By Susan Sablan, 10,000 Islands Sea Kayaking Course Alum
Talk about surprises! My Outward Bound experience was a bit of a revelation.
I had some second-hand experience with Outward Bound before embarking on my 2022 Ten Thousand Islands Sea Kayaking Course, as my two sons had also done Outward Bound courses. Each had done a backpacking course in the Pisgah National Forest with North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS), and one had also completed a canoeing and rafting course on the Green River in Utah. I knew that the courses had changed each of them profoundly, and in the case of my oldest son and middle child, actually influenced his career choice. In both cases, my now-grown sons look back on their experiences fondly and continue to enjoy and respect all that Mother Nature provides. However, I am 62 and went on Outward Bound for purely utilitarian reasons.
At one point in the last several years, I had read an article about a man who spent a year paddling and camping in some remote and uninhabited islands near me. A year might be a bit too much I thought, but a six-day affair would be perfect, and Outward Bound had one! With the islands and the base camp only an hour away, it seemed like a dream. It felt easier to be introduced to the wilderness in a supported, group setting. Then, if I liked it, I could easily go back alone, though I doubted I would ever do it for a year!
Though I had kayaked recreationally since my teens, my skills were limited. I had recently purchased a flat-water kayak and wondered if I would also like to purchase a more seaworthy craft, complete with a cockpit and spray skirt. On the Outward Bound trip, I would not have to carry all the necessary gear alone, I wouldn’t get lost in the sameness of the mangroves, and I could test drive a number of different kayaks. Lastly, I have lived a life I like to describe as characterized by ADAPT and OVERCOME (A & O), and I wondered if I was still game for that.
As a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and in the second class ever to include women, the A & O Model was a key to survival. While a Midshipman, I also attend the US Army’s Parachutist School at Fort Benning, GA, earning my jump wings. I went on to serve 22 years as a Naval Officer, moving 13 times during those years, and having three children. Unfortunately, my marriage was broken after 20 years, when I then became a single mom to an 8th, 3rd, and 2nd Grader. Later, forming a blended family was also an A & O endeavor. In my civilian career, I also experienced challenging roles that often tested both my intellect and my ability to balance family, work, faith, and life in general.
I’m not sure why, but what I did not set out to do on my Outward Bound course was to have a transformative experience or go out of my way to bond with fellow participants. I was not against those things; they just were very secondary to my personal goals—shame on me.
As the course progressed, we were all remarkably busy. Since it was a short course, there was limited time to truly get to know my crew. I slept with some of them, took on daily roles with others, and had deeper conversations with a few. Our solo was short, maybe three hours max, and while others described their experiences as contemplative, refreshing, and centering, I described mine as “DISTRACTED.” That is not unusual though, when my children were growing up, they called me the “DISTRACTACON.”
It was not until the final circle-up that my heart opened up in a way that I had not anticipated. One of my tent mates and I had to this point, been like ships passing in the night. I wasn’t sure she even liked me. We were different people, in dissimilar stages of life, and with quite different goals for the week. I am sure I rubbed her the wrong way when I groused about things she probably thought unimportant. However, on that last day, as part of that final ceremony, she teared up and offered me a compliment I will never forget as part of the ”Why does my crew-mate deserve this certificate?” exercise. Her kind words touched my heart deeply and I also shed a few tears, although neither of us had been particularly emotional throughout the course. I am grateful that at 62 I can still A & O, but I am even more grateful that I touched someone’s life, and that she in turn touched mine so deeply. That was a beautiful and unexpected takeaway from my Outward Bound experience!