“During the Intercept program, we learned better communication skills and how to apply them in our lives going forward. Believe me, life right after course isn’t all puppy dogs and roses. Intercept was part of a long road to recovery for our family and definitely a big, positive step in the right direction.” – Mark, parent of an Intercept student
As a student looks up at the towering cliff face ahead of them, between the ropes and climbing equipment, they realize for perhaps the first time that their goal of reaching the top may not be possible. On this day, we’ve interrupted our rhythm of canoeing and camping to spend a day rock climbing. It’s much more than a brief introduction to a new sport. For some students, it’s an opportunity to work through fears, for everyone to rely on each other as they learn to belay and manage the ropes, and for some students, a chance to re-envision what success looks like.
Wilderness as Teacher
Everyone has their own measure of success, and that’s part of what we address in the wilderness. For those who’ve set the bar so high they’ll never reach it, the focus is on building confidence and recognizing strengths. For others, it’s learning to aim for excellence and raise the bar to imagine a more ambitious future.
Kurt Hahn, Founder of Outward Bound and radical educator of the 20th century, said we must “make the children meet with triumph and defeat”—success and failure. While we’re building confidence and striving for excellence, we’re not ensuring each student’s daily success. Intercept Instructors are always working to ensure the safety of students while the wilderness as a teacher gives plenty of small opportunities to practice failing, getting back up and trying again. Sometimes it’s moving too fast on a slippery rock or a poorly-timed raindrop the moment the match is lit. The beauty of this is that it does no good to yell at the weather or the rocks, and even the most stubborn of us realize that the fire will not then light itself nor will the pack get up and walk to where it needs to be. The inability to change the circumstances can give way to a perseverance we didn’t know we had, and the failure becomes a success as we give it another shot.
Lessons from the Wilderness: Try, Try Again
Success during the expedition for many students starts with the goal of just getting through it. While many of us have days that we’re just trying to get through, we know that fixating on the end point hinders us from finding meaning in the process. Once a teen pauses to appreciate a hot meal at the end of a long day, a helping hand with a heavy pack or the reflection of clouds in a calm lake, they’ve opened themselves to the process. The moment they pause to appreciate, they’re in it, not just trying to get through it. Many Instructors hold intentional space at the end of each day or at meal time for team members to practice verbalizing their appreciations.
Throughout an Intercept course, we focus on goal-setting. Teens practice setting short-term goals for a day or two, and have an opportunity to experience success and accountability. As Instructors, we help students set ambitious but achievable goals, make observations and give feedback. The group has a series of longer-term goals that can span a week or so as they strive to demonstrate their skills working together in the wilderness setting. These goals are tied to clear changes in their responsibilities and freedoms, and when met, are celebrated.
The expedition is designed, and modified en route, to consistently provide challenge without feeling impossible. The magnitude of the feeling of accomplishment grows as the magnitude of the perceived challenge grows. Sitting down to dinner may not feel like much of an accomplishment at home, but when you’ve gathered the firewood, built the fire and cooked the meal, despite bugs, wind and rain, you’re likely to feel a greater sense of accomplishment. By putting teens through challenges greater than what they imagined they were capable of—climbing mountains, carrying canoes between lakes, getting up before sunrise—they gain an undeniable accomplishment, an experience that no one will be able to take away from them. It is our intention that receiving their diploma at the graduation ceremony from their Outward Bound Intercept course may feel like one of the biggest accomplishments of their lives.
From Student to Master in the Outdoors
An Outward Bound Intercept expedition differs from more traditional academic settings and some therapeutic programs in that the success of the group is, at times, more important than the success of any one individual. Teens participate in an actual journey through the backcountry and the team must move together. The group’s ability to move from campsite to campsite each day is more relevant than one student’s ability to pack their pack quickly and hike without breaks. Mastering the skills of living outdoors becomes no less important than mastering the skills of working together and living in a group. It is the group’s need to have food to eat and a place to sleep each night that can help teens buy-in to conflict resolution and communication processes that they might have previously deemed annoying or irrelevant to their lives. As students have the opportunity to practice these skills, Instructors help draw comparisons between situations they’re seeing in the woods and what might be going on at home.
Experiential education hinges on situations where skills are taught and then rapidly put to use. You learn a paddle stroke one minute and then use it the next. The success of an Intercept course builds on repeated opportunities—about three weeks of them—to practice the same skills over and over again. This allows students the time to build mastery. Short of being a star athlete or an exceptional academic student, adolescence can present few opportunities for a youth to be the expert, and the confidence that comes from being a master fire builder can be just the success a teen needs.
Taking Wilderness Skills Home
An Outward Bound Intercept course helps provide a sense of perspective on their home lives. “I used to think scooping ice cream was hard,” said one Intercept student while reflecting on his summer job at home. Their experience takes place in a remote setting with a group of strangers they may not see again, so it’s easy for it to feel impossibly distant from life at home, but Instructors begin the work of transference. Then it’s up to family members and students to keep the ball rolling.
One tool of transference we often employ is the metaphor. The power of a metaphor is to turn one experience into another. Rock climbing becomes graduating from high school. Crossing a swamp becomes navigating peer pressure and negative influence. Your team becomes your family. As early in the expedition as possible, we begin to connect the dots. We might say: “The skills you just used to just settle that disagreement over where to eat lunch — how could you use those at home?” Or, “Wow, you seemed really nervous up there on the rock face today. What helped you get past your fears and keep climbing? What makes you anxious at home?”
At the end of the course, Instructors use their time with family members to teach many of the skills and some common language that they’ve taught the teens. Though family members may never really know what it was like to cross a calm lake under the stars or turn off their phones for four weeks, they can make similar commitments to open and respectful communication, clear goals and consequences and follow-through on their actions. All of these can help a teen be more successful in navigating the challenges of their life.
About the Author
Renee Igo was an Outward Bound student at age 15, and has been instructing wilderness expeditions for the Voyageur Outward Bound School for the past eight years. When not instructing, she holds a variety of other teaching positions and raises sheep in Maine.
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