Leading from the Outside

From trails to travel Chris Hayward takes Gould Academy students on journeys of self-discovery.

To outdoors enthusiasts, Chris Hayward may have the best job in the world. The director of experiential learning at Gould Academy in Bethel, Hayward leads students on wilderness camping expeditions, rock climbing adventures, and trips to far-away places like China and Tanzania—activities designed to develop kids’ curiosity, encourage exploration, and connect them to the world beyond the classroom. With a background in wilderness therapy and his own resume of outdoor achievements that includes being one of a group of three people who were the first to run the 100-Mile Wilderness portion of the Appalachian Trail nonstop, Hayward seems a perfect fit for the position.

I meet Hayward on a breezy, mid-April day at Gould, where snow lingers in some shady pockets of the campus. It’s nearing the end of his busiest season; in addition to his work at the school, the 44-year-old is a part-time ski patroller at Sunday River just up the road and director of the Mahoosuc Mountain Search and Rescue Team, as well as an avid ice climber and backcountry skier. If his schedule allows it, he will spend a week in March each year at Chimney Pond in Baxter State Park training for search and rescue missions, climbing, and skiing. “Pretty much from November 1 to right about now, it’s seven days a week,” he says. “But that’s by choice, and I love it.”

Winter is prime time at Gould, which has a second campus for competitive skiers at Sunday River. The ski area still has plenty of snow, and as he does on most winter days, Hayward got a run in early this morning before work. “Between 5:15 and 5:30 a.m. I usually go up to the mountain, skin up and ski down,” he says. Skins, which Hayward explains get their name from the sealskins the Inuit once used, stick to the bottom of skis, enabling the wearer to hike uphill without sliding backwards, assisted by a special binding that allows the heel to lift up. The skins peel off easily at the top; the skier locks her boots into her bindings and skis down. Called “earning your turns” at Gould, the practice is one of several “experiential traditions,” informal activities in which students are encouraged to participate. “We notice if people aren’t getting out of their dorm or connecting socially, and faculty or advisors will pull them out and say, ‘How about checking out this trip?’ or ‘Go do this,’” Hayward says.

The core of the experiential learning program is Four Point, grade-specific initiatives that culminate in “journeys of self-discovery” just before spring break each year. The name is a metaphor for the compass points, Hayward explains, which dovetails with Gould’s mission to develop students as “whole persons” who are equipped to be citizens of the world. Freshmen travel to China, Tanzania, or Ecuador, visiting important sites and staying with host families who have students their own age. “It’s designed to be a little hard, a little uncomfortable,” says Hayward, especially since these students have only just begun to adjust to their new home at Gould. But that’s the idea. “It’s pretty neat to see a 14-year-old who’s nervous in September making friends in China, Tanzania, or Ecuador,” he says. “It blows their mind.”

In tenth grade, Four Point focuses on the arts and service, with students staying on campus to work with professional artists from the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and others—including some Gould alumni—on “something they would not ordinarily do,” says Hayward. Junior year, the whole class spends eight days camping in the White Mountains, sleeping under tarps and learning how to make snow walls to stay warm. Hayward shows me Gould’s collection of winter gear, including parkas, boots, sleeping bags, and snowshoes; the school provides all the necessary equipment for the junior camping trip and other outdoor expeditions. Seniors do an independent project, an off-campus internship that helps them discover their own “essential question.” These experiences can come in many shapes and sizes and often involve outdoor adventures; one student, for example, rode his mountain bike from Banff in Western Canada to Mexico.

Hayward’s own journey in experiential learning began when he was two and his family moved from Dracut, Massachusetts, to an off-the-grid house in Alna. “I certainly remember the chore of bringing in wood every day to make sure we had a warm house,” he says. “And using the hand pump in the kitchen and heating up the water on the wood stove to have a hot bath.” He was studying business at Saint Joseph’s College when a family friend told him about Outward Bound. Hayward did a 23-day leadership mountaineering course with Outward Bound in Colorado, and although he came back and finished his business degree, he knew his life would take a different direction. “I’m still in touch with my instructors today from 1993; it made that much of an impact on me,” he says. He landed an entry-level job in wilderness therapy, at-risk youth from New Hampshire in a rustic residential setting. “The kids were tough, very challenging, and they were a step away from youth detention centers or adult prison in some cases,” Hayward says, adding that thanks to Facebook, he has heard from some of those kids, who thanked him for helping them turn their lives around.

Gould students are a different population, but they can also find opportunities for growth through challenging experiences. “The junior year Four Point expedition is a good example, because not everyone wants to go out in the woods for eight days in the winter,” Hayward says. “They may never want to do it again, but 10, 15 years down the road, we do hear from alums saying, ‘That’s what I remember the most, and it made a difference in my life.’”

After working directly with troubled kids in the New Hampshire residential program, Hayward became an aftercare counselor, assisting them as they went back to school, connecting with their probation officers, and accompanying them to court to speak on their behalf. In 1998, he and his wife moved to Bethel to run a new business called the BIG Adventure Center. He later spent nine years working for Summit Achievement in Stow, a wilderness therapy program for 13- to 20-year-olds, before joining the Gould staff in the admissions department. He was named director of the experiential learning program in 2014.

Hayward and his wife, Heather, who runs the school store, are dorm parents at Holden, one of two boys’ dorms at Gould. They have raised their two sons on campus; Tucker, 19, is studying environmental science at Westminster College in Utah, and Luke, 17, is a junior at Gould. Both boys are mountain bikers and freestyle skiers. “As a family we did the Allagash in 2004— my youngest son turned four on a 100-mile canoe trip,” says Hayward. Heather skis and rock climbs—indoors—but doesn’t share her husband’s love of extreme sports. “She’s more about nutrition, cooking, and exercise, but not exactly into my choice of activities,” he says.

I ask Hayward if there is one outdoor- education skill he would, if he could, teach to every kid in Maine, and his answer is thoughtful but quick. “My mind goes to first aid, knowing how to take care of yourself or somebody else if something goes wrong,” he says. “That allows people to help other folks anywhere, whether it’s someone going into cardiac arrest on the slopes of a mountain, or coming across a car accident—those skills are transferrable.” Helping others and building relationships, whether it is on the Gould campus or in another country, is also a component of the experiential learning program. “If you travel 24/7 with a group, whether it’s in the woods or around the world, it’s hard not to let your true self be known,” Hayward says. “When people ask me what I teach at Gould, I always say, ‘I teach life.’” What better job could there be than that?