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Meet Ryan Smith, the newest addition to the SOAR Programming Team!


Meet Ryan Smith! One of the newest additions to our programming team at SOAR. Ryan started his tenure with SOAR as a Whitewater and River Safety Specialist in North Carolina. He has extensive experience in the outdoor industry, as well as in talent acquisition, and business administration. He joins our team as the Assistant Director of NC Programs!

We chatted with Ryan to learn a bit more about his story:


Can you tell us a bit about your deep NC roots?

I lived all over the US (military family), but I feel like I was raised in North Carolina. I am really proud of that. Right now, I consider myself a mountain man. When I graduated from college I moved to the beach and managed a surf shop in Wilmington. I thought “this is my dream job.” About a year into that, I thought “wow, this is not my dream job.” I looked at options from there and have been in the mountains ever since.

What does your job as Assistant Director of NC Programs entail?

Right now I am solely focused on staffing and recruiting efforts.  My main objective (and favorite part of this work) is creating/maintaining relationships with college and university partners, camp industry friends, and organizations who see the benefit in what SOAR does for our student population. Recruiting these days is about a lot more than give-a-ways, free t-shirts, and raffles, though college students do looooove a free t-shirt!  Fostering these connections and aligning our shared values ensures that professors, outdoor rec staff, mentors, and outdoor community friends are willing to point potential employees in our direction when they are seeking rewarding and challenging internships, summer work experiences, and hopefully, full-time careers!  

As we move into late spring and summer, my job roles shift into focusing on preparation for the upcoming season, planning and conducting staff training, and then ensuring things go smoothly once we start programming!

And last, since I am new to this role, I will do basically anything Andrea Wackerle tells me to do!  She has been with SOAR for over 8 years, and it has been awesome to learn the ropes from her.

How did you begin your career in the outdoor industry?

I came from a sales and corporate management background. I managed a surf shop right after I graduated college. Then I went into residential resale, so real estate, as well as property management.  I then went into corporate management, working for FedEx. I worked my way up through the ranks at FedEx and ended up as an Operations Manager in Roanoke, VA. It took about 3 years of working 7:00 pm -7:00 am to realize I needed to refocus. My relationship with my family was going downhill because I wasn’t present. I was present at work, that’s where my focus was. So I had to make a switch, and that’s where Landmark Learning came into play.

Can you share more about how you started working for Landmark Learning?

In 2014 one of my mentors, Jim Harrison, from college who runs an outdoor program saw me at Damascus Trail Days in May. He said, “you look like crap, are you alright?” I told him I had just been working a lot. He said, “No, no. Are you okay?” That’s when I really started to reassess. Someone who knew me from when I was able to experience what I wanted to, versus chasing a paycheck (while at FedEx), could tell the difference. Not only in my demeanor but also in my physical being. We kept talking and he pointed me in the direction of Landmark Learning, and the Landmark Outdoor Educator Semester (LOES). It’s a long-running program and kinda like a shotgun blast of information about trip leading, risk management, safety.  I earned my WEMT (wilderness EMT), Leave No Trace Master Educator, Swift water rescue, and a bunch of other certifications. Landmark Learning helped me get an idea of what the outdoor industry and community were about.  After completing the semester, about a year went by, and then I began working for Landmark as a logistics manager, staffing coordinator, and outdoor educator.

What are the challenges of working in the outdoor industry?

Going back to the work-life balance, sometimes it’s not as balanced as we want it to be, but we are happy where we are.  During a lot of my early struggles, my wife and I were trying to focus on what was going to make us happy in the long run. (We ask ourselves), is it just financial, is it just economic, is it just where we are living? Maybe, we need to change the place we’re at, the amount of money we make, or the people or community we are hanging out with and being involved with. Once we took the leap, we realized the work isn’t always the most lucrative, but my wife and I have never loved our lives more and are proud of the example it sets for our kids. 

How did you meet SOAR Executive Director, John Willson?

John Willson and I met on a day on the river in 2015 when I shouldn’t have been paddling alone, but you don’t know what you don’t know. I was teaching myself how to canoe in a whitewater canoe. I paddled over and this person kind of looks at me and waves me over and I paddle up, it was funny I had heard so much about John Willson I knew immediately it was him without even really knowing it was him.

It was just his demeanor and he didn’t give me an option to paddle on our wait. He just said, “You, come here!” And I had heard stories about John, and it ended up being him (laughs). I said, “you’re John Willson” and he replied, “yes I am.” We met that day, and I told him it was nice to meet him, and he said, “you’re going to come with our group, you’re not paddling alone!” (laughs).

And then at the end of the trip, another paddling buddy and John said “here’s our numbers, if we ever catch you paddling along again, you’re in trouble.” Paddling alone there’s a lot of danger, especially at the level we do, he didn’t give me that option. John took me under his wing, and helped me progress and stick to the standard progression, to make sure I was expanding my ability to paddle, but doing it safely.

How did you meet SOAR founder, Jonathan Jones?

Jonathan Jones came for a camp river day I was facilitating in the summer of 2021 and I had no idea it was him. I was teaching river safety and swift water rescue, and canoe courses. I thought Jonathan was someone to help. I gave my little introduction spiel and then introduced myself to him, and asked how he got involved (with the organization) and he said “I’m Jonathan Jones. I got involved with (SOAR) because I am the founder.” (laughs) I thought it was great, we hit it off really well.

What started your interest in SOAR?

I was really surprised when I got on the river (with a SOAR group) how challenging it was to manage the groups and the kids, but I had a blast. I thought, these kids are full-on, and it reminded me of myself coming up, and then my kids. The energy level and the focus when they’re doing an activity is like little laser beams. I definitely relate to that!  Then outside of that, they’re all over the place. I really enjoy that energy and their ability to get stoked on simple little things and the challenge that it presents to get them down the river safely.  I also was impressed with the structure and feedback provided to campers after completing an activity, and how the positive behaviors exhibited during those times were leveraged to foster growth and development throughout their entire camp experience.  After better understanding the whole picture, I wanted to get involved!   

What’s been a big learning opportunity for you in the outdoors?

Whitewater Canoeing.  I came up paddling as a kayaker and then discovered Whitewater canoeing later in my life- 2015.  I basically had to start from scratch and re-learn how to read and navigate rapids, control a longer boat and roll up a capsized craft.  In a canoe, you use a single blade, paddle on your knees and the boat is open, so taking on water is a big problem!  I took a course from paddling legend Fritz Orr, and once he taught me how to “peel out” in a tandem canoe, it was like a switch flipped.  I told him bluntly, “I had no idea a canoe could move like that”!  Not only did I have to re-learn the mechanics of paddling, but I also learned about the standard progression of a white water paddler in the South East.  Each river is a prerequisite of the next, and you start with calmer, more forgiving rivers and then work your way up, checking each one-off, as you begin to develop boat control, technique, and most importantly, judgment.  This avoids a serious mistake that new paddlers are prone to make which is- “learning the hard way”.  A lot of folks will attempt to paddle rivers or rapids that are over their level of competence and put themselves and others in dangerous situations, sometimes without even realizing it!  I know a ton of paddlers, myself included, who came close to drowning, or being hurt, learning to develop better judgment.  You might be brave enough to paddle a large rapid, but do you have the skill, and are you ready to face the consequences if something goes wrong…..    I am proud to say, though it took over 3 years,  I worked my way to paddling the Narrows of the Green River in 2019, in an open canoe.  I still learn something new every time I get on the water, whether it is about myself, the natural world, or those around me.       

Now I use some of my personal experiences and stories of others who “learned the hard way” for my swift water and canoe courses.  I state often-  good judgment comes from bad judgment.

What made you want to teach Swiftwater rescue courses?

One of the closest times I’ve been to drowning on a river was at a pretty standard class IV rapid called Whale’sBack on the Upper Davidson River.  I missed the line and flipped going over a 6ft drop and then was held down by a recirculating wave, backed up by a large rock.  This made it almost impossible to just swim away.  After being re-circulated for what felt like an eternity, one of my last conscious efforts as a human was to turn around and push against a rock to get a hand up and out of the water and grab a throw rope.  Luckily, someone threw me a rope, grabbed it, and got pulled out. When I finally got out, I was really nervous. It took time to settle down, but about two weeks later I talked to my boss and figured out a plan to make sure other people weren’t making the same mistakes that I had been making.  A year later I was teaching Swiftwater rescue courses for Landmark Learning. It’s those kinds of transformative experiences that give me the energy and focus and effort to move in another direction, try to learn something new, and share it with other people. 

Favorite place to paddle?

Big Creek!  It is a small creek/river that runs out of the Smoky Mountain National Park and meets the Pigeon River in Newport, TN.  It has crystal clear water, continuous rapids and since it runs through the park, there is no development of human impact on the entire section.  It is mind-blowingly gorgeous.   

Dream SOAR expedition?

A week-long learn to ski/snowboard trip to a large resort in the western part of the country. 

Favorite books?
“Hunt, Gather, Parent”  by Michaeleen Doucleff

“The Power of Moments” by Chip and Dan Heath

“A Hunter in a Farmer’s World” by Thom Hartmann

“Rivers and Creeks of Western” NC by Leland Davis

Why do you think someone should come work at SOAR?

I think someone should work at SOAR if they are passionate about helping youth experience the outdoors while also fostering an environment for personal growth and accountability.  We are much more than a typical summer camp!  What is amazing about SOAR is that along with the fun our campers have participating in activities like rock climbing, canoeing, backpacking, horseback riding, white water rafting, and caving- they learn skills to help them navigate social and interpersonal relationships, build character and lay the foundations to become successful humans!