Eric Barnard doesn’t need windows, because the outdoors is his home.
Barnard has had a love for the outdoors since he was a child and plans to share that with the people of Winona, Minnesota. Barnard, who is an outdoor education professor at Winona State University, is teaming up with the city of Winona to build a new outdoor education and recreation center this summer.
“The Mississippi River Valley is truly a special place and we have the potential to do so much here,” said Barnard. “In order to become lifelong advocates for conservation, sustainability and our public lands, we must first connect on a personal level.
Barnard connected with the land as a young boy while growing up in Baraboo, Wisconsin. He became very close with the Leopold family and was constantly canoeing, camping, fishing and swimming at the Leopold reserve located just outside of Baraboo.
As soon as Barnard turned 18, he bought a one-way ticket to Alaska to connect with nature at a deeper level.
Barnard met his wife, Amber, while in school at Idaho State University. She was a kayak instructor and they met when Eric decided to take her class.
“I already knew how to kayak, but I just wanted to take a class from the pretty instructor,” Barnard laughingly said.
Together they have three boys, Nolan, 6, Westley, 3, and Layton, six months. Barnard wants his children to experience the outdoors the way he did as a child.
“I really, really want to show my kids amazing places,” Barnard said. “If they grow up and don’t want to embrace the outdoors the way I did, at least I exposed them to it.”
When the Barnards moved west to Idaho, they didn’t rent a moving van or buy a house. Instead, they bought a 24-foot R.V. and decided to make it their home.
“The Leopold’s embraced the land to become closer as a family and I am trying to do the same,” said Barnard.
After graduating from Idaho State with an undergraduate degree in outdoor education, Barnard’s family decided to move to Winona because they have family in the Midwest and he wanted to attend graduate school.
Barnard wanted to start a program in the Winona area that would allow students and community members to enjoy the outdoors and realize the beauty and resources that the Mississippi River Valley has to offer.
“There’s more outdoor recreation here than really anywhere in the Midwest,” Barnard said. “I wanted to make it so really anyone could come and see the benefits of playing outside.”
Chad Ubl, who is Winona’s community service director, said that Barnard has the skill set and the qualifications to make this a successful program.
“It is his passion that will make the outdoor education and recreation center a model for communities to emulate,” said Ubl.
Ubl also said that the details on the new recreation center are not yet ready to be released.
Barnard started the Winona State Common Adventures Club to gauge where the community’s interest in the wilderness lies. He used the club as a template so he could gather statistics that would help develop his idea of a Winona recreational facility.
At the first club meeting, 40 people showed up and the club has been popular ever since.
“We currently have about 250 members and our own Facebook page,” said Barnard.
The Adventures Club has taken spring break trips to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California and frequently travels to Devil’s Lake State Park in southwest Wisconsin. In addition to taking road trips to popular outdoor destinations, the club participates in weekly outdoor activities in Winona, such as rock climbing on Tuesdays and mountain biking in the bluffs on Fridays.
Barnard uses his outdoor passion to educate his students in the classroom as well.
Shawn Nicol, who is a senior at Winona State, loves Barnard’s hands-on approach of teaching.
“I was an education major and then I took one of his classes and I decided to switch majors,” said Nicol.
Nicol is majoring in Recreation Tourism and Therapeutic Recreation and hopes to work in wilderness therapy in the future.
Barnard’s goal is to see more people in the community make a personal connection to the land.
“A lot of people want to blame technology for people not getting outdoors, but I think the parents are the ones to blame,” said Barnard. “We should be more involved with our kids and give them a chance to enjoy the outdoors instead of letting them stay inside all day.”
Barnard hopes to open the door and make the outdoors home to many others.