“Vulnerability is the key to having meaningful human experiences.” – Brene Brown
Vulnerability. It’s -33° and I am outside, on the ice, inside a sleeping bag which is inside another sleeping bag. Due to the constraints of sandwiched sleeping bags, I am not able to accomplish this arrangement by myself. I have to ask for assistance from one of our female instructors, and I feel like a helpless three year old. Eventually I am double zipped all the way up around my eyebrows and mouth.
After my crewmates and I are tucked in, I try very hard to breathe in and out of the tiny hole that is left as an opening. I have to be careful to not create too much condensation because it automatically freezes the fabric around my face, turning into a stiff layer of ice rubbing on my chin. I’m also feeling slightly claustrophobic because the “tent” we’re sleeping under is a tarp held up by ski poles. Every time I rustle to get comfortable, I hear a swish swish sound as the top of my sleeping bag rubs on our less than four foot ceiling.
Just as I feel sleep finally coming on, I hear a shotgun sound ring out in the distance. I quickly realize this noise is not a firearm, it’s the ice beneath us cracking and settling. A lot of thoughts are running through my head, but the loudest one is this, and it repeats over and over: “Why the heck did I sign up for this?”
What is Outward Bound?
The first thing people ask when you come back from an Outward Bound course is, “How was it?!?” My crewmate Andrew will tell you, “It’s 15+ hours a day of doing chores with oven mitts on.” The ‘oven mitts’ he’s referring to, are the leather mittens aka choppers you have to wear at all times to protect your fingers from frostbite or a falling 500lb dog sled. My crewmate, Remi, will tell you it’s like an episode of The Good Place, which I have never seen but she explains, is about “an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife and, thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, which is definitely where she belongs.” My crewmate, Caitlin, who had never even been camping before embarking on our dogsledding course, will smile and say, “It was incredibly hard, but incredibly rewarding.”
I would have to agree, it’s all of the above. (Andrew even compiled a video to prove it, watch here.)
Just a typical day on course (clockwise from top left): Bundled up, knocking off frozen slush, belaying our sled up a hill and sawing wood.
Crew Not Passengers
Our dogsledding crew is made up of three fearless, yet compassionate, instructors: Lisa, Maddie and Maxx, 11 hardworking and enthusiastic sled dogs and four curious and a little trepidatious adult students. I’ll start with the students.
Everybody but me is from the East coast. We range in ages from 29-38. We are here for a variety of reasons, from trying to improve our wilderness skills to trying to find our voice. Our four personalities create a perfect quadrant of differences and strengths. Throughout our course, these teammates are a series of mirrors reflecting back to me what I most love and hate about myself. Being out on course, in the middle of the woods with absolute strangers, brings out the best and worst of you. It’s fun, it’s hard and it’s amazing. Every course is different but all Outward Bound courses are designed to stretch your comfort zone, build your confidence and bring you together as a team.
Instructors are Educators
To really define our team, I have to tell you about Lisa, Maddie, and Maxx. These three unbelievable humans provide the space for all this magic to happen. Lisa is the one who embraces me in a hug when I break down in tears of exhaustion. We crashed our sled for what seemed like the hundredth-time portaging through the woods. Maddie continually encourages us. Particularity appreciated when we have to belay 500lbs of sled up a 10 foot hill, attached to six barking dogs that can’t figure out why we are so bad at this. Maxx constantly fills us with motivational sentiments and suggestions. He brings us to tears at our course graduation when he reads the most beautiful poem I’ve ever heard. These people are more than special. They are highly skilled educators dedicating their lives to making our lives better. I am forever grateful for their gifts.
Personalities, People and Dogs
Speaking of special, let’s talk about our sled dogs. I am a dog lover, and my husband would tell you that they were 90% of the reason I signed up for a dogsledding course. That’s true, but an underestimation. Our 11 crazy crewmates, have unique personalities, strengths and weaknesses just like the rest of us. They were a constant topic of conversation. They relied on us as much as we relied on them and we each had our favorites.
Every morning we took turns posing a question for the group to reflect on throughout the day. At dinner, we would sit down as a crew to enjoy a hot meal and reveal our responses. Our favorite question from that trip is offered by Remi: “Which sled dog matches your personality and which sled dog do you think best represents each of us?” As we go around the circle, thoughtfully matching up our furry counterparts for ourselves and each other, something becomes clear to me. In just seven short days, we have come to know each other better than some of our family and friends know us.
When I chose the dog that best matched my personality, Penny seems like the obvious match-up. She’s friendly and willing to take on each day with a positive attitude. The group agrees unanimously but Lisa points out another suggestion. She claims she can also see a bit of Minstral. She explains we “both underestimate our ability to lead the pack.” Lisa is unaware but this is one of the reasons I wanted to go on course. With her observation I feel like I’m being seen for who I am and that my goal was being accomplished after all.
Some snapshots of our hardworking dog sled team. Skydog (directly above) has mastered the “lounging look” after a long day.
What Do You Really Do For A Living?
At the beginning of our course we are told that we aren’t allowed to talk about our jobs or careers. Personally, this is great for me because I work for Outward Bound. I’m afraid that if my crewmates know, I’ll be treated differently or they’ll think there’s some kind of advantage to having me along. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Even though I work for VOBS, I work in development. I don’t know the first thing about dogsledding, winter camping or camping in general. I realize though that forbidding this topic is a gift for all of us. We have the opportunity to show up on our own terms, in the moment, without pre-judgement or assumptions. How often does this happen in any adult’s life? What a relief, and what an opportunity. We can only talk about who we are as people and how we show up to this new situation.
Who are you? What are you doing? Two questions at the heart of every expedition. Going on course is challenging but it’s not confusing. I asked Maddie why she recommends Outward Bound, and I love her answer,
on course there’s this rhythm of ups and downs but there isn’t a lot of complication. It’s a simple lifestyle and routine, away from the technology and the rest of the world.
It’s only been a month since course end, but I know this experience is something I will continue to “unpack” for the rest of my life. Who are you? What are you doing? I ask these questions every day now. Living life with intention is something I think we all want but is very hard to do on a daily basis.
On day three of our course, we are sent on solo. For solo, your instructors drop you off to a secluded area separated from each other. You spend the entire day and night by yourself and you’re responsible for setting up your own shelter, starting and stoking your own fire and preparing your own food. I am psyched for solo. As much as I have come to love these people, it has been 72 hours. Other than peeing in the woods, I have had zero alone time.
Out there alone, I start to reflect on these past couple of days. I look up at the black dome of sky and vividly shining stars, and take several deep breaths. I realize how small we are in this world, but what an impact we can have on each other.
When I set up my sleeping shelter, I can confidently say it’s the coolest fort I’ve built since I was a kid. I start my fire, stoke it, cook over it and dance around it like a Broad City episode of “Witches.” I am more myself than I have ever been in my life.
Vulnerability and Belonging
Back to that initial after course question: “How was it?” When I first started working at Outward Bound a year ago, I felt like I was the only person who hadn’t yet gone Outward Bound. Surrounded by climbers, paddlers and life-long adventurers, I felt like a bit of an imposter. It was no fault of my peers, but sometimes I felt like I didn’t belong.
The day our course started, I was driving up to Duluth to meet my crew at the airport. I decided to distract my nerves with some podcasts. Brene Brown starts talking about vulnerability and I have to pull over to write this down,
vulnerability is the key to having meaningful human experiences.
Brown’s insight opened me up to the potential power of vulnerability. It is scary to be vulnerable, but on course I let my guard down and had one the most meaningful experiences of my life.
Fast forward to last week. I’m gearing myself up to write this blog post. I’m listening to Brown again. However, now she’s talking about her new book, Braving the Wilderness. Once again, I have to stop what I’m doing, to write this down,
True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.
Brown is of course talking about figurative “wilderness.” However, it strikes me that an Outward Bound course puts you in the literal wilderness to find confidence in peers, and in yourself. To stand with others, and on your own.
That impostor syndrome I felt before going on course wasn’t just rooted in wanting to be like my colleagues, it was also rooted in being female. Before going on course, I worried a lot about whether I was “tough enough” both physically and mentally. When I ask Maddie for advice, she says, “Remember, it’s okay to be a beginner. Everyone is here to learn. Being an expert isn’t the point.”
Maddie was right of course. And she happens to be an expert, but that’s not the whole point. The point is, who she is and what she’s doing. Maddie, like so many women at Outward Bound, leads with strength, compassion, excellence and integrity.
My crewmate, Remi, striking a pose on course.
Take Lisa, our lead instructor, who is also, one of the first two women to canoe the fourth-largest river system in the world. In addition to being bad a$$, Lisa is an incredible story teller and along with Maxx, sang us nightly songs from Flight of the Conchords as we chopped and collected wood. Poppy and Diane, bad a$$es in their own rights and part of my crew in the Twin Cities office, dropped me daily handwritten notes and words of encouragement leading up to my course. After course, I walked in the Peih building at Homeplace and Sully greeted me with the biggest “you did it!” smile and locked me in a bear hug. Then she handed me a note from another office crewmate, Marlais, that made me “ugly cry.” I won’t share the whole note, but one line stands out the most:
Welcome to the sisterhood! Not that you don’t stand shoulder to shoulder with all the guy alums too, but I think it is pretty cool to share a legacy of experience with some very boss ladies.
To all of you boss ladies out there, keep supporting and inspiring each other. You never know what you might be capable of or who you might lift up so they realize they’re capable too.