Not Our First Rodeo
Hi, my name is Megan Henning, and I recently joined the VOBS team here in Saint Paul. My title is Outreach Representative and this is a brand new role for VOBS. When I was applying for this role, I thought the job description was a little peculiar: “Conduct outreach for Big Bend, Texas programs.” Why would a Minnesota educational organization be operating in Texas? Why Texas? The short answer? Texas is awesome! There is a power in Big Bend. The long answer? Well, we have quite a history in Big Bend.
This isn’t our first rodeo in Texas. Voyageur Outward Bound School may have quite a legacy here in Minnesota, but Texas is an important component of our mission.
Discovery In The Friendship State
Among 11 Outward Bound schools across the nation, we are known as the “paddling school.” Our students paddle the Boundary Waters, Lake Superior, the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers and the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis. We also paddle the Rio Grande, navigating hundreds of miles of the borderland waterway through some of the most wild and scenic land on earth.
Though the Rio Grande and its high desert and canyon environs constitute a wildly different landscape from Minnesota’s Northwoods, both settings have one thing in common: they are equally powerful contexts for changing lives through challenge and discovery.
Our Big Bend wilderness base is the starting point for life-changing experiences. You have to be 16 to go on course in Texas and every course is an expedition. Whether you’re going out with us for six days or 60, you will arrive in Big Bend and immediately be Outward Bound.
Texas expeditions are all back-country. The tiny town of Redford is the only thing remotely resembling “front country.” You will be in the desert from day one. Every night you will sleep outside, under the stars, sans light pollution.
Falling In Love
Big Bend is a vast and marvelous place, and I can’t wait to go on my own expedition this fall.
In advance of my trip and to help me lean into my new role, I decided to sit down with Rachel Hedlund. Rae-Rae, as she is affectionately known, is a veteran VOBS employee. She currently serves as our our Wilderness Program Manager and she is a Big Bend expert.
Megan Henning: There’s so much to learn about Big Bend! But I’ll start with the big question: Why Texas?
Rachel Hedlund: Well, I was biased to begin with. Winter is my soulmate in terms of course areas — I love our dog sledding program in Ely. When I first started working in Texas, I realized it has that same stark intensity that the winter program has. It is literally the polar opposite of winter. It is hot. But so many things are the same.
Both winter and Texas take people to another place of survival. You have to respect the wilderness around you and you have to respect each other because you travel as a team in a pretty challenging environment. Texas teaches you how to survive, and thrive.
MH: What is your favorite part of instructing in Texas?
RH: This is a funny story. When I first came to Texas, I assumed I was going to instruct paddling courses because I love paddling. But then I found out I was going to lead backpacking programs… I didn’t like backpacking as much as paddling. I was skeptical.
But I fell in love with the backpacking in Texas. Backpacking is so simple, the world is your oyster. You discover beauty every day, and you can camp anywhere when you’re backpacking.
Border Land Learning
MH: What’s it like to teach so close to the border of Mexico?
RH: I think it’s really powerful to be traveling and working with Outward Bound in border country. Of course, it’s politically heated right now and the border country is at the center of political debates. While Big Bend is very quiet–it’s not a center of migration or strife–it’s still Texas and it’s still the border and it’s still where people live.
Here in Big Bend and elsewhere, you think about the land and you think about the people, and you think about your own existence relative to the landscape and to other lives. No matter what side you are on, traveling here opens your eyes to what life is like for people trying to traverse the desert.
There’s huge potential for inquiry and learning in the border land.
And instructing in Texas is quirky. You have to adapt; you have to carry water; you have to travel to water; you have to adjust to nature; and, you have to take it very seriously.
A while back, raccoons started showing up in this one area where we camp. So we started to bury our food and sleep on top of it. Now it’s a tradition to sleep on your food, even though the raccoons are gone!
MH: What is most challenging about instructing in Texas?
RH: Whether it’s the heat or the cold, it’s a very powerful environment. The desert is in charge and it’s always challenging.
For example, I was course directing and instructing a Pathfinder course. We got on the river and the temperature was cooling down a little bit, and by the time we got into Santa Elena canyon, it was down below freezing. All our boots froze and we needed to pour boiling water over them to get our feet back into them.
Awe-Inspiring and Breathtaking
RH: I’m super excited about Texas partnership programs. Big Bend is huge, but it’s still a relatively hidden gem. Getting Texans here means introducing them to an amazing piece of their state and culture; to the power of a place that is theirs.
Big Bend is awe-inspiring and breathtaking. Discover U (DU) is a great youth-serving organization from Houston — they have really curious and brave kids. DU students said they didn’t know about Big Bend, they didn’t know that this place was part of their state.
I think it’s important to get people to connect to where they are from. The setting and structure of an Outward Bound course allows for reflection and collaboration. Students get a chance to discover potential and see themselves in a whole new light.
Students learn to lead by doing hard things together in a monumental setting.
You have to take responsibility, you have to take ownership, you have to make decisions. And you can’t ignore the landscape. This place helps students experience leadership and find perspective. And, here in Texas, it’s not 50 below and the mosquitoes aren’t that bad. It might be a little less daunting than a winter dog sledding course!
Standouts and Surprises
MH: Is there a particular moment from the field that stands out?
RH: I’ve had a lot of fun in Texas. I paddled the lower canyons in 2017. I worked a 75 day Semester course that started up in Ely and went down to Texas. It’s a very cool program.
The Minnesota part was challenging — it was consistently 30 below and we were all pretty beat up by the time we got to Big Bend. Backpacking Texas is also challenging, the students were definitely pushing themselves.
When we finally got to the river, it was almost like a vacation. All we have to do is paddle with the current? But students learned to navigate a very interesting river… some of them even took on paddling the solo boat.
It was awesome to watch them develop their skills to the point of excellence and mastery. And when you finally hike to the top of Emory Peak, the view is insane. Up there, you have such amazing clarity.
You can see the entire National Park, everywhere you’ve traveled. You get the enormity of everything you’ve done.
MH: What surprises you about Texas?
RH: This is going to sound funny, but I’ve had moments with my body where I’ve been like, What’s happening to me right now?? After a week on the river, your hair is just the grossest it’s ever been. I’ve been an outdoor instructor for a long time, but it’s still hard, you definitely get a little beat up.
Part of you becomes Texas–physically–and part of Texas becomes you. I also think it’s pretty great to live in a place where you feel out of place. Living in Redford and working on the border is out of my comfort zone and I have to adjust myself to fit another culture. We do most of our grocery shopping in Mexico.
It’s so wonderful to live outside of your comfort zone. I think this is a powerful part of the student experience.
I’ve traveled all over the world, but I don’t think there is any place better than Texas.
Discover the power of Big Bend. Voyageur Outward Bound School is launching new partnership programs in Texas. Join us in changing lives. To learn more about how we work with high schools and universities, contact me: (651) 968-3449 or firstname.lastname@example.org