Written by Jaelyn Molyneux, BA’05
It started in an unused room on campus where gear from an outdoor program was stored. When the equipment wasn’t being used, it was lent to students, staff or really anyone who needed skis, bikes or backpacks. More equipment was added and the circle of casual lending expanded. Over time, equipment didn’t make it back to the room or had to be repaired, as is wont to happen when taking skis for a spin in the backcountry. A small fee was charged. The stockpile grew and a more formal rental arrangement was introduced.
Now, 45 years later, the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre is the largest in North America. It operates as part of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Active Living and includes climbing and bouldering walls and a full-service repair shop for bikes, skis and snowboards. It has a team of certified instructors that offer programs ranging from kids’ summer camps to outdoor leadership training. Hiking, kayaking, skiing, biking and more are offered for all ages and abilities. In 2016, the Outdoor Centre took over operations of the Boat House at Bowness Park.
And, of course, there’s the rental shop. It was recently renovated and includes 10,000 rental items including skis, helmets, crampons, camping gear, bikes, skates and, yes, in the summer you’ll find those much-coveted rafts to float down the Bow with.
Now, in 2021, outdoor enthusiasts prebook gear online and are greeted by uniformed staff when they arrive to pick it up — but the spirit of the rental shop is much the same as it was in that backroom in the 1970s.
“We try to take the customers on a journey,” says Centre manager Paul Chiddle. “They come in and walk through the shop and see all that we have available.” It’s all about giving people access to the education and equipment they need to experience the outdoors, he says.
Clientele range from families with young kids and newbies seeking an affordable introduction to an activity, to experienced outdoor enthusiasts looking to level-up and expand their skills. They are all part of the clientele Chiddle is trying to reach.
Chiddle joined the Outdoor Centre in 2019 and has been guiding it through a refresh. In 2020, COVID-19 forced a pause in programming. It gave the Outdoor Centre an opportunity to update the rental shop and set itself up for more outreach and a stronger branding. It also meant that staffing had to be temporarily scaled back. Chiddle, an international mountain guide and former member of the British military, worked the rental room and was hands-on for that side of the operations. Now he’s itching to get out and guide programs.
“That’s when you get true feedback,” he says. “People come with different aspirations, ambitions and abilities. By the end of the day, they are always thinking about their next adventure. I’m also always thinking about what comes next for them.”
What comes next for the Outdoor Centre is winter programming, the addition of cross-country ski rentals at Bowness Park and planning for an upcoming lecture series. Here’s to another 45 years of outdoor adventure.
For more information about the Outdoor Centre, including upcoming programs and rentals, visit outdoor-centre.ucalgary.ca.