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Written by Chrystyna on 21 Sep, 2000
When was the last time you really challenged yourself? While on vacation? When was the last time you stopped everything, hushed and lulled by the careless whispers of Northern pines, enveloped by the cool, yet comforting air of snow and ice around you? Heard…Read More
When was the last time you really challenged yourself? While on vacation? When was the last time you stopped everything, hushed and lulled by the careless whispers of Northern pines, enveloped by the cool, yet comforting air of snow and ice around you? Heard the howls of wolves at midnight? Stared into a campfire or laughed with new friends who have travelled to be with you from all corners of the globe?
Never? A long time ago? Not soon enough?
Though well known for its wilderness education for youth, the Outward Bound Schools are not as familiar to adults as a vacation option, but they do offer an alternative for people looking to challenge themselves at new levels.
'It's more than a wilderness trip, eco-travel or an extreme sport venue,' says Rob Meaney, a spokesperson for Outward Bound. 'O.B. combines all of the above and adds a healthy dose of adventure with purpose: to help people discover their potential.'
Wilderness itineraries are scheduled year-round in a variety of States. Voyageur Outward Bound School is one of five O.B. schools in the United States, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with itineraries in Canada, Montana, Texas, Colorado and Minnesota's great, northern Boundary Water Canoe Area (BWCA) and Lake Superior. Bill Laitinen is the Winter Program Director for VOB in Ely, Minnesota, where each week a new group of students is led on a dog sledding, cross-country skiing and ski-journing (cross-country skiing, pulled by a sled dog) camping trip.
'Outward Bound's expedition-style skiing courses allow inexperienced, everyday people to participate in an adventure in the tradition of the great Polar Treks,' Laitinen explains. 'In a week people gain an extraordinary sense of success. Mushing dogsleds across icy, windswept lakes, travelling through thick woods, eating and sleeping in tents on a snowy landscape, participants fulfill a need for mental and physical challenges away from familiar, comfortable environments. In spite of the challenges, the adventures are warm, dry, comfortable and well-fed.'
I arrived in Ely, Minnesota on a mild winter day to welcome a group of women back from one of Laitinen's programs. There were seven women - a full class - from Delaware, D.C., Minnesota, Maine, Connecticut, and Canada, ranging from ages 23 to 48. They came from different backgrounds, bound together as a team out of necessity; it's a wilderness out there and they had to learn to cooperate in order to survive anything it would throw out at them.
Before they even started their trek, they had turned in their watches, practiced tying up their dogs to the sleds and learned about the equipment they would be using on the journey. They would learn the importance of watering the dogs, watering themselves (mandated to keep hydrated), collect wood, build the fires, feed the dogs and then, and only then, feed themselves. They learned that sleeping on the snow in the special sleeping bags that were supplied was as comfortable as sleeping in a tent. They also learned how to volunteer for duties to continue smooth operations. Deanna, a young woman from Delaware, was quick to volunteer to be the ice tester... perhaps too quick.
The ice tester is the first person to walk on frozen rivers and lakes, leading her troop of adventurers while tapping and testing the ice strength and looking for fractures or cracks indicating weaknesses. However she had to be prepared for the inevitable.
'The instructors cut a hole in the ice and told me, 'Okay, jump in.' Jump in? I couldn't believe it,' Deanna laughed. 'I looked at Johnnie [the instructor] and asked if she was on drugs.' She jumped in though, and 'was out of the water faster than you could say 'oh....!'' She was given the job with honors.
These retellings begged the question: Why would these women, all of them professionals, take a week's vacation to trek through what they believed would be frigid Minnesota nights?
'I was looking for something different,' Doris said, a middle-aged woman from Washington, D.C. 'People thought I was crazy, because even I was saying I was probably going to freeze to death.'
However, all of the women agreed that the trip was very comfortable. The students faced a full day of activities and exercises, keeping them warm and focused. By the time they would reach their next camp, the women were busy watering, cooking, feeding themselves and the dogs, and setting up camp. After a night of camaraderie, sharing stories and laughing over a variety of things, they would bed down for the night in their sleeping bags under the starry, winter sky.
In the middle of the week, the women were informed that they would be spending a night solo, away from the base camp. 'It's something that we feel really challenges and stimulates our students,' explains Amy, one of the VOB instructors who led the class. 'There's a real sense of accomplishment the next morning when they wake up and everything is okay.'
Though each of the students wandered away from camp, they were allowed to take a dog with them for company. 'Mine ran away,' Deanna pouted. 'As soon as he heard the other dogs, he was gone.' And they weren't too far away but it was still a little unnerving to one of the students. Doris admits she is afraid of the dark.
'I managed to make it through the night, and I felt great about it. I haven't quite overcome my fear just because of that one night, but it did feel good.'
'I was really nervous,' Deanna added. 'But then I heard the dogs back at the camp and I knew that all was right with the world.'
The dogs are an integral part in learning about teamwork and cooperation. As individual as each of the students, the dogs are a motley crew of personalities. Amy explained that each time a new group of students goes out, inevitably the students and the animals would pair up with favorites, sometimes even adopting each other throughout the trip.
The solo night for the women was really a preparation for their last day; however, the night before, the group sensed a bit of melancholy. They had been travelling and adventuring together for six days. 'All I know is that I wasn't ready to go,' said Leanne, who is from Canada. 'We were sitting around the fire and I was wishing we had another week.'
Although the group of students had been challenged and worked hard all week, their last day presented them with one last event: the personal challenge. It's a solo cross-country skiing trek, taken at each student's pace, for about 12 miles - straight back to the VOB headquarters.
Sam, a student from Maine, came down the road carrying her skis slung over one shoulder. 'I broke one of my bindings,' she explained. 'Some of the other women are still having some trouble on the hills,' she added, referring to being the third of the seven to come in.
When everyone arrived, it was time for a hearty lunch of BLT sandwiches, dense cookies, soup, and lots of water. 'The food is always good,' said Pat, another woman in her late thirties to mid-forties.
Cindy, who works for Guinness distribution in Minnesota, nodded enthusiastically. 'We never went without. It was all about having just what we needed; about going back to the basics.'
'Except for showers,' Sam quipped.
When lunch was over, the students gathered around their instructors, Johnnie and Amy, to unload equipment, take care of their skis and wash pots. Though I was invited to help, I had to bow out gracefully. It was my turn to learn how to mush and to experience the spectacular scenery first-hand.
But THAT'S another story. Close
(Excerpt only: All materials in these journals are copyrighted to Chrystyna K. Lucyk)
DAY TWO CONTINUED...
Despite our lack of direction and ability to read topographical maps, we are doing rather well; the portages went smoothly (we had a 30 rod and a 40 rod; one rod…Read More
(Excerpt only: All materials in these journals are copyrighted to Chrystyna K. Lucyk)
DAY TWO CONTINUED...
Despite our lack of direction and ability to read topographical maps, we are doing rather well; the portages went smoothly (we had a 30 rod and a 40 rod; one rod equaling the length of one canoe or 16.5 feet). We took pictures; all of us are in good humor and in high spirits. There is a great deal of bantering going on and I am able to assess the personalities of my group a little better from a distance.
There is Leah: besides her charming, bubbly character, she is a talker. Always giggling, retelling stories, and then I learn that she is a very active sophomore: a cheerleader, an actor and a compassionate, warm-hearted kid. Anna is the other young woman in our group. Tall and slender, she sports an athletic and dedicated persona. She is quieter than Leah, but not any less spirited or good humored. Our student boys comprise of Will, Ben and Ralph: freshman, sophomore and junior, respectively. Will, the quiet Boy Scout in our group, works hard right from the start. He is filled with an intensity that almost frightens me at first (I am afraid he'd reprimand me for having dumped every wilderness survival skill I learned while I was growing up in those Ukrainian scouts). He speaks very little, and I am worried that he feels left out. I make a special note to myself. Ben, I learn, is a very bright young man. He's also our 'He-Man' in the group. Well-built to carry fourteen packs and two canoes at once, he is on a mission to push himself to the furthest limits. Outside of portages, Ben loves fishing, to be ribbed on occasion, and to erupt like a volcano when very angry. Ralph, simply put, becomes our scapegoat for everything. He is a genius at setting himself up to be teased, and we all took advantage of it. He loves to sing; he loves to laugh. He's crazy about the girls and the girls, honestly, would be crazy to pass that up. There's a great energy around that kid and we are all pretty drawn to him. Last but not least is our other 'adult' leader: Marcus is Swiss, dry-humored and reminds me of the more eccentric, hysterical counselors I'd had on my last trip in the BWCA when I was 16 years old. They were goofy, playful, teasing, and easily shed any pretentiousness that adult age tends to take on. Marcus has become one of 'them' -- the students -- though he maintains his leadership status. I admire this and the way we manage to feed off each other, bounce off each other, and balance one another.
FROM LAKE FOUR TO LAKE INSULA
...There is a small stretch of rapids before us; the sun is bright, but not too hot. It is still morning and the forest has that sleepy glow to it. The water beckons us with the promise of refreshment; the rapids entice our adventurous spirit. I don't know what overcomes me, but I suddenly feel gutsy and gung-ho. For someone who almost died in a Montana river, the last thing one would expect is the desire to want to go down fast moving water. But down them I want to go, and Marcus does too. As if we know what we are doing, we scout out the path of the rapid, pointing out the rocks and other obstacles (like more rocks) as if we are professional surveyors. I obviously still maintain a great deal of hope that Marcus is less out of wilderness practice than I. The excitement is building within me. “I can do this,” I think. “It will be great fun, and I will be risen to the highest esteem among my group of peers.”
We take one of our emptied canoes and responsibly decide that Marcus and I will go down first to 'test things out.' Marcus steers; I paddle up front. The thought that we are being really stupid crosses my mind but that is swept away by the current. Successful, we haul our canoe out and over to the landing area again and conferr like two scientists about avoiding 'that one section in the middle.'
Princess Leah (that should be your first clue) and I are the first to go, then. The kids and Marcus are all gathered on a rock midway down the rapids, ready to document our progressive flight down the angry waterway. Leah shouts from the front, 'What do I do?' I start to give her instructions but we are already paddling.
Now, Marcus and I had decided on a pathway: Steer to the right, avoid the big log (common sense, right?) and then hard left away from the big rocks (more common sense)... I know I am in trouble when the log looms before the point of the canoe and there isn’t enough time to get around. Apparently, we'd left our common sense back on shore: we had paddled too hard and too fast and are being sucked into exactly the opposite direction of where I should be going. Our weak attempts to fight the rage of the river are laughed at by the boiling water. From the left we are thrown to a hard right -- again, the opposite of where I want to be (safe in my sleeping bag). I hear a bang! and crunch! And then there is a dizzying swirl as the canoe swings backwards. We are facing upstream now and the canoe is lodged between rocks, with the maddening current pouring straight inside the canoe. We are going to swamp it! In my blinding panic, I manage a small state of calm... after all Marcus is wading out toward us with a Cheshire grin on his face. Why in God's name I still trust him, I don't know. But, it doesn’t seem as lonely any more. Leah jumps out of the front with his help but manages to sprain her ankle; I notice the other students snapping pictures and groan, 'Oh, God, help us now.'
And He is up there, shaking his head, 'Hello! How much louder could I have been when I said, 'No' in the first place?'
It takes us a long, long time and five of us to roll that canoe off the rocks and out of the water. I want to cry when I hear a succession of pop-pop-pop! from the rivets coming loose toward the back and the dents being made by too much weight and water in the canoe. We get it out... It isn’t until our boat is safely on land, bruised but able, that I realize how surreal the whole ordeal has been. We had actually, in our rescue attempt, stopped to pose for pictures which Marcus insisted on for documentary purposes and which Leah encouraged because this was a good 'bonding moment.' I think about what would have happened if the canoe was completely lost. And when we come back to shore, Will and Ralph are excitedly screaming about how 'awesome' that all was. It is as if we have all lost our minds in unison.
I ask whether Leah is okay, and she has a bruise on her foot. I look at the top of it and shrug, 'It's going to hurt like hell,' I said, 'But you'll live.'
When she shows it to Marcus, he loses it. He tears open into the First Aid kit and spills all of its contents onto the ground. He cracks open the splint; bandages; ice packs, everything! I ask him what he is doing, and he continually grins over his work, 'She might go into shock. We have to do something for her.' After he wraps her foot, elevates it, makes a bed of lifejackets for her, he says, 'Stay here. You need to rest...' and then tackles his fishing gear, wades out into the water and starts fishing. I am wondering who, exactly, is the one who needs to unwind.
As we load up the canoes and Leah is made to duff... again ... I groan about the condition of our beat up sister ship, 'What are we going to tell Rob?'
Will, always practical, replies, 'Tell him we hit a moose.' Close