From paddling down the rushing whitewaters of Idaho to scaling the steep canyons of Utah, sophomore softball player Miriam Maistelman left Kostrinsky Field behind this year to canoe, climb and hike through the wilderness out West.
“I think it’s the athlete in me that searches for that rush,” Maistelman said. “It’s pretty taxing and demanding and challenging, but I’ve just chased that desire. For me right now, I would just be distracted [with online classes].”
Maistelman initially planned on taking a gap semester during Fall 2020 to backpack and hike from Idaho to Arizona, but she expanded the semester into a full year when she was offered a job to live and work on a tree farm in Washington. Maistelman began her expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) canoeing in Idaho, then backpacking through Utah and Arizona. The farm she works at partners with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that provides her a place to live while she logs and maintains the health of the forests surrounding her farm.
NOLS is a nonprofit school that focuses on outdoor learning experiences. WWOOF is a program that places WWOOFers on farms all around the globe to learn and practice sustainable living.
Maistelman is no stranger to the great outdoors. She first enrolled in a NOLS program in eighth grade. She has also continued to pursue her passion for backpacking ever since her first hike on Mount Washington when she was 5 years old. Maistelman has backpacked and hiked throughout her childhood, so she did not find these experiences daunting — rather, she said they offered her a more productive way to spend her time compared to online classes. Maistelman is an environmental studies major at Ithaca College, and she said that working on the tree farm has taught her about forestry, logging and sustainable farming.
“A standard education is beneficial for most students, myself included, but I have gained a wealth of knowledge through this experience,” Maistelman said via email. “With NOLS, I was able to acquire more technical skills, network with people like me and experience a rugged and brutal aspect of the wilderness that gave me a deeper understanding of myself and my potential.”
For someone who has her sights set on hiking in Banff, Alberta, and backpacking the Appalachian Trail, the NOLS and WWOOF programs provide Maistelman with the experience she needs to be prepared. Now she’s spending her final days in Washington wrapping up her work with WWOOF before traveling home to Wisconsin. Once the summer rolls around, she will be off to Arizona until August to work with the Arizona Conservation Corps, clearing and maintaining the paths of national parks.
When Maistelman is at home, she will be back to preparing for the upcoming softball season. From going to batting cages to refining her fielding ability, there will be no time to waste.
“When I’m at home is when I’m really able to train again,” Maistelman said. “I have a facility where I’m able to hit and throw and work on my velocity, my hitting, my glove work and all of those different variables. … But in terms of skill, whenever I’m home, I’m going to have to take advantage of my time and resources to make sure I’m still with it.”
Maistelman has stayed in contact with softball head coach Hannah Quintana since the team had its Florida trip interrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19 in Spring 2020. The two have talked about Maistelman’s academic and athletic futures as well as the opportunities that could stem from Maistelman’s work over the last six months. Quintana said she thinks Maistelman will be up to speed when she returns to South Hill.
“She’s someone that when she commits her mind to anything, she’ll go in 100%,” Quintana said. “I know when it is time to start training again, when she does get back on campus in the fall, she’ll be ready to go.”
Although hiking is something Maistelman has loved since a young age, it has not taken the spot that softball has in her heart. Although she has not been able to train or do any workouts during her NOLS and WWOOF programs, she said she cannot wait to get back to the game.
“Softball, for me, is all I’ve ever really known,” Maistelman said. “I love it. I want to stay in shape and keep up with my ability by practicing and training. It’s a part of me, and it’s something I always want to do.”
The softball team is training on campus this semester. Quintana said that although it would be ideal to have the whole team together in preparation for its season — which the Liberty League has not yet made a decision about — she believes Maistelman made the right choice taking a gap year.
“I thought the experience she was getting outside the classroom was worthwhile,” Quintana said. “I think being remote, just being on a computer for her classes in the fall, just wouldn’t have been a good fit, so I was excited to hear her so passionate.”
During her canoeing and hiking trips during Fall 2020, it was hard for Maistelman to stay in touch with her teammates. Sporadic service and delayed communication allowed small windows for her to reconnect with her friends from Ithaca, making it difficult to catch up on the missed time. One of her teammates, fifth-year Frankie-Ann McCauley, found a solution to share what she wanted to tell Maistelman even when she did not have cell service. When McCauley thought of something she wanted to share with Maistelman, McCauley said she wrote it down in a notebook and shipped it out to Wisconsin.
McCauley said she is excited that Maistelman had the opportunity for these experiences, but she is looking forward to Maistelman’s return to South Hill.
“There seems to be this timeline and pressure from society of when you need to get your degree, when you need to be in school, and it’s not that cut and dry,” McCauley said. “All these opportunities are presenting themselves to her at this point in time, and we can’t say that they’ll be there five years from now. … When it’s the right time for her to come back, she’ll be here, and it’s going to be so exciting.”
When Maistelman does return in the fall, it will certainly take some adjusting. The cool autumn seasons of Ithaca do not share many similarities with the dry deserts of southern Arizona, and her days will no longer be spent on outdoor adventures. Instead, most of her August will involve preparing for the upcoming softball season and getting back into the pattern of being a student-athlete.
“I think I’ll be able to find a way to have that balance of working and recreation and traveling,” Maistelman said. “I have the entire month of August off before I go back to South Hill, and I think I’m going to be spending a lot of that time just getting myself back into the headspace of being a student-athlete and familiarizing myself with the details and my skill.”