William Inman, 404-413-1355
Touch the Earth gets GSU students, alumni, faculty and staff out of the city and into the great outdoors
"It's called a 'Liesegang,'" says Carson Tortorige, pointing up to a curved, reddish-brown band of iron embedded in an enormous sandstone outcrop along the Waterfall Trail in Cloudland Canyon State Park.
As a handful of hikers gather around, Tortorige - coordinator for GSU's popular outdoor recreation program Touch the Earth - explains that Liesegang bands are common in porous rocks like sandstone and are easily identified by their concentric or ring-like appearance.
Sauleja Satkute, a freshman art major from Lithuania, tunes in to Tortorige's impromptu geology lesson for a moment before her attention drifts back to the hemlock trees and mountain laurel and the falls of Daniel Creek roaring hundreds of feet below in the canyon.
"At home, we have hills," she says, "but nothing like this."
For the record, Auk•tojas Hill, the highest point in Lithuania, is 964 feet. Before the sun goes down, Satkute will have hiked down to the canyon floor and back up, eventually reaching the highest point in the park at the top of the gorge - close to 2,000 feet above sea level.
This trip is one of about 100 that Tortorige and Touch the Earth operate each year. The journeys range from jaunts to nearby parks such as Cloudland Canyon in northwest Georgia, to extended spring break and summer excursions to Alaska's Kenai Fjords for sea-kayaking or to California's Yosemite National Park and the High Sierras for camping and backpacking. The program offers up trips for all experience levels and provides equipment, transportation and leadership and handles all the logistics.
Over the course of a year, Tortorige estimates, Touch the Earth gets more than 1,200 GSU students, alumni, faculty and staff out of downtown Atlanta and into the wide open outdoors.
"For me, that's fantastic to think about," he says.
On the Cloudland Canyon excursion, Tortorige isn't the leader - it's simply impossible for him to lead every hike - so he counts on volunteer leaders like Andy Mycroft.
Mycroft, the stormwater program manager for Fulton County, has been hiking the Georgia backcountry for more than two decades. He learned about Touch the Earth a few years ago when he was taking economics classes at GSU, and he has been offering his outdoor expertise ever since.
"The big thing, for me, is that the kids are cool," Mycroft says, "and it's great to be able to give something back."
Tortorige says he has a stable of around 30 volunteer leaders - with backgrounds ranging from whitewater rafting to fly fishing - who lead the trips in exchange for nothing more than being a part of the adventure.
Jim Hudson, a research technician at Emory University, has been leading whitewater rafting and canoe trips for more than three decades.
"In May of 1975, I was on a weekend run down Section III of the Chattooga and a group of canoes started to pass us and I noticed the 'GSU' stenciled on their sides," Hudson remembers. "I was a student at GSU going to evening classes, and I had no idea that there was a recreation program there."
The reason Hudson was unaware was because, at the time, the program was barely a year old. It began in the early '70s as the Touch the Earth club - nothing more than a group of GSU students who got together for caving, canoeing, kayaking, backpacking and climbing.
As the popularity of the group grew, the university realized that it needed guidance, so they brought it into the Department of Recreational Services in 1973, says John Krafka, associate director of the department.
The following Monday, Hudson said he signed up for Touch the Earth's four-day whitewater tandem canoe school.
"By the fall, I was an instructor and leading trips," he says.
These days, Hudson guesses he has led more than 100 trips, teaching whitewater skills and safety to its participants. Every year, he leads an intensive four-day canoe school on the Chattooga River for the "never-ever beginner."
"If you really want to see what has driven me the last 36 years, and you are up for an adventure, you should join us for the four-day whitewater tandem canoe school," Hudson implores. "Because many of the trips have been real adventures and along the way, I have made lifelong friends."
With Hudson's help, Tortorige says, many people who have never even paddled a canoe are ready to take on Class III rapids.
For Tortorige, cultivating and maintaining good relationships with volunteers is paramount. So, oftentimes, he tags along during volunteer-led trips. "It's how we have our meetings," he jokes.
Here, 900 feet down into Cloudland Canyon, he and Mycroft are discussing the potential for a two-day combined bicycle and skydiving trip when hiker Neftali Hernandez, a junior psychology major who has skydived with Touch the Earth before, chimes in.
"Count me in!" Hernandez says, recounting the last time he jumped out of an airplane: "It was insane!"
Besides keeping up with his volunteers, the trips are also a way for Tortorige to maintain his proficiency as a guide, he says.
"If I'm not familiar with all the rules and regulations, then something may not go right," he says. "So, I'm never out of the office...
"This," he says, gesturing toward the cascading waterfall, "is the office."
Tortorige figures he has spent most of his life outdoors. As a boy in rural southern Illinois, he would wake at dawn to feed his family's horses, and after the chores were done, he would stomp through the nearby creek in search of tadpoles.
"Some of my great friends growing up were attached to action figures and the Nintendo," he says. "Me, I was always outside pushing dirt around."
As soon as he was old enough, Tortorige was in the Boy Scouts. It was in the Scouts where - already equipped with a deep understanding and appreciation of nature - he emerged as a leader. By 17, he was an Eagle Scout.
"It just seemed that I was able to retain information about the outdoors better than others," he says. "When I looked at a tree, I knew what kind of tree it was."
When he was just 19 and a freshman working for the recreational program at Southern Illinois University, Tortorige was picked to lead a weeklong spring break trip to the Grand Canyon. It turned out that he was the youngest person on the trip - the next youngest was 26.
After graduation, he worked as a rock climbing and kayaking guide in Asheville, N.C., before returning to his alma mater to take over the outdoor recreation program there and earn his master's degree in outdoor education.
"I've always enjoyed being able to help foster friendships on these trips, and help students adapt to campus life and get away for the weekend to free their mind," he says. "And, hopefully, teach them a little something about the outdoors and to help them develop an appreciation."
His boss, Debbie Rupp, director of the Department of Recreational Services, says Tortorige's passion is contagious, as evidenced by the dozens of new trips he's created and the increased level of participation since he took over the program three years ago.
"He has a knack for sharing his enthusiasm with everyone, from the never-been-hiking rookie to the seasoned whitewater veteran," Rupp says. "He takes great pride in being able to educate folks about the environment, safety and even survival, and he does it while everyone is having the time of their lives!"
Sometimes, Tortorige says, the dynamic of a group can take on a life of its own.
"You can have it all planned out to a T, but if the group doesn't jive with it, then, well, you have to throw it all out and recalibrate," he says. "But it always seems to work out for the best."
Once, he said, during the tail end of a 2010 spring break backpacking trip to Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns, he let the group's participants decide their next destination. They picked Roswell, N.M., site of the infamous 1947 "Roswell UFO incident."
Mickey Luckovich, a junior managerial science major who went on the trip, remembers it this way:
"We were all feeling like we had just conquered the world and had the freedom to ramble around the country as we saw fit," he says. "So, somebody said, 'Let's go to Roswell!' and with very little deliberation, we drove hundreds of miles out of our way to see what all the fuss in Roswell was about. We spent the rest of the trip constructing the most elaborate masks and tin outfits possible."
Luckovich says that when they arrived, they roamed around in search of something "alien-related" all the while "freaking out people who saw us dressed like invaders."
When the group found the UFO Museum and Research Center, they decided to really wreak some havoc.
"We stopped traffic, invaded shops, made a scene and got a huge reaction from everybody who saw us."
For Luckovich, the experience was one he'll never forget.
"During that ride to Roswell, I told everybody in the van that someday I would work for Touch the Earth because I had never experienced anything close to that sense of freedom and accomplishment before in my life," he says.
Luckovich was true to his word. Soon after, he signed up to be trained as a volunteer raft guide and got certified as a driver for the organization. Later, Tortorige hired him as a student employee. Now, he works in the bike shop and at the climbing wall, and has led a handful of trips.
"I regard Touch the Earth as one of the most positive influences in my life," Luckovich says. "I have been able to explore America, escape from the city and meet people who will be very dear to me for the rest of my life. Touch the Earth has made my experience in college stellar and remarkable."
"And it taught me to climb," he says. "For that, I love it."