IT’S JANUARY 4, Ten Thousand Islands near Everglades City. With the temperature dropping below 32 degrees Fahrenheit and even the high tide too low to float their stranded canoes off the vast muck flats that surround them, Rachael Meuser and nine other college students are outward bound. The “crew,” as they call it, is guided, educated, observed and even followed by instructors Russ Taylor and Josh Harris.
This is the water-woven western flank of the Everglades, the key-studded catchall of the immense River of Grass, a place unlike any other on the planet. But its lessons are similar to those dictated by other topographies where Outward Bound also “cuts the puppet strings,” as instructor Keith Robinson says.
Lesson one: You have to live with your mistakes. In this case and after a nearly catastrophic attempt to cross open water when they were almost blown out to sea, that means they’re going to walk out — although “walk” does not accurately describe the effort required to push loaded canoes through knee-to-thigh-high muck in twilight and then darkness for hundreds of yards, while wet, in freezing temperatures and wind.
A topographical map shows that the channel through mangroves between two open bodies of water is not contiguous. But satellite imagery suggests it is — that the watery path could save hours in the cold. Unfortunately, the satellite imagery is wrong, along with the crew that decides to trust it. It doesn’t take into account tides, their varying strengths or the seasons. A foot of water will float a canoe; an inch even at high tide won’t, whether it appears on a satellite image or not.
“On an expedition of any length there is always the epic day. Ours would prove to be the fourth day of 2012,” recalls the lead instructor, Mr. Taylor, a 20-year veteran of wilderness schools from the mountains of India and Asia to the Gulf of Mexico.
An international photographer who provided the photos for this story (see Florida Weekly’s column on page A2 about him), his broad experience did not make the “epic day” any less memorable for him, he acknowledges.
“Sounds of ‘ONE, TWO, THREE, YYYHHHAAA!’ could be heard resounding through the evening, as students worked in tandem, using paddles as poles to move along in the muck.”
The expression “outward bound,” a nearly perfect spike of two English words that drives hard to the heart of the matter, is “a nautical term for a ship’s departure from the certainties of the harbor,” according to the official history of the outdoor adventure school so named (www.outwardbound.org).
For any student at Outward Bound schools, certainty inevitably vanishes, along with electronics, pretension and comfort. In the U.S., it happens from Washington and Oregon, to Colorado, to Minnesota and Maine, and from Alabama and North Carolina to the Ten Thousand Islands of the Everglades.
“When students can say, ‘I loved every minute of it as soon as it was over,’ that’s a good experience,” says Mr. Robinson, a veteran Outward Bound instructor not only in the Ten Thousand Islands, but in western North Carolina and the Chilean mountains of Patagonia.
Like most instructors, he is also extraordinarily experienced outside of the school — a world-class rock climber and mountaineer who takes on formidable challenges on his own, between Outward Bound courses.
Speaking both for Outward Bound students and himself, he adds, “If I’m not out of my comfort zone, it’s not good enough. But we don’t take students outside the realm of safety.”
Not usually. One (and surprisingly, only one) of Rachael Meuser’s crew who have flown in from William Jewell College in Missouri is about to get hurt, because she compounded the crew’s mistakes by making one of her own: She failed to reserve dry clothes protected by a sealed “dry bag,” in an effort to stay warm.
“So we get in the canoes finally, and people are like, ‘God, I’m so cold,’” recalls Ms. Meuser. “And then she says, ‘Guys, what do you do if you have all your clothes on, already?’ And she ends up getting frostbite.”
No one recognizes it at the time, however, and all of them are in for a good cathartic exercise in nature-induced suffering, courtesy of Sunshine State wilderness.
“When you’re not in it, it’s hard to picture what it’s really like,” explains Ms. Meuser. “But once you’re out there and doing that, you have no other option. Your mindset changes, and you do what you have to do to survive.”
That’s why students of any age go to Outward Bound, she says. Because finding out what you have to do, and how you treat others when you’re doing it,
At Outward Bound, courses are tailored to the young and older — to middle- or high-school students with disciplinary problems. To precocious college students. To teachers, to CEOs, to professionals in need of a retuning. Even to combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who come, like the others, to suspend and immerse themselves in wilderness.
For the veterans, expeditions are free — and that even includes airfare to the Outward Bound school of their choice, from the mountains to the sea. The gift comes courtesy of mostly anonymous donors, some who give hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide the opportunity, says Matt Roskey, the veterans’ program coordinator based in North Carolina.
“Some of them have PTSD or other problems, some don’t, and they hear about the programs through friends or online at (veteran help sites),” he notes.
“Although we don’t claim the courses are therapy per se, they are tremendously therapeutic. People can separate themselves from the cacophony of smart phones and e-mail and the Internet and movies and malls, and everything blasting at you on a daily basis — they can get away from that with other people who understand how they think, and be one with nature.”
Any combat veteran who wishes to attend an Outward Bound course will be able to do so, health allowing, he adds. The money is there for it, thanks to donors.
For all these people, from young teenagers to the 70-something elders embarking on a sea-kayaking adventure, for example, the natural world becomes not just beautiful, but raw and immediate.
For them, nature insists on stepping out of the chamber of commerce postcard to reveal something much rougher, much more difficult to live with, no more sentimental than an icy wind but even more glorious than they may have realized. It assaults all the senses all the time, offering a creation worthy of reverence, they say.
“It’s unreal how therapeutic that is,” admits Al Smith, an Army veteran of the ground war in Afghanistan and a professional nurse who did the Everglades Outward Bound course last year.
“The vets have been through some tough times, and we may be able to adjust and cope with the physical difficulties a little faster — it’s uncomfortable, and no one likes to be uncomfortable — but just in a small period of time you have to learn how to work with these other people. It’s another kind of thing. You learn to test yourself, you learn something outside of the scope of things you think you can accomplish.”
History and environment
Founded in 1941 in Scotland by a German Jew named Kurt Hahn and Sir Lawrence Holt, a British shipping magnate, Outward Bound started as a survival course that taught self-awareness, some technical skills, and confidence. It was aimed at giving young British sailors the tenacity to survive at sea long enough to be rescued if their ships were sunk beneath them, which was happening with depressing regularity in the North Sea and the Atlantic at the time.
Older sailors, as the story goes, could often find a way to last a few hours or perhaps through the night after their ships had been torpedoed. Younger sailors were giving up. Outward Bound aimed to change that. And it also had another goal — the goal of pure insight. That hasn’t changed.
“There is more to us than we know,” Kurt Hahn famously said. “If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”
Led by an American named Josh Miner who had taught at Hahn’s Scottish school, the program spread beginning in the early 1960s, first to the Rocky Mountains near Marble, Colorado, and then elsewhere in the United States.
It’s not a survival school, although students do learn in part how to survive in challenging environments, says Trish Haitz, the program director of the Ten Thousand Islands course. It operates from an old hunting and fishing camp on a Calusa shell mound with as many as 30 staff and eight student crews in the field, from November through April.
“There are pretty clear safety guidelines,” she says. “We provide an emotionally and physically safe place where these people can ask questions of the world around them they wouldn’t normally ask.”
And they can ask them best, perhaps, when they’re least comfortable.
“When I first came to the Everglades (several years ago), I thought, ‘Is this going to be too easy? Is it even going to be challenging?’ I was used to being in the Andes,” recalls Keith Robinson.
“Then I got out there. There are bugs. It’s cold at night. It’s hot and humid and sweaty in the day. You have to learn how to manage your equipment. If you leave your dry bag open and your equipment gets wet, you’re in trouble.”
There was more than that for him, too.
“Then there’s the beauty of the Everglades. There’s no better way for students to learn about the big picture, about the physical processes of the universe. They also have to learn about tides on the first or second day, or they’ll be sitting in a mud flat and they’ll have to drag their canoes for six or seven hours. The Everglades offers so many challenges.”
What an Everglades course entails
The challenges come in the four-day course for ninth graders, in the seven or 14-day courses, or in longer courses, some of them for students embarking on careers as outdoor instructors — those can run a couple of months or more across several schools.
“A primary goal of this school has always been to introduce (school-age) students from southern Florida to their own backyard,” says Trish Haitz.
“We don’t do it in the summer because it’s hurricane season and it’s too dad-gumbed hot” — nobody needs a hurricane or heat stroke.
“But there are a lot of mosquitos, and in the field we have bug nets, and we cover with clothing in the morning and evening, during the mosquito time. You learn to be intentional about how you travel. You learn to adapt. You set your camps on the windward side of the island, so you get a breeze blowing on you.”
Camp, however, is not usually on the sandy beaches that front many of the islands, but on the canoes.
Students carry long boards in each canoe, which they employ at rest.
“You tie all of your canoes together (four or five abreast),” explains Rachael Meuser. “Then you get everything out of your canoe and into one of them. You lay back on the canoe, and you pull all these boards across, to form a floor. The stuff you don’t need goes under the boards, and the stuff you need goes on top.”
On such floating, anchored structures, students and instructors together cook, sleep and converse — analyzing themselves, their decisions and the world.
“The first day we only paddled five to seven miles, and it exhausted us,” recalls Ms. Meuser.
“And the first night (sleeping on the boards atop the canoes) seemed sooooo long.”
But the privacy was so short.
Lesson number two: we live in bodies whose processes must be accepted and tolerated without embarrassment or apology, by boys and girls, men and women.
“To go to the bathroom, we either peed off the side, or we had a bucket called a groover,” Ms. Meuser says. “That was to go number two. There wasn’t any other option. Everything went in the groover, and you carried it everywhere, the whole trip.”
Outward Bound schools never leave any trash behind, or few other signs of their passage, including the remains of fires or poop.
Each course offers a solid, basic instruction in navigation with charts and maps. Although instructors carry satellite phones, they don’t employ GPS technology.
Each student also shares in a “final expedition.” Together they cover a significant distance on their own, without instructor aid, by navigating and adapting to circumstances.
And each experiences a student “solo,” ranging from part of a day to three days and nights.
On solo, students are left alone, if necessary with a sleeping bag, matches, a net, a tarp and a paddle, to use as a pole if they erect a shelter.
“That’s memorable,” says veteran Al Smith. “It’s a solitude thing they make you do, you sit by yourself. At first I thought, ‘This is kind of stupid.’ But after doing it, after thinking and writing down stuff that was on my mind, I realized it was pretty unique.”
End of the epic
Pretty unique — in fact downright scary — was how Rachel Meuser and her crew felt about both their epic days and nights (on this journey there were two).
The first came after dark in a shallow bay, as the students paddled steadily onward under stars. Already, they’d been able to touch manatees that came right up to the canoes and watch dolphins breech next to them — large and potentially intimidating creatures for the uninitiated, even by daylight.
But that was nothing compared to what happened next. Somehow, the paddles striking the water — perhaps it was the bioluminescence — attracted schools of mullet. They began jumping not only at the paddles, but into the canoes. One even leaped into Ms. Meuser’s shirt.
Their reaction in turn excited a feeding frenzy of sharks, never identified by Mr. Taylor of the students. They attacked the fish without regard for the canoes, bumping into each boat.
“They’d hit the bottom and cause the canoe to rock — it was really nerve-racking,” admits Ms. Meuser. “We thought our canoes would flip and we’d end up in the water.”
But that didn’t happen. Instead, it got cold, and the crew, embarked on its final expedition, found itself mired in the muck of a place called Charley Creek. That occurred after the earlier effort to avoid being blown out to sea by paddling furiously for several hours, just to keep themselves in place until the wind died down.
Exhausted and about 20 hours after all that began, they finally reached a place where they could tie off their canoes, then eat and sleep.
“We had saved this macaroni and cheese. It had a lot of calories and we needed them, and we felt we deserved it,” remembers Ms. Meuser. “We were so excited about that meal.”
But the cooks mistook the powdered cornbread for powdered cheese, and poured it into the macaroni.
Lesson three: Everybody succeeds or fails together. Everybody eats or starves together, too.
“It was horrible,” she concludes in a peal of laughter — but edible, memorable, and even funny, too.
Like life. Like Outward Bound. ¦