It is a common misconception that the Blue Peter (Outward Bound’s adopted flag which has a white square on a field of blue) is flown from ships on their way out to sea. Most think that it indicates a vessel is headed away from harbor. But the flag is actually a signal hoisted in port to notify the crew to return to the ship and prepare for an imminent departure. It tells the sailors to ready themselves for the journey ahead.
After 23 days of hiking, canoeing, laughing, struggling, talking, thinking, and living wholeheartedly this distinction took on a new importance. Paddling into the Homeplace (the Voyager Outward Bound School’s base) and re-uniting with our fellow gapsterts after 12 days in the Boundary Waters felt far more like returning home, returning to our ship, than expected. Two weeks prior we had divided into three brigades and embarked on ambitious expeditions. We learned to live, struggle, and thrive in a rugged land of windy lakes, winding rivers, muddy marshes, and rocky portages.
On trail our days were long and lives were simple. We often began with the sun watching as it poured orange and yellow into the sky through the morning mist. Daylight hours were spent paddling, pushing, and portaging our canoes through the landscape. We quickly learned that our aluminum Gruman canoes were truly “all-terrain craft”. With the right technique and the support of others we could hoist the 75lb boats over our heads and carry them when the water ran out. In the Boundary Waters the trails between bodies of water are called portages and are measured in rods. Each rod is 16ft or about the length of a canoe. In the beginning carrying a boat even 10 rods was daunting but by the end of our adventure we regularly went 70, 100, or even 150 rods without stopping. Our longest portages were a true team effort and stretched nearly a mile. Each brigade challenged itself by taking on crashes to get to more remote and even wilder portions of the Boundary Waters. These crashes were similar to portages except there was no trail to follow. Instead we took turns navigating by compass through dense forests and boot-stealing bogs. We encountered downed trees the boats had to be passed over and thickets that had to be bashed through.
Mid-way through our expeditions we had a 24 hour solo experience to reflect on what we had learned and spend some time really considering where we wanted to go. Each of us was provided a plastic tarp and a few feet of rope to construct our own shelter. We had a small bag of food to sustain us and the challenge of developing our own personal mission statement to focus our thinking. After spending literally every moment alongside our expedition mates 24 hours alone in the wilderness was a dramatic shift. It was simultaneously liberating and intimidating to be still and quiet. Although we had each spent plenty of time deep in thought while engaged in the moving meditation of paddling a canoe, contemplation while still felt novel.
Each of our brigades independently reached “Final” a stage of the expedition where we had proven to our instructors and each other that we could operate independently without their guidance. We had demonstrated that we knew our skills, had shown we were committed to expecting the best of each other, and had earned trust in our judgment. With this responsibility came the freedom to run our own expedition. We set the routine of the day, plotted our own routes home, and even taught each other about the wilderness we travelled through. The freedom and ownership was intoxicating and proved to us both how much we had learned and how much more there was to explore.
While processing and debriefing our experiences it became clear that the communication tools we’d practiced, navigation skills we’d honed, and grit we’d developed would become instrumental in the success of our gap journey. While intensely personal, our expeditions prepared each of us to step forward as stronger people ready to take on the rigorous community, individual, and academic challenges that lay ahead on the gap semester, in college, and in life. Instrumental in this was our belief and the trust that we’ve both “got this” and “got each other”.
In many ways the blue peter was flying above us as we bounced down the road back towards De Pere. We were each left to ponder what we will carry forward and who we need to be now that our ship departs imminently. In the last month we’d been transformed from strangers into crewmates by sharing experiences, working through challenges, and pushing ourselves to do and be better. In just a week on Sunday the 30th we depart for Chicago now as one gap cohort traveling outward bound and holding ourselves “To strive, to serve, and not to yield”.