Lili’s reflections on challenges and triumphs from her Washington Kayaking and Mountaineering Course

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In the spring of my junior year, I started carrying small, black Moleskine journals in which I write­ incessantly–thoughts, quotes, to-do-lists, poems, assignments, letters, book recommendations, etc. Having kept these little journals for the past two and a half years, I know that there is a correlation between my wellbeing and how much I write.  When times are trying and I am low, my pages stay blank. When I am healthy and well, my pages are darkened. If things are going moderately well, I’ll finish one of these journals in the span of four or five months.

Over the summer, I spent three weeks on a sea kayaking and mountaineering trip in the San Juan Islands and North Cascades of Washington. The three weeks of my Outward Bound trip are themselves an entire journal.

I explain the journal situation to underscore how incredibly happy, healthy, and true to myself I felt whilst out traversing the wilderness, and I want this to be the primary context for everything else I write here. I have never in my life felt better than I do now, and I owe that to Outward Bound. My newfound positive self-image goes beyond the fact that I didn’t wear makeup or look at myself in a mirror for three weeks; it is a deeply rooted peace in knowing what I need, what I don’t need, and how to take care of myself. It is a feeling of strength and confidence. This wellness, peacefulness, and inner strength is what I value most from my course; hopefully I can retain it in the long term.

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Because I have previously been a student of an experience-based school (CITYterm semester), I think I was hyper-receptive to Outward Bound School’s experiential learning approach, and I could maximize my understanding of their teachings. The language my instructors used to foster autonomy, critical thinking, leadership, and group cohesion was at once familiar and also newly challenging. Most importantly, the skills I learned out there don’t apply exclusively to packing kayaks or ascending a cliff; the skills I learned are ones I use to talk with my roommate, make sure I get enough sleep, and focus on my work. The transferability of the skills I gained during my Outward Bound course–to my home life, to Carolina, to living in a dorm, etc.­–speaks to the brilliance of the program.

Now, to speak of the experience in concrete examples and not just vague post-course meditations!

The joys of my Outward Bound trip were of a variety and intensity so new and wonderful. If only I could explain the exuberance I felt each day while on the ocean, thinking about how dry I would be that evening in camp; or, how thrilling it would be to wade in a freezing cold mountain stream, or find a block of cheese in my beans, or wake up as late as seven am! There were these rather small measures of joy, of course, but there was also great happiness and triumph in self-repelling off a cliff, or navigating a challenging section of land with positivity.

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One of the best moments of the trip was when my group landed our kayaks on Turn Island in the San Juans the afternoon I was sea navigator. I anticipated that our paddle would take six hours, and we made it in just over three. As we pulled our kayaks up onto the darkly pebbled beach, group morale soared. I circled up with everyone and encouraged them to unpack the kayaks quickly so that we might go for a swim. While usually our daily swim is met with tentativeness (due to the temperature of the water), the group high-fived, lunged to unpack their kayaks, and in a matter of minutes was frolicking in the 39 degree water. Usually we are in and out in thirty seconds, but a newfound tenaciousness took hold. As parents do with young children at the pool in the summer, our instructors had great trouble getting us out of the water. This moment of group cohesion marked one of the best moments of the trip. Everyone’s basic needs were met, allowing for an afternoon of fun, ubiquitous joy, and maximum productivity.

Now, challenges. Personal challenges are starkly different from group challenges. Days 9 and 10 were the worst for me, but I gained perspective on the extent of my perfectionism, and how my emotional stability seems to decline alongside the decline of impeccability. I also acquired an overwhelming guilt, knowing that my own troubles were negatively effecting the group. Through an ongoing dialogue with my instructors, and taking time to prioritize emotional wellbeing, I overcame the worst low I have ever reached.  It feels really good to say I have that under my belt, and am equipped with the skills to face such a struggle again when it comes.

There were also physical challenges…namely, belaying down a cliff. The experience of walking backwards off a mountain with my trust in my instructor’s rope skills and my whole weight in a flimsy looking harness is an experience not many people have. Being able to point to that and say, “yes, I did it, I had tears streaming down my face, but I did it” feels AWESOME.

Group challenges are a different animal. They, too, are so emotionally taxing that I struggle to revisit them now. On the second to last day, my group was trekking down from the heights of the mountains into the valley where we’d make camp that night. We were travelling without the guidance of our instructors, and the authority of one 18 year-old “Top Banana” (the day’s leader) over the other nine of us was barely holding. It took everyone’s patience, conflict resolution skills, and motivation to walk the last miles to camp. I’ll take the rose-colored-glasses off and acknowledge that we didn’t really end on a good note; in fact, the way my group finished was somewhat disappointing, but living with that and admitting it with honesty is healthy, I think.

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I can’t write this report without mentioning the 40-ish hour solo each of us had. For someone intensely inclined to write, think, or stare into space in her free time, this is the best luxury! Other than the fact that I wrote from dawn to dusk, solo provided me with a time to reflect empathetically on my group.  I thought a lot about how other people would spend their time, and I acknowledged that for those not oriented towards writing or deliberately thinking, solo was a formidable, maybe even scary time. I had to give up the idea that I would have some grand epiphany during my solo which would restructure my entire paradigm of existence, but I came to terms with this and thought a lot about concrete things instead (my family, the durability of polyester, oysters). I’m not sure yet of the long-term benefit of a solo, but in the short-term it is extremely rejuvenating. One of my goals for my post-Outward Bound life is to have a solo at least once a year.

Those are the highlights, at least for now. I’m not sure what will be stuck in my mind six months or six years from now. I’m curious to see which memories are the most long-lasting and which adventures feel the most recent and immediate. Either way, I hope my Outward Bound experience doesn’t really ever end…I wish for it to continue to manifest in my daily life, and I also have a silent hope to make it back to the Pacific Northwest some day…maybe as a student, or maybe even as an instructor. Who knows? I’ll live the questions for now. Thank you, Outward Bound, for a great summer!

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