The Wilderness Adventurer

Matt Sacco on the ropes course at Cayuga Nature Center.

In honor of National Get Outdoors Day on June 11, this week’s No Joe Schmos will be totally outdoor-themed.

At the Cayuga Nature Center in Ithaca, N.Y., Matt Sacco comes to work prepared with a change of clothes, socks, and extra shoes. In any given day, he may be responsible for using a chainsaw, driving a tractor, and teaching kids about poisonous berries.

The nature center, a non-profit organization located on 120 acres of land overlooking Cayuga Lake, was originally the Cayuga Preventorium. When tuberculosis ran rampant in the country, it was believed that the disease could be prevented by exposure to good, fresh air. Now, almost a century later, the center welcomes 25,000 visitors each year. It instills team building and leadership skills with 45-foot climbs and nature hikes along streams and gorges. After recently merging with the Museum of the Earth, the center plans to function as an educational resource for schools across the nation.

But it can be challenging to make people realize Cayuga isn’t an amusement park, Sacco says. He’s come a long way in two years – from setting himself on fire during his first week at work to inspiring troubled teens to attend colleges with outdoor recreation programs.

Position: Director of TEAM Challenge, Cayuga Nature Center
Age: 26
Salary: Between $30,000 and $50,000/year
Hours: When it’s busy, I work 7 days a week, year-round. There’s no overtime; you’re just here when you need to be.
Has held the position for: Just over one year
Previous jobs: Working with at-risk youth; landscaper; camp counselor and ropes course facilitator at Cayuga Nature Center

Job description in one sentence: I manage the ropes course, equipment, booking programs, and help with environment education – like teaching kids about local wildlife and wilderness survival.

Dream job as a kid: Wildlife biologist. Since elementary school, I loved learning about animals – I chased rabbits around my backyard. At a young age, my dad taught me to fish and track deer, so I followed deer tracks around the woods.

One of the elements, Whale Watch, is a large teeter totter. Photo credit:

Most people don’t realize that: Working a ropes course isn’t just hanging out in the woods. We have to work on keeping things up to standards, ensuring that cables and staples in trees aren’t damaged from severe storms.

What surprised you most about the job? How easy it is to blow someone’s mind. We’ll get 50-year-olds from New York City who have never been exposed to this environment, who have never seen wild deer. They’ll call their friends and yell, “Hey man, you’ll never guess what I’m looking at right now!”

Coolest team activity: The Flying Squirrel. An entire group is wearing harnesses, and 10 people are clipped into ropes, like a dogsled team. Those 10 people run forward, and the rest of the participants on the other end get swung forward at 40 feet in the air. It’s like the Superman roller coaster ride.

What age groups do you work with the most? This time of year, we get every fifth grade class in the local school district. In the summertime, we’ll work with corporate groups, doing staff development with engineers and various adults. Our college groups begin in the fall.

How do adults versus fifth graders handle fears of heights? You’d be amazed how many scared participants, with the right moral support, go up the full 45 feet. Oftentimes, the kids at the bottom of the totem pole – the ones that get picked last for kickball – climb the highest, proving to the class they can do it. It’s the same thing with adult groups. Sometimes, the big strong guy is the one who falls or says he doesn’t want to climb.

Most challenging part of the job: One group of middle school kids is the same as the last, so it’s tough to keep it fresh and exciting. You just have to remember it’s their first time, even though it’s your hundredth.

Climbing a 45-foot element on the course.

Best part of the job: I like coming work and wearing muddy boots all day. It’s also amazing to have such a lifelong positive impact on people in the two hours you’re working with them.

What type of impact? Once, these two high school kids on a school trip were having a hard time. Their teachers hadn’t wanted them to come; their grades and behavior were terrible, and they were talking about dropping out of school. Halfway through the TEAM challenge, though, the boys went up to a teacher and asked if she would help them find a college that had an outdoor recreation program.

What makes you great at what you do? I have lots of outdoor knowledge, and I want to share it to get kids involved with activities outside of video games.

Your biggest flaw? I take things personally if someone criticizes a trip.

Most embarrassing moment at work? I lit myself on fire during my first week at work. I was in a rush to get a fire started for a field trip of campers, and it wasn’t working because of the rain. I cheated and threw gas on, and it ignited and my leg caught on fire. I had to put it out with a fire extinguisher. All the hair on my leg burned off.

Do you coworkers let you live that down? As I was running for the fire extinguisher, I remember thinking, Where else can I apply to work? I never heard the end of it.

Poison ivy has three jagged leaves, like these. Photo credit:

What should everyone know about wilderness survival? How to identify poison ivy – it has three leaves with jagged edges. You should also know how to build a friction fire using a bow drill or with flint and steel.

Other hobbies? When I’m not working, I’m hunting, fishing, or in my boat.

Favorite meat? Venison.

Tell me about the working environment at the nature center. We’re a tight-knit bunch of five full-time staffers. It’s pretty casual, and everyone wears many hats; most of us run tractors and chainsaws, help mow the lawn, teach groups about aquatic insects, and then do climbing work with kids for the rest of the afternoon. Everyone brings a change of clothes and extra shoes and socks.

Guilty pleasures: Chocolate and dark beer. A few of my friends are brewmasters, so I like anything they make.

If you had all the money and resources in the world, what business would you start? An outfitter service offering fishing trips in Alaska. Some years ago, I lived in Alaska and worked at a remote salmon hatchery.

Could you see Russia from there? No.

Don’t miss out on a great experience because you’re worried it won’t look relevant on your resume. If you’ll get something out of it personally, then go for it! Also get to know people in different parts of the country – there’s lots of crossover in wildlife education. For example, Caguya hooked up with a spot in Georgia that runs a camp, and we bounce ideas off each other.

You can follow the Cayuga Nature Center at @CayugaNatureCen. For more information about the TEAM Challenge, visit

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