By Alumna Katie Bernard, Blue Ridge Mountains Backpacking and Whitewater Canoeing, 2018, From her personal blog Girl In the Woods
I’ve always loved lying on my window-side bed at night. There, curled up with my fuzzy blankets, I could listen to the storms as they raged by. Sheets of rain would rap on my window and the wind would beat against the other side of my wall. For as long as I can remember, I have loved to lie against that wall, placing my hand up to the few inches of wood and insulation that protect me from the mighty storm. Looking out my window, I feel sheltered, safe; as if I am savoring warm soup on a chilly fall day.
Beneath my open-air tarp, on my nine-day Outward Bound trip in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina, I felt a different mix of emotions when bullets of rain pounded down inches above my face. I did not feel as warm and snuggly as I shivered in my wet sleeping bag, batting moths and beetles away from my headlamp. I can’t quite describe the emotions I felt as I watched with wide open eyes the battle between nature and my tarp. Spoiler Alert: Tarps do not always win.
After some backpacking experiences at a Girl Scout camp in New Hampshire, (that were not as rustic as I’d hoped,) I decided I was ready for something more hardcore. With a bit of my own research, I found Outward Bound and came to the conclusion that this is was what I had been looking for. After some careful deliberation, I set my eyes on the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains Backpacking & White Water Canoeing Course. Immediately, I set a countdown in my phone and waited in pure excitement.
After flying by myself for the first time, and navigating my way through three airports, I met two guides and the 11 other teenagers who would be my crew members at the Asheville airport. We sat criss-cross on the tiled airport floor as the guides lectured us on the difficulties to come. I didn’t quite believe it was going to be as hard as they made it seem, but the more they described our challenges, the more excited I became. While I have been on whitewater and done my fair share of hiking and backpacking, I was excited for the new dynamic Outward Bound had to offer.
When I first hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders, I knew that it was going to be tough to carry. I imagined the distances we were going to travel and the peaks we were going to summit with these packs. As a group, we carried nine days worth of food and gear (tarps, rope for the bear hang, water, first aid kit, carabiners, gravity filter, pots and pans, fuel and camp stoves… the list goes on.) As individuals, we carried our sleeping bags and pads, personal clothes, and other limited toiletry items. As I adjusted the straps on my pack and transferred weight to my hips, I couldn’t wait for the unknown. I didn’t know what types of challenges we would face hiking, but I knew I was ready for anything. As a hiker who is always focused on an end goal (finishing my 4,000-footers before I’m 16), I wondered how many peaks I would bag on this trip.
As soon as we made it to our first campsite, the rain began—and didn’t stop for three days. We are not talking about a light drizzle. The water came down in sheets and buckets; thunder and lightening were frequent guests. Our guides had us pull on the Outward-Bound-provided heavy duty yellow rain jackets and suspender pants that we later nicknamed “hazmat suits.” The material was so thick and cumbersome, I could only bend my arms and legs to limited degrees, and it chafed everywhere! Mud collected around the wrists and ankles. The bottoms of the pants always seemed to be angled perfectly for dripping brown rainwater down my socks and boots. For the first three days, the “hazmat suits” only came off at night; which at least lightened our pack a little. The rain did not relent when nature called either. Pulling the suspender pants down to go to the bathroom required the jacket to come off too. This was partially the reason why all our clothes were perpetually wet. We joked that yellow, a typically bright and happy color, had taken on a whole new meaning.
Each night at camp, all 12 of us would pitch in to accomplish group tasks and chores. Jobs were assigned every day to set up tarps, cook food in the “kitchen” area (which had to be far from the sleeping area), set up the bear hang, create a gearage, filter stream water and treat it with bleach, and clean dishes. We could not use water to clean the dishes either, because discarded water with food particles in it could attract bears, so we had to lick our personal bowls and scrape group cooking pots into a trash bag that someone carried out.
Though we trekked in our rain gear and packs, I did not think the hiking was very intense. As one of the only crew members with hiking experience, I thought that though our pace was moderate to fast, our mileage was light. As a very goal-oriented and achievement-focused person, I was disappointed that we weren’t grabbing peaks and pushing our physical limits with bigger mileage goals. When there were options for a summit, my crewmates seemed tired and outvoted me to go around the mountain. I had pictured us covering vast distances, but the next campsite was never very far.
However, these first few days were not easy. Often, it felt like we were merely surviving instead of thriving because of the rain. Every footstep squished; every spoonful of food was soggy and sprinkled with “trail spice” aka dirt. Dirt stuck to my wet body and became mud. Dry seemed like a foreign word. Almost everyone, including me, were showing the early symptoms of trench foot aka “jungle rot.” Thank goodness for the Gold Bond one instructor brought. Each night, we rubbed it into our white and raisined feet, and even though it burned and froze like biofreeze, it helped dry them out.
One night in my tarp, as I lay wet and shivering, something clicked that changed my mindset. I had been so focused on the challenge of hiking, but the challenge of this trip lied elsewhere. Maybe we weren’t hiking double digit numbers of miles a day. Maybe we didn’t really push it to the top of a peak. But what we were doing was surviving and enduring the merciless elements. We were living in the wilderness for days, bonding together over the harsh conditions. Breaks were spent laughing and playing “Mafia.” The objective of this experience was to find a way to stay positive and appreciate the journey, not to measure mileage.
I know all the rain and mud sounds miserable, but I assure you, it was fun. It was a different kind of fun than I was used to. One of my instructors, Charlie, taught us about Type Two Fun. Type One Fun is fun in the moment, like a roller coaster or a concert. Type Two Fun is the kind we experienced; hard and sometimes painful in the moment, yet fun and memorable when looking back. I look back upon the bonds I formed with my crew, the lessons we learned and the experience often.
Our challenge was to endure the elements and work with each other—even though we had been strangers only a week ago, sleep in bushes, eat powdered hummus for dinner, and drink water that smelled like bleach. As a team, we grew more connected and resilient. By the final days, we were licking our food bowls clean and throwing down tarps like it was second nature.
During my course, I learned that during WW2, young sailors were giving up and dying quickly when their boats were torpedoed, as opposed to the older more experienced sailors who were able to hold on through incredibly difficult times. Outward Bound was formed to create rough experiences for young seamen before war to help improve their survival chances. The name for the program was created from the saying that when a ship left the harbor, it was going “outward bound.”
As I finished this nine-day expedition and headed to catch my flights back home, I was again heading “outward bound,” back to my everyday life.
Outward Bound was a great experience for me and I reccommend it to any fellow adventure-seekers. Courses are offered for teens and adults. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.
Note: The rain did eventually clear up, and I will continue the story of the sun and canoeing, as well as my solo experience, in a later blog. Please follow me to make sure you receive future posts in your inbox.
What has been your most challenging experience in nature? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.