Nathan Johnson Goes Above and Beyond at Go Beyond Nebraska.Oct 01, 2021 01:33PM ● By Joel Stevens
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Nathan Johnson whitewater rafts, hikes, and rock climbs on the clock.
That’s not even his favorite part of the job.
The 23-year-old camp director for Go Beyond Nebraska is responsible for the logistics and on-site coordination of the nonprofit’s twice-annual trips that have Omaha teens traveling to Wyoming on outdoor adventures.
But it’s the life lessons and the connections Johnson makes that he savors.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my life to be able to access the outdoors, and I’ve had a lot of great experiences camping,” Johnson said from Wyoming, where he was scouting new trail adventures for an upcoming Go Beyond trip. “I think it’s personally rewarding to be able to help facilitate that for some of our campers that have maybe never left their part of town or not had the family or friends or the support that’s been able to give them that experience.”
Go Beyond, formerly known as Camp Confidence, has provided world-class, free-of-charge summer camp experiences to young people from across the Omaha community since 1978. The camps focus on mentoring, building confidence, and fulfilling potential through outdoor adventures. More than 40 campers from the Omaha area attended last year.
An Omaha native and self-described outdoorsy type, Johnson grew up camping, earned his Eagle Scout ranking, and can still be found at least once a month camping or hiking somewhere out of cell service range.
In April, Johnson took over as camp director after previously serving as a camp counselor. It’s a job for which Go Beyond Executive Director Ian Kimmer thinks Johnson was lab-created. His diversity of experience, natural energy, and dynamic personality pairs perfectly with the granular day-to-day of the camp’s logistics and the interpersonal relationship with the campers themselves.
“I don’t know if it's spiritual for him, but it's molecular to who Nate is to make good things happen,” Kimmer said.
Johnson sees his job in a more humble term: facilitator. A term that, as a boots-on-the-ground camp director, requires he wear a lot of hats.
In addition to accompanying campers on their trips, he handles the scheduling, works with vendors and outfitters, and collaborates with partner organizations. He meets with prospective campers and their families, and helps staff coordinate menus that accommodate any dietary restrictions. He also plots the schedule of adventures for trips that can be anywhere from eight to 14 days.
Go Beyond is based in Omaha but uses two properties in Wyoming for expeditions: Centennial Ranch in the Snow Range and the Alpine Mountain Camp in Grand Teton National Park.
Campers hike in Yellowstone National Park, whitewater raft the Snake River, canoe in the Palisades Reservoir, and rock climb in world-famous Lander, Wyoming. They ride horses, camp in the back country, and hike to the summit of 12,000-foot Medicine Bow Peak.
“Our goal is to give campers an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience regardless of where they come from and their backgrounds,” Johnson said.
A lot of the young people who come through the program, Johnson said, have little or no camping experience. Some have never left the city before. Most who apply for the camps are physically fit enough but lack the experience and confidence to launch headlong into the Go Beyond adventures. That’s where Johnson comes in. He talks with the prospective campers and their families about expectations and concerns.
“A lot of the kids do feel good about it—whitewater rafting sounds cool to everybody,” Johnson said. “But there is some trepidation in that excitement, and anticipation, too. That does create some anxiety and we do our best to address that with the campers and make sure they know what they’re getting into and they’re prepared. Our staff does a good job getting them ready.”
Campers go through a day-long orientation hike to prepare for a trip. As long as they can walk and are willing to challenge themselves, Johnson said, there’s nothing they can’t handle. Even if they aren’t allowed to bring cell phones or electronic devices.
“Not having cell service is sometimes a great thing,” Johnson said. “It’s hard for them, but it makes you present in the moment. It helps you understand all that is going on around you.”
The trips are nonstop, lively, fun, and filled with interesting facts about ecology, culture, and geography—but they aren’t always easy. That’s a lesson Johnson hopes every camper takes home with them.
“I want them to know they can do hard things,” he said. “It’s one thing to see a picture of a mountain and drive by a mountain an hour away, but it’s a completely different thing to sit at the base of a mountain and know you’re going to climb up it.”
He also noted that getting halfway up that mountain and questioning themselves before continuing and reaching the summit changes a lot of a campers. “It’s very doable but it challenges them and it builds confidence and belief in themselves,” Johnson said.
If Johnson can give a little bit of that belief to his campers along the way, with a dash of his own love of the outdoors, he feels like he’s earned his paycheck—and maybe more.
“To be able to give the campers a space they can authentically be themselves without fear or judgment, where they can be who they are with empathy and care from our camp staff and other campers is meaningful,” Johnson said. “Some of our campers come from some pretty rough situations, so making sure, for at least a week, they’re going to be well-fed and have a good time, and not have too many stressors or worries, that matters a lot.”
Visit gobeyondne.org for more information