Off the beaten path: Whatcom offers hiking and tai chi classes

Photo by Max Singer. Whatcom's introduction to hiking courses, held during spring, fall, and summer quarter, allows students the oppertunity to gain hiking experience and learn the basics of planning a hiking trip.
Photo by Max Singer. Whatcom’s introduction to hiking courses, held during spring, fall, and summer quarter, allows students the oppertunity to gain hiking experience and learn the basics of planning a hiking trip.


By: Max Singer

Community College offers several physical education courses that differ from typical P.E. classes, including tai chi, hiking and yoga. These courses provide students the opportunity to learn about interesting forms of physical activity that they are less likely to have encountered before.

Tai chi is a Chinese martial art used for both defensive training and its health benefits.

“Tai chi is choreographed movements in a set routine,” said Paul Mulholland, a physical education instructor at Whatcom who teaches the tai chi class. The different forms of tai chi are usually practiced in slow and deliberate movements. “It has moves and is considered a ‘soft-style’ martial art like Aikido,” he said.

When students learn how to do tai chi, they “learn movement in a new way, and [learn] to move in a different way,” which can be applied to other sports and physical activities, Mulholland said.

“It’s something new in terms of physical development.” Mulholland said he has 25 years of experience in tai chi and is trained in all four major styles.

The four major styles are Chen, Yang, Wu and Sun. Each form focuses on specific aspects of movement, such as quickness or attention to form, Mulholland said.

“I teach this particular system of Yang style because it’s in the middle for complexity,” he said, adding that most people begin with Yang style.

“I tell my students to practice at home, and incorporate tai chi principles such as coordination and breathing into other aspects of their life,” he said.

Mulholland said he helps motivate students by describing the more intricate parts of the movement and giving verbal encouragement, and he helps the class maintain an appropriate pace. He added that while does not utilize music in his class, music can help one relax when doing tai chi.

Mulholland is teaching his last tai chi class this quarter, but said he is excited for the renovations completed on the Pavilion Gym as it will provide more space for physical education activities.

In public high schools, physical education classes fluctuate between mandatory and elective, and many colleges and universities including Whatcom do not require it at all.

Whatcom teacher Bernie Dougan has been leading Whatcom students on hiking expeditions to Bellingham’s various scenic destinations for the past decade as part of his introduction to hiking course.

“It’s all about experiencing a new way of combining physical activity and the outdoors in a natural setting,” he said.

Dougan teaches the class every spring, fall and summer quarter and said it usually has around 11 students in it. He said he strongly encourages students to be “comfortable with continuous strenuous activity” before joining the class.

Dougan said the bulk of the hiking takes place on the weekends. “These hikes usually occur on Friday or Saturday and often take three to four hours,” he said. This quarter, three hikes are scheduled for April 25, May 10, and June 7.

During the course, Dougan said the students will learn how to become prepared for hiking, the basics of trip planning, and how to properly use a map.

Dougan said he will be taking the students to several locations including the Stimpson Nature Reserve near Sudden Valley, Lake Ann near Mt. Shuksan, and the Chain of Lakes Trail at Mt. Baker. The Stimpson Family Nature Reserve is a destination that features many 400-year-old Douglas fir trees scattered throughout the trail.

Transportation to the hiking destinations is covered by the college and the other recommended equipment for the class is appropriate footwear, Dougan said. In particular safe hiking shoes that provide traction and comfort are considered vital, he added.

The students are assessed based on the number of hikes they complete with a minimum requirement of a trail five miles long with steep hills included, Dougan said. When the class hikes, they hike as a group unit; “Keeping track of the person behind you is key, and the last person in line has the responsibility to make sure no one is trailing,” he said.

Dougan said he finds the hikes themselves the most enjoyable. The course routes change depending on the season, he said. “Spring time stays the same, though in other months I try to take the students to the Cascades. To me, I teach it because I hike all the time,” he said. There is a new trail called the Rock Trail on Chuckanut Drive which Dougan said he hopes to take students on in the future.

On the hikes themselves, Dougan stresses safety and said he tries to avoid leg sprains. “Try to not get overwhelmed by the physical demand,” he said. Weather can affect the terrain and has been a concern in the past. “I would cancel the hikes if it was raining really heavily. More often I’ve had to shorten hikes because of the rain,” he said. Temperature is generally is not an issue during the treks however.

The class is a good way to introduce students to different hiking locations, he said. Some students get hooked and want to do it more, which is good because “I always encourage students to meet up and hike outside of class,” he said.




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