Paddling and portaging the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was an exhaustingly worthwhile experience. It was hard out there, and we were met with more than enough wind, rain, and cold weather; but we were also treated with plenty of moments where the peaceful tranquility that is Mother Nature was on full display. However, through it all, these students rose to the occasion and faced the challenges before them with remarkable honesty, vulnerability, courage, and integrity. By the end, it became powerfully clear that if we are not up to face the challenges that life inevitably has in store for us, then we risk losing hope, meaning, and purpose. Even more than that, the sense of community and belonging that these students found through developing meaningful and authentic friendships is what allowed us to persevere through the incredibly tough and trying conditions. By pursuing a common goal together and by learning about what makes us so special as unique individuals, as well as a cohesive group, we were able to experience joy and mutual flourishing in a deep and compelling way.
This mutual flourishing was, in large part, due to the communication tools that our VOBS instructors so deliberately equipped us with. These tools opened the space and created the trust that was necessary to address tensions and conflicts within the group dynamic with thoughtful intention. In times of stress, we found the peace and reconciliation necessary to move forward as a group by knowing that we had voices and perspectives that would be heard and respected, by owning our contributions or roles in the situations, by empathizing with what we heard or saw other group members experiencing, and by coming up with action plans for how we would proceed in a more efficient and productive way. Communicating with each other in this assertive and honest way allowed us to restore a group dynamic that would carry us through to reaching our goals. Similarly, as we did during the backpacking portion, we regularly made time in our day to take positive and constructive ownerships, to give each other the gift of positive and constructive feedback, and to appreciate each other for contributions that were made throughout the day or for simply being willing to bring our authentic selves to this experience. In the evening, we also cherished the space we made to express Cosmic Appreciations together. This was a time where we would look to the sky, whether it was dumping rain on us or whether is was heartening us with a full display of shining stars, and send our appreciations for our loved ones who were not with us physically but who were most definitely on our minds, as well as to honor the environment around us.
While interpersonal communication was a large focus of this experience, there was also an intentional opportunity to experience true solitude and self reflection. Thus, a portion of this excursion was dedicated to a solo experience. To accomplish this, Voyageur Outward Bound School secures permission for the groups to enter Primitive Management Areas, which means the lakes we respectively soloed on were not accessible by fixed portage routes, and did not have established campsites in the sense that they did not have fire gates, obvious tent pads, or latrines. This meant that to access these sites, the students were challenged to “crash” their way through denser forest and more rugged terrain to navigate their way in. Once successfully accomplishing this, they gathered their individual belongings and were dropped off at various locations around the lake where they would spend the rest of the day and night in complete solitude, except for when the instructors went out for follow up check ins to ensure that everyone was adequately prepared for the experience. They were equipped with nothing but twine, a bug net, and a tarp, with which they were responsible for creating their own shelter for the night. At this point in the experience, the students had been traveling hard and had been in a near constant state of togetherness for about two weeks, so the opportunity to rest and be completely alone with only themselves and the natural environment around them was greatly welcomed. Aside from the few homework assignments they were responsible for completing during this time, they were able to get plenty of much needed sleep, reflect on what they had been feeling thus far, and recharge for the final push to finish the expedition. It is truly a unique opportunity to experience the Boundary Waters in such an individual way, and we are so grateful to VOBS for caring for us and trusting us to respect the environment without leaving a trace.
Traveling in the remote wilderness with no one but ourselves to rely on also showed us the importance of being present and vulnerable with each other. We were in it together and had to learn to work well with each other, despite our many differences, so that we could thrive and get where we needed to go. However, we learned that we actually depended on each others’ differences, whether that be through various talents, leadership styles, or world views, to be successful. When we welcomed, affirmed, and embraced ourselves and each other is when we experienced rewarding results and a deepening of our understanding of ourselves and the environment that we were in. Similarly, beyond just facing physical challenges through hard travel and difficult weather conditions, these students displayed incredible courage and vulnerability by allowing themselves to open their hearts and minds to one another. Especially when we are feeling pushed to our breaking points, it is incredibly tempting to close ourselves off by turning in on ourselves. In doing this, we not only are shortening our own horizons, but we are missing opportunities to bring others’ attention “more fully to life” through our unique observations and ways of thinking and seeing. This concept of friendship and community is something that a beloved and retired SNC faculty member, Paul Wadell, had shared with the college community prior to the start of the school year. It was reassuring to witness these values being lived out not only on the SNC campus, but through the experience these students were facing out in the Northwoods, and will continue to face throughout the semester. Our beauty lies in our individuality and the fact that we all see, feel, and experience things differently. When we take the risk of opening ourselves up, we are granting ourselves the gift of widened perspectives and widened visions, and we are sharing the gift of ourselves with others. This, however, requires trust, because when trust is lost or broken is when we feel the need to guard ourselves and become withdrawn. To thrive as a group throughout this experience, we had to trust ourselves, and we had to trust that those around us would accept us where we were at, and that they would make an effort to see us for who we are presently and who we are becoming. Developing meaningful friendships allowed the space for this trust to grow, and in becoming friends, we became people who wanted to seek the best for one another. Cultivating this trust and connection proved to be a powerful part of this experience, because how can you seek someones good when you’re not attentive or attuned to them, when you don’t see them? Again, this was a powerful message that Paul Wadell had so eloquently gifted us with. Going forth in this experience, as we continue to hone in on our natural, predisposed talents, we are looking forward to keep discovering what it feels like to be our best selves, and we will encourage those around us to do the same as well.
As we say our goodbyes to the pristine beauty of the BWCAW and begin to start processing what we experienced, felt, and accomplished in the last three weeks, we are reflecting on parts of ourselves that we want to leave behind us, and parts of ourselves that we want to continue nurturing and developing going forward. We would like to extend a most sincere thank you to our beautifully-minded Outward Bound instructors Laura and Trevor, and Elliot and Arty, who pushed us physically, mentally, and emotionally in a supportive and constructive way by always believing in us and what we are capable of accomplishing, even when we struggled to see it ourselves. Thank you for showing us who we are as individuals and as a group, and likewise who we can keep becoming. Lastly, it is absolutely necessary to extend a Cosmic Appreciation to you, Mother Nay-Nay. Thank you for pushing us to our limits with seemingly relentless rainy, windy, chilly days, and thank you for graciously showing us your absolute beauty with sunshine, moon sets, shining stars, sunrises, and calm waters when we needed it most. This has been a profoundly powerful experience, and even though we certainly did not always get what we wanted, we ultimately got what we needed. We are all in and ready to come together to move forward with the rest of our semester as one cohort!
Laura and Trevor’s Canoe Group
Elliot and Arty’s Canoe Group
To finish out this experience with Voyageur Outward Bound School, the students participated in a Personal Challenge Event in which they canoed 6 miles, portaged 1 mile, and ran 6 miles. The morning started out beautifully, with a lovely sunrise and comfortable weather. However, during the course of the challenge, a storm rolled in and some of the students got caught in the pouring rain, but they still finished strong! Congratulations Gapsters of 2019- time to celebrate with a much anticipated shower and a graduation celebration!