The swamp is the sort that is too thick to paddle through, yet too thin to walk on. Black mud sucks shoes in and releases decaying smells.
The canoe is the nearly indestructible sort favored by non-profits or handed down through family generations. It is aluminum, and 75 pounds. With at least ten more pounds of mud caked on.
The task is to carry the canoe from Lake A to Lake B through the swamp.
The swamp does not respond to anger. The canoe is nearly indestructible. The task appears to be a physical challenge, but is actually a mental challenge. Facing frustration, working through anger, and asking for help are on this swamp’s agenda.
Part of the value of a wilderness program are the lessons delivered by the wilderness itself. It is the instructors’ job to mediate, stepping in to help when challenges seem insurmountable, or designing additional challenges to build a sense of adventure and accomplishment.
Negative tools and habits have no effect on the swamp. It cannot be lied to or manipulated. It does not respond to complaints. It can’t be cheated, and most of all, it can’t be ignored.
This makes it sound like the swamp is the ideal instructor.
However, we know that most learning does not happen simply through experience, but through reflecting upon experience. Instructors create spaces for reflection and help draw connections between the swamp and life at home. Metaphor is a powerful tool we use for building transference. What is your swamp? What gets you through your swamp? Instructors also share positive tools and habits, focusing on communication, self-control, and conflict resolution. Each day offers new opportunities to replace old habits with new ones.
As instructors, we are walking through the swamp with our students. We have the rare opportunity to work beside these teens. We are not parents, therapists, or classroom teachers trying to imagine what a teenager is going through. We are a group of people struggling to carry heavy stuff to the next lake. By being immersed in the same experience, non-stop, for weeks, we can get to know each student and their behaviors more rapidly than in other contexts, and we can also build trust more quickly. We are consistently there when they need help or someone to listen to them.
But we are not changing their lives, and the swamp is not changing their lives. They change their own lives. We witness, support, report back, and do our best to encourage growth.
You may imagine what your teenager needs, perhaps the structure of a daily routine, the organization of a pack, the social interaction with canoe partners, the physical demands of wilderness travel, a supportive environment. Our wilderness programs strive to meet these needs, but the wilderness itself consistently delivers above and beyond all expectations, which is why, across centuries and cultures, a rite of passage marks the transition into adulthood. And no rite of passage ever included a couch. More likely a swamp.
Browse our programs for struggling youth and discover why Outward Bound is the leader in experiential and outdoor education.