It’s just after 5pm on day 6 of our 8 day Boundary Waters Canoe Expedition in the Minnesota wilderness, and we’re trying to pick a campsite. “We” are seven adults, ages thirty to sixty-two, who have been crushing it since daybreak. We’ve paddled into the wind and portaged all day and now we are very tired, very dirty and very hungry. We need to set up camp and eat, but we are as cranky as backseat siblings on a long road trip– the air conditioning is broken, we’re sick of singing, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, and we need a potty break. Here comes the storm.
In six days, we seven have traveled unfamiliar, uneven terrain together. With the support of two very skilled instructors, we’ve taken risks nearly non-stop. Without exception, each one of us has worked the edge of our emotional and physical comfort zones. We have dared to be more vulnerable than we ever imagined and we’ve shared the joy of recognizing heroism in one another. Tipping canoes and rock climbing seem like ancient history. In just under a week, we’ve spent every moment together, forming a tight community filled with laughter and goodwill. We’ve conquered nine portages in one day, crashed a lake and survived Solo. Despite or because of these adventures, we’ve managed to bond quickly and tightly. Apparently, we’ve bonded so thoroughly that now, as the storm approaches, we’re comfortable enough to really rage.
“I think we can do better,” says one of my new friends. Her jaw is clenched. She’s a tall woman, young and rippling with athletic prowess, and now anger.
We’re all stalking the potential campsite, hands on hips or foreheads, looking at the ground, the sky, the water, our soggy boots–anything but each other. We can’t agree on whether to fish or cut bait. I’m strung out. The thought of climbing back in canoes, paddling two more lakes and managing yet another portage as night falls to reach the next unseen campsite–which might be occupied, or suck– is horrific. I could lay down right here, or scream.
“I think this is fine. It has to be. It’s after five. It’s going to rain. I don’t think we have a choice anymore.”
This is the most bossy and outspoken I’ve been. My lips are tight. My hands are clenched. I can’t make eye contact with anyone. My face is red hot.
Suddenly my tall friend grabs her giant mondo pack and, with King Kong strength, throws it up the hill, onto the bare bulb of granite that marks the campsite. “‘Aright! Crappy campsite it is!” She is powerful in her rage and something in my chest cracks open. Everyone politely turns away from the two of us. I watch her heave another pack with superhuman strength and then I turn and walk into the woods and slide down behind a boulder.
At first there is no sound, and then it’s truly awful. I’m crying, but it sounds like I’m throwing up or barking like a seal. I fight to control something I clearly cannot control. I take my buff off and stuff it in my mouth, but I can’t stop the dreadful noise, or the snot. I’ve tried damn hard to avoid conflict all along but here it is, and it’s stuck in my throat. I’m on the verge of an epiphany, but I don’t know it yet.
This phase of an Outward Bound course is commonly called “storming and norming.” On an OB expedition, you practice camp craft and skills like tenting, paddling, portaging, knot-tying and navigating. You also practice community craft. You exercise skills like communication, and conflict resolution. Adults like to think we’re pretty good at communication craft. We’re “professional.” Turns out we’re so professional, some of us have a hard time with authentic communication. On an Outward Bound expedition, you are expected to 1) be safe 2) and take care of your needs 3) so you can take care of the groups’ needs. These are the community rules that guide the group endeavor. You learn about yourself and others through the group, for the group. If you skip any of these components, you endanger yourself or the group. Hiding behind the rock, I realize I’ve spent a lot of time stuffing my thoughts and feelings and now my meltdown is having consequences: I’m learning something crucial about myself, and, as the assistant cook, I’m also delaying dinner.
So, it turns out that you actually have to acknowledge conflict to resolve it. I probably could have told you that prior to my course, but I didn’t live it in the workplace. Great things happen on an Outward Bound expedition, but only if you’re willing to be yourself. And sometimes being honest with yourself, and others, is the hardest thing to do.For me, the entire expedition could be summed up this way: I loved and I hated it. One coin, two sides, often at the same time. No yin, without yang. No light without darkness. No growth without the stretch. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, but with some trepidation. I’ve learned a little trepidation goes a long way. My comfort zone is so stretched, ten of me could dance around inside. Now I wear my sense of adventure lightly and I know joy lurks in the darkest corners of daily life. Any OB instructor will tell you, “What happens on course stays on course,” meaning they won’t rat you out if you lose it. This is noteworthy because I work for OB now, conducting outreach. Maybe it’s a professional risk, but I’ve decided my meltdown is a personal badge of courage and an honest way to tell anyone about the special impact of Outward Bound. I know firsthand what it’s like to learn through people and nature. I know what it’s like to fall down and get back up–again and again–and how to find laughter and be swayed by beauty just about anywhere.
Eventually my twenty-six-year-old instructor spies me barking behind the rock and she “moms” me through it. As a mother, I both hate and love this momming; the role reversal reveals my pimply, stormy inner teenager, but I’m very thankful for Rachel’s compassion and humbled by her grace.
I stand up and come out of hiding, snotty face and all. I shuck off my clothes and join two friends for a quick swim in cold Mudro Lake. Lady Kong and I float side by side, talking into the sky.
“I totally lost it,” I say.
We laugh at ourselves, owning up to frustration, fear and tears. We agree to exchange backrubs later. 30 minutes on, our crew in circled up around another fire, nursing hot drinks and telling jokes on ourselves. Pretty soon we have Rachel laughing so hard she can’t stop. We realize that Rachel’s barking laugh is identical to my barking cry, and tears of joy are just as wet and salty as tears of pain.
With great affection and gratitude for my crew, and our instructors, Rachel and Dave.