside Mammoth, the kids sharpened their cross-country skiing skills while learning about local ecology. “We sent them out on an educational scavenger hunt, identifying different types of plant life and animal tracks,” Dumas says, and in the process, “they mixed improved self-sufficiency with an increased awareness of the splendor and importance of the natural world.”

One of the most anticipated Headwaters events is the 8th-grade Field Study Tour, where the whole class takes a week to explore a new part of the world. The last trip took the students to the remote Mexican village of Norogachi, Chihuahua, where they were fully immersed in local culture: staying in adobe huts, learning native traditions, and presenting their previously completed class projects to the village. McWilliams says that by the end of last year’s trip, many students were more thoughtful about the connection between material goods and happiness. “Some students remarked that the people of the Tara Mara are happier than we are,” McWilliams adds, “despite all their family’s cars, nice clothes, and electronics.” The next trip will take the students to Ecuador, where they’ll conduct community service while practicing their Spanish-speaking skills.

Meeting kids with more life experience and outdoor skills than some adults I knew left me astounded. As I walked out the building, I kept thinking that Headwaters is the exact kind of school I wish I had attended. Which led me to an even more important thought: is it too late to enroll?