When the temperatures dipped below the zero degree mark on a windy, moonlit Friday night last week, the woods of the remote Mahoosuc Mountains were not exactly the most comfortable place where one could go to spend the night alone in the Great Outdoors.
Nine people participating in a winter expedition* with the Outward Bound program did just that, however, braving the cold and wind as they kept their campfires lit and their bodies warm during a two-night solo camping experience in the woods. Most found the time spent alone difficult at times and occasionally uncomfortable, but they also all agreed that never had they experienced more contentment or self-satisfaction than that which they felt on those cold nights. In essence, they gained self-confidence through the experience of taking care of themselves in less than ideal conditions, the cornerstones behind the Outward Bound adventure and philosophy.
Outward Bound is a demanding but not overly strenuous outdoors educational experience through which course participants are given an opportunity to step out of their normal routines and ordinary surroundings to find inner strengths and limitations. Founded as a training school for British seamen during World War II by the late educator Kurt Hahn, the program now has over 30 schools on five continents, six of which are located in the United States. As the name implies, the potential range of experiences gained through the program is as vast as the oceans between those continents are wide. The course's value depends on the commitment of each participant to the adventure.
The Outward Bound program in Maine is based in Rockland during the summer for the Hurricane Island sailing-mountaineering course, and in Bethel for the winter 10-day expeditions in the Mahoosucs. The winter program begins on a Monday when participants of all ages arrive at the simple Victorian town home of winter program director and experienced outdoorsman Jeff Parsons in Bethel. The morning spent organizing trip goals just after their arrival at the house is the participants' only time under a roof and within four walls during the entire 10-day expedition.
The students next spend three days of training in the woods with the instructors, learning how to build fires, cross-country ski and snowshoe, building shelters out of plastic tarps, and discussing basic survival techniques. Sitting by the campfire at night, they also get to know one another, an integral part of the Outward Bound experience, according to instructor John Nolan.
"We share a lot of experiences in the course of the trip, which also help make us realize that we have a common pool in life, too," Nolan commented en route to a meeting with the students in the woods on cross-country skis. An athletic young man who works as a sailing instructor for the Hurricane Island program during the summer, Nolan also possesses a sensitivity to understanding others' needs, a quality which the Outward Bound program expects of all its instructors in addition to physical competence. As he removed his skis near the campsite meeting place in the Sunday River Valley, he added that the diversity of the participants and the camaraderie that evolves between them during the expeditions constitute some of the most exciting aspects of the Outward Bound program.
"There are personality conflicts, but learning to deal constructively with them is part of the personal growth that Outward Bound strives for," the instructor explained. "We try to create a community atmosphere where people can learn to communicate and to lead better, and having diverse personalities in a group is part of that."
Which is not to say that Outward Bound is merely a group therapy class or that participants are pampered. On the contrary, as was evidenced by the harsh Friday night spent during the solo experience, the program can be rough on the mental attitudes and physical stamina of the participants. As its publicity brochure states,the course is not for everyone. All participants must submit an extensive physical fitness report along with their application since, to quote program director Parsons, the participants are pushed hard.
"Yes, we definitely do push people into tough situations which can be stressful, but we're not drill sergeants by any means. We juxtapose the pain and fatigue with the joy of seeing the beauty of the woods in winter, providing for one's own needs, and achieving what one thought was impossible. It's hard to define what success for the program is, but I do know that it must encompass such things as a broadening of perspectives, and increased self-confidence in addition to the mountaineering skills which we teach the participants," the Englishman continued, stirring a pot of hot stew at the meeting place's campfire as he talked.
Nine red cheeked, wool clad persons between the ages of 16 and 35 soon skied into the camp burdened with 60-pound packs strapped to their backs, and joined Parsons for a simple but hot meal of cocoa and stew. Within their packs, they carried sleeping bags, emergency whistles, snowshoes, cooking gear, maps and compasses, plastic tarps, and whatever food they had left over from the three-day, two-night solo camping experience from which they were returning. Though they had only spent three days with one another before the solo trip, the genuine friendship between the individual participants could easily be seen as they listened to one another's accounts of the solitary experience, a regular debriefing practice carried out after every solo program.
"Mostly, I thought a lot about whether anyone else's shelter had been blown away on Friday night," commented participant Steve Hart of Burlington, Vermont. Echoing the attitudes expressed by other members of the group, Hart said that he never thought about quitting nor wondered about whether he'd be able to withstand the cold and the occasional loneliness. "I just wondered how well I'd be able to complete the solo, not whether I'd finish or not. I enjoyed the time alone, waking up in the morning and getting my own firewood to cook from the woods, just knowing that I could do it. I thought a lot about what I wanted to do once I came out of the woods, and what I didn't."
Others noted that though they were uncomfortable in the cold, they valued the experience for giving them the chance for introspection. "Sure it was miserable at times, but I can say now that it's over that it made me think about a lot of people and things which I'd never thought of before," stated one participant.
Another student named Dennis, the oldest member of the group, noted that while he never warmed up for two out of the first three days of the solo period, he nonetheless found himself hoping that the experience would be prolonged for an extra day. "I thought a lot about our upcoming trip, and also about how well I'd already gotten to know the other members of the group in only three days - it almost seems like I know everyone in the group better than people I've known for years at home," he stated, as the other persons at the campfire nodded in agreement.
The trip which Dennis referred to represents the third and final segment of the 10-day Outward Bound Winter Expedition. After regrouping at the campfire and replenishing their food supplies from the stores brought in by the three instructors, the members plan an extended four-day expedition. The instructors assist them if requested in the planning of the hiking expedition, but generally try to leave as much of the trip to the students as possible. The trip is the culmination of the skills learned in the training period and of the thoughts and maturity gained through the solo experience, and is regarded as the highlight of the 10-day course.
Two guides accompany the group on their final expedition in the case of an emergency, but they will often allow the members to make mistakes if the consequences of those erred actions are not great or irreversible. Instructor Jeff Kuller noted though that the instructor must be careful in making such judgement calls, and related how he and Noland last year allowed a group to get lost only to have the weather change for the worse. Aside from that one occurrence, which ended happily, Kuller said that such instances of serious mistakes are rare.
Following their excursion into the woods, the students are given a patch which bears the Outward Bound name. The real reward, however, is worn deeper within the minds of the participants themselves. Unlike various other schools which emphasize the acquisition of technical climbing skills as the end, the Outward Bound program used those skills as tools to greater, yet somewhat less, concrete goals of personal accomplishment, growth, and awareness. When asked why most of the participants take the course, program director Jeff Parsons summed up the attitude behind Outward Bound best when he said, "Because it's challenging and rewarding to be with an exciting group of people proving things to themselves and learning from it, and also because, in the words of one great climber, "It would have been easier not to."
*NOTE: While the Hurricane Island Outward Bound programs are still operating, we couldn't find any current reference to a winter Outward Bound in Bethel, Maine, on the internet.