The Bridge Between Recreation and Wilderness

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When Mark McCarroll isn’t overseeing the hundreds of activities the UC Santa Cruz recreation department offers, he might be telling stories from when he backpacked around the world or mountain biked through the Santa Cruz terrain.

McCarroll, head of recreation at the Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports (OPERS), has seen firsthand the tremendous transformation of the recreation office. McCarroll recalled that when he applied as an intern in 1974 the office was just a trailer by the track.

“When I first came here there were just a few classes, trips and workshops,” McCarroll said. “There wasn’t a rental program, only one van — I created a monster.”

McCarroll is the person to thank for starting the countless programs the recreation department now offers. To name a few, he founded the Outdoor Rental Program, which was located in the bathroom of the recreation trailer in the late ‘70s, the Wilderness Orientation (WO) Program in 1983 and the Experiential Leadership Program in 2007. He also started rock climbing, kayaking and rafting classes through the recreation department.

McCarroll, who has served the recreation office for 25 years, will retire after this spring and settle down in Oregon.

“I love my job but I felt like this is a really good time in my life,” McCarroll said. “I felt like I’ve accomplished a lot in my time here. It’s time for some new blood to take it to the next level.”

After taking a leave of absence to backpack around the world and moving to Colorado to bike, kayak and raise his daughter, McCarroll has since stayed put in Santa Cruz. He’s dedicated his life to making sure others have the opportunities he’s had through the recreation department.
“We’re all about giving students the opportunities to learn something new and different,” McCarroll said. “What we offer are lifetime skills and to learn outside of the four walls of our educational system.”

This June marks the 30th anniversary of when McCarroll first started WO in 1983 — one of his proudest accomplishments. WO is a 10-day backpacking or eight-day sea kayaking trip for incoming students that allows them to make friends and learn basic wilderness skills through the challenges of their environment.

“WO is always the closest thing to my heart, it just does so much for the individual student and likewise for our program in growth and strength,” McCarroll said.

Out of WO, the recreation department averages about 30 volunteers per year, which enhances student involvement across all types of activities, McCarroll said.

“One of the beauties of our program is how well supported recreation feels by this campus,” McCarroll said.

McCarroll feels confident that his successor has a lot of vision and will take the recreation department to the next level. With the facility centers only designed for about 6,000 students, McCarroll hopes to see more expansion to accommodate the growing class size. He’s also optimistic for more scholarship opportunities, as well as getting class units for the Experiential Leadership Program to increase participation.

“It’s truly endless what [the recreation department] can do,” McCarroll said. “Nobody has the size and breadth of the program we have here as far as I know.”

As for himself, he plans to take advantage of all Oregon has to offer outdoors.

“I need to be outside, I need to move everyday,” McCarroll said. “Biking is my main passion, but I also river raft, kayak, backpack, ski — there’s so much I love to do.”