Staff Q&A with Jason Erdman

One day Jason Erdman might be leading a hiking group at Nockamixon State Park, the next he could be stand-up paddle boarding at Cape Henlopen. He might be biking the Lehigh Gorge trail or rock climbing at Safe Harbor. Every workday is different, which makes it an exciting job.

Erdman works for Penn Recreation, and is specifically in charge of planning and leading the Outdoor Adventure programs offered for University students, faculty, and staff. He’s also head of the indoor climbing wall at Pottruck Health & Fitness Center at 37th and Walnut streets.

Hailing from the Hershey-area of Pennsylvania, Erdman didn’t grow up exposed to the activities he now masters. It wasn’t until college that he found his groove.

“College brought me to areas with mountainous terrain, and I started exploring on my own,” he says. “I couldn’t get enough of the outdoors.”

He was hooked.

Erdman earned his associate degree in wildlife biology from two Penn State branch campuses, and after a stint as a park ranger, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in outdoor recreation from Lock Haven University and SUNY Cortland, respectively.

Offering an abundant number of unique, outdoor activity options for the Penn community is one of Erdman’s main goals.

“I’m trying to be creative by planning trips to lots of different places, to keep it interesting for people,” he says. “Something I don’t want is for someone to say, ‘I’m not going because I already did that hike a bunch of times.’”

The Current convinced Erdman to sit back and relax indoors for an interview. We discussed his background leading up to Penn, how he stays active in nature while living in a city, his efforts to keep Outdoor Adventure fresh, and his most memorable trips.

Q: What were you doing before you came to Penn?
For about eight years I taught outdoor adventure basics as an adjunct professor at Penn State, for its recreation, park, and tourism management major. I also ran my own nonprofit in the State College-area called Allegheny Outdoor Institute. It was solely focused on getting people outdoors. I would take groups out, just community members in that area, to rock climb, hike, backpack, that sort of thing. Before that I held various jobs. I was a professional guide for a wilderness therapy program, taking at-risk youth backpacking, and I worked for other university-based outdoor programs, and more. 

Q: Being so outdoorsy, was it hard to move to a big city?
I never really lived in an urban environment before. I was king of skeptical when I moved here. I was thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ Even though I grew up in Elizabethtown, near the Hershey-area, I maybe visited Philadelphia twice—once to go to the Franklin Institute and once to go to the Philadelphia Zoo. That was it. So when I moved here I was surprised to find a place like the Wissahickon Valley. I actually decided to move in close proximity to that. Probably four times a week before work I’ll go out trail running or hiking. The Wissahickon has over 30 miles of natural trails that really mimic the trails that you’d find anywhere else on the East Coast, and within minutes you’re in downtown Philadelphia. It’s a cool place to be. 

Q: How have you revamped Outdoor Adventure since you came on board?
Before I got here, it seemed like there was mostly a climbing focus. We’re now trying to offer a lot of trips that appeal to the masses. So in the summertime we do stand-up paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting, and in the winter we have skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing trips. Mostly everything we do is geared toward the introductory or beginner level. We’ll give you the instruction, we’ll give you all the necessary equipment. It just makes it more accessible for people to get involved. 

Q: Why is it so important for people in the Penn community to take advantage of these activities in nature?
A lot of these activities are lifelong activities. You can start them at any age. I have some faculty and staff members that are 50-some years old that come on our trips, and sometimes are experiencing it for the first time. I know people who rock climb well into their 80s. They are activities that aren’t high-stress on your body like maybe running or lifting weights. It gives you an alternative to going to the gym and working out. Also, it really helps reduce stress. Getting out there and getting your mind off of books and studying or work really helps reduce stress and gets you into a nice tranquil environment. I also feel it’s very important to connect people with nature, especially with being an urban university. If we can draw that connection with nature, people might be more inclined to help protect it down the road. 

Q: Let's talk details about some of the Outdoor Adventure trips.
One of the biggest questions I always get is, 'Do I have to drive there myself?' We provide all the transportation. We either have a school van that we use, or for bigger trips, like for ski trips, we charter a bus. Also, all the pertinent equipment, we’ll have it for you. Going rock climbing, we’ll have the harnesses and shoes and helmets. Going camping, we’ll have the tents and sleeping bags. The only thing participants are really responsible for is their clothes, food, and water. All trips leave from Pottruck Health and Fitness Center. We’ll meet here, usually for day trips it’s on a Saturday or Sunday at 8 or 9 a.m. We usually try to be back on campus by 5 or 6 p.m. We try to keep our day trips within a two-hour drive. There are a lot of amazing things to do within two hours of Philadelphia. We go anywhere from the Wissahickon, to Ricketts Glen State Park, the Appalachian Mountains, the Poconos, and the Pine Barrens.

Q: What about the costs?
A: They vary. We try to keep the majority of our trips between $25 and 
$35, however if we go somewhere where we have to rent equipment, that price might jump a bit. For instance, when we go on cross-country ski trips, we rent equipment from another outfitter, so the price may be closer to $60 or $70. Same thing for canoeing or kayaking, since we don’t have our own boats. For downhill skiing in particular, we get a group rate for our lift tickets. So what you’re paying as a base rate for your lift ticket and for a bus ride up there is probably less than you’re going to pay just for a lift ticket. Most of them we try to keep at a reasonable price, to encourage more people to go. 

Q: What's a recent trip that is most memorable to you?
I haven’t had a bad trip yet, to tell you the truth. I’d say probably one of my most memorable ones with Penn was at a waterfall day hike last summer in Ricketts Glen. We saw about 22 waterfalls on a four-mile hike. It was a good group and the participants were just like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ Then we did a fall break trip to the Dolly Sods Wilderness area in West Virginia, which is kind of a unique ecosystem for the region. 

Q: I've read about the night hikes. What are they like?
They’re usually on a full moon. We do those fairly locally. They’re a really good time. We’ll either go to the Wissahickon or we’ll go to a place called Fort Washington State Park, which is only about a 25-minute drive away. We take headlamps, which we provide, and then we just hike around for a few hours and we talk about the moon phases and sometimes we get to see animals. On one hike in particular, we saw bats, we saw about 30 white-tailed deer, we saw a family of young fox. You never know what you’re going to see when you’re out there. 

Q: Let's talk about your staff and training.
A: There are about 20 part-time staff members and all the positions are 
paid. They are a mix of Penn students and Penn staff, and also outside people. In order to reduce risk, whether it be in our Outdoor Adventure program or the climbing wall, there’s a certain amount of training that goes along with it, in order for myself to feel comfortable and to make our patrons feel comfortable, and more importantly know that we’re looking out for their best interest as far as safety goes. My staff also has to have certain certifications, such as in wilderness medicine. 

Q: What do you do outside of work?
I really do live and breathe what my job responsibilities are. If I have free time to myself, I’m going to go rock climbing or in the winter time cross-country skiing, or ice climbing, or do trail running. Part of that is for training; I do need to keep up a certain level of physical fitness in order to perform my duties as a leader on these trips. But I do enjoy these activities, too. Any chance I get, I am outdoors. I also have a 4-year-old daughter who enjoys the outdoors as well. I haven’t pushed her toward it, she just gravitates toward it. 

Q: What's up-and-coming that's different than people have seen before?
We’re just trying to do a variety of things, for instance, like our spring break trip. It’s multi-adventure in South Carolina. We’ll sleep in a tent every day and go backpacking, kayaking, and whatnot. Down the road I’d like to offer trips to other destinations in the United States, maybe out west to Yosemite National Park or the Teton Range in Wyoming, or up to Maine. From there we might expand trips internationally as well.