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APR. 4, 2014

Making (Changing) Plans

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If you want to make Mother Nature laugh, make a plan. Last weekend, I learned a lesson in the necessity of flexibility alongside the students of the Outdoor Academy. We had planned for a weekend of paddling the French Broad River, but Mother Nature had her own plans.  We responded to them with flexibility. We adapted to our environment. We made a better trip than we’d originally planned.

On the first day of our trip the weather wasn’t ideal, but it was manageable, and we managed to have a lot of fun. Overnight, however, the cold crept in, and by morning the weather was so crisp that we decided not to paddle. When presented with an awesome opportunity like paddling, people can tend to act out of scarcity—“I won’t have this chance tomorrow, so I better take it today”—and they might accept less-than-ideal circumstances in exchange for a chance at a rare experience.  But risk management is about making tough decisions, and it just was not worth risking anyone’s safety for our desire to paddle.

Accepting our cancelled plans, we searched for the best way to use our time; we wondered what we could do to show our values to others and to remind ourselves of who we want to be. Jack, the co-leader of our trip, mentioned that we don’t always have the opportunity to serve our community as much as we’d like. He was right—all week we’d been noticing how dirty the French Broad was and how much trash was washed up on the shores.  But instead of just remarking on how dirty it was, we decided to start making things better.

So we split up into groups: one group went down the riverbanks collecting trash, while the other group stayed at the campsite. You see, our campsite was at the top of an 8-foot bank which was dangerously slippery from rain. We had to walk up and down this bank to get to and from our campsite, and because a lot of other outdoor programs use this site as well, we decided to help manage the risk to our own group and future visitors by building a few stairs. Not only would stairs decrease the risk of slipping, but it could potentially help prevent erosion to the environment by establishing a dedicated access point for the campground.

So the builders used Jack’s pinkit (a kit of tools like saws, carabineers, prusiks, and webbing which is used to help boats clear the river of obstacles) to form stairs of 3-foot-long pieces of driftwood, using river rocks to drive smaller limbs into the ground like pegs and packing dirt all around. Meanwhile, the collectors gathered a 3-foot-by-4-foot pile of trash that consisted of everything from 5 gallon buckets, milk jugs, plastic bottles, and old toys.  In fact, we’d collected so much trash it wouldn’t even fit it into all of our spare 55-gallon trash bags; we had to return with our gear bins and drag it back to the van.

As we were all reminded this weekend, we can’t control what happens, but we can control how we respond to those things. Indeed, this is what The Outdoor Academy is all about.  Each and every one of the students rose to the challenge—not one complained about picking up trash, and everyone was excited to help make this environment better. So let’s all strive to manage our attitudes in adversity; let’s all strive to make our environment, our communities, and our Academy a better place.

Derek Jacobs
Resident Wilderness Educator