Read a firsthand account of the Outward Bound Intercept program from a recent graduate of the 50-day Intercept Boundary Waters Semester expedition. Zak takes us through his experience, highlights what he learned and what he will take away moving forward.
We are grateful for his willingness to share his story. Keep reading below to hear this moving story and the power of self-reflection.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series.
In the Spring of 2017, I participated in an Outward Bound expedition. The course took place on the border of Minnesota and Canada, more specifically, in the Boundary Waters. This expedition began April 23rd and ended June 12th, 2017. The program was intended to focus on improving different aspects of our lives, such as technical skills, leadership and teaching skills, communication and team-building, environmental practices and safety awareness and self-growth and service.
The Boundary Waters is an unforgiving place. But like a lot of things in Outward Bound, you get out of it what you put into it. It took me about 13 days to realize that. The first 13 days were… well, to be honest, they were a bit hellish. It didn’t help that it was below freezing for 10 of the 13 days. Normal things like setting up camp, making a fire and even paddling were difficult. Your fingers get incredibly cold. You basically have to wear every layer you own and everyone’s spirits are just low, but there were several ways to combat this icy demon that made our time in the Boundary Waters easier.
Not only was camp setup hard because it was cold, it was hard because it was still the first two weeks. I’m not sure how most spring expeditions start, but our first two weeks were unbearably cold. The first problem we always ran into was our p-cord freezing so it would be super stiff and even had the possibility of breaking. We had to be extra careful while setting up tents and the tarp. It didn’t help that our fingers were so cold that knots were almost impossible. Another major inconvenience of the cold was trying to start fires. Our fingers were so cold that it was hard to light the matches, and with all the constant snow, it was hard to find dry firewood. We usually had to light wet fires, but when we got it we got toasty.
The Boundary Waters felt like an entirely new ecosystem once it warmed up. When it warmed up, it warmed up quickly. The first thing we needed to adjust to was how we dressed. Our life for the past two weeks was doing all the same things (portaging, paddling, setting up camp) in layers, and when it warmer we needed several less layers. Everything was easier but the shift was so sudden our bodies didn’t regulate as fast as they should. There were moments when our bodies were telling us we needed five more layers when we knew we didn’t.
The next part about getting used to the warmth was self-care. Self-care became much more of a conscious thing when it got warmer. It was easy to go all day without even noticing what our bodies needed, especially doing what we were doing. We needed to be more aware of how much water we drank. The other weird change that we had to get used to was the need to apply sunscreen all the time. If we went one day without applying sunscreen we were beet red for a week.
Another effect of the environment warming up was that our expectations changed. We were held to a higher standard in everything and we were taught about excellence. A few examples include being up and out of tents at morning circle in 20 minutes. When it was cold we had leeway because getting up and dressed was hard, but with the warmth it was stricter, and we were expected to travel much further and much faster. We were expected to have camp set up perfectly, and each tent fly needed to be tied down well, the hand-washing station needed to be up and one of the most important things was the tarp needed to be set up perfectly. Some nights it took us hours to set up camp when it really should’ve taken 20 minutes, only because we weren’t holding ourselves to that standard.
Leadership and Teaching Skills
While I was out there we learned about setting goals for ourselves. This lesson was a hard one to grasp. It seemed easy and straightforward but a lot goes into it. I learned you need to understand your limits. You need to know how much you can take, and not just how much you can take until you don’t want to, but until you can’t take it anymore. You need to be able to set realistic but challenging goals. Anyone can make a goal yet if it is super easy, you aren’t learning from it or growing from it. You have to have integrity when making these goals. The only person to keep you accountable for them is yourself. You can have a buddy to help remind you about it and help keep you on the straight and narrow, but that buddy won’t always be there. The only person who is with you all day everyday is yourself. If you crap out on this goal, it only hurts you. You also need integrity when making these goals. Only you know your limits, so you can make the goals easy and say they are hard. The truly hard part is creating a challenging goal and knowing that it will be hard. It’s very easy to make an easy goal and complete it, but you get nothing out of it. Instead of learning that maybe you are stronger than you thought, you stay just as weak as you started. We had to learn this out there, and it wasn’t easy.
There were days when I wanted to quit. I wanted to leave and never come back, but I pushed through and finished. I found things out about myself that I never knew were there. I found my breaking point and passed it, and saw it was so much higher than I had thought. If I hadn’t kept going and strived to continue, I never would’ve found that.
Leading at Outward Bound is a given. You just need to do it. Even if you don’t enjoy it, in the end, it actually helps. I learned a huge thing about myself. I am a great leader when there isn’t one and someone needs to be one, but if I am thrown into a leadership position without having a say in it, I shrink and let others take over. I learned that I enjoy being a leader when no one else can because I feel loved and respected. I feel like I matter. When I am forced into the position I let others do a lot because I still feel like one of them. I have more responsibility and power but I can’t use it because I don’t feel empowered. Outward Bound taught me how to grow in that, how to use that to my advantage and have others help but still have a say in decisions. Throughout the course, there were many conflicts. My friend and I were always the leaders when it came to solving conflicts; he helped moderate the conflicts and I helped people express themselves. Over the course, I learned how to moderate more. I learned that just being a people pleaser isn’t going to solve everything. I learned how to assess a situation quickly and determine whether to focus on the objective at hand or focus on the person’s emotions. There were points on course where we needed to make miles, but someone had something going on in their head. I learned when we really needed to stop and focus on them being better, or if they just needed to tough it out and keep going. I was able to weigh their feelings by understanding how important it was that we kept moving. Even when I wasn’t the leader, I still did this.
The truth of it all is that we don’t have people to tell us exactly what we can or can’t do. We need to continue setting higher and higher expectations for ourselves and stick to them. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is you. If I can look in the mirror before I go to bed and smile, knowing that I did my best that day, knowing that I held myself to a high expectation and had actually followed it, then I can go to bed happy. I can put my name on that day and sleep. Most nights aren’t like that. Because of what I’ve learned at Outward Bound about integrity and SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound), how to appreciate others and myself and how to be honest with myself, I don’t need to go to bed sad. I go to bed with a plan. I think about what I can do better tomorrow, and how I can challenge myself harder to improve. Holding yourself to high expectations may seem easy, but it was what I struggled with the most. Thanks to Outward Bound, it was what I improved on the most.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the Intercept Student Perspective. Stay tuned for the second part to be published soon.
Do you want to learn more about the Intercept program or the Intercept Boundary Waters Semester?