“Everyone grab your quick-dry pants,” I hear the instructor say. He’s reading every item on the packing list in front of a row of new Voyageur Outward Bound students. “Now get out your long-sleeved sun shirt.” The teenagers pull out the named items and put it on the sleeping pads in front of them. They still wear street clothes: skate shoes, khaki shorts, a couple button-up shirts. Definitely all cotton. In contrast, they pull fully synthetic earth-toned clothes out of their luggage. The instructors check to ensure all of their students’ gear is adequate for spending twenty-two days in the Boundary Waters.
At VOBS, we affectionately call this right of passage “Duffel Shuffle.” It marks the division between the routines our students leave behind and the lives they’ll lead for the next eight, fifteen, twenty-two, twenty-eight, or fifty days. Six other groups are spread across Homeplace and nearby campsites simultaneously picking which socks and pants will be most comfortable in the woods. They decide much more important things, as well. Teenagers, military veterans, college students, and mid-career adults must choose what of themselves they are bringing to their wilderness expedition. What values and strengths, what knowledge and wisdom, what curiosity and grace? What are they leaving behind in their suitcases besides cellphones and cotton clothes? Duffel Shuffle provides a moment for these important decisions, which will shape the next few weeks as much as the route and weather will.
The students on the lawn may not yet know it, but they have chosen to join the folks fortunate enough to embark on an expedition. While “expedition” most often conjures the idea of a purposeful excursion, we who have undertaken them also understand it to mean the team who journeys. These teenagers will join Outward Bound students throughout the Boundary Waters and throughout the world in learning what it means to rely on each other for food, shelter, and safety. They will realize through seemingly inconsequential daily actions that they are integral to the group’s successes, from baking golden biscuits to making it to the right campsite. They will unite toward the goal of graceful wilderness travel, forging common experience from diverse backgrounds. With some guiding, the expedition creates a crucible powerful enough to transform the lives of all willing to try.
An eagle cries from across the Kawishiwi River in the hot evening sun. I’ve often considered eagles to be auspicious omens for the first night of an Outward Bound course. Regardless of my superstition, these six groups could not have asked for a more perfect expedition start. Bright sun, near-cloudless blue skies, and a million acres of the Boundary Waters invite them forward. Duffel shuffle is just the beginning. The students’ true right of passage–that from their previous lives to those forever changed by their expedition–will begin once they zip closed their luggage for the last time. With that commitment and courage in the face of the unknown, they will truly be Outward Bound.