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AUG. 1, 2018

The Outdoor Academy: Grit Before Grit Was Cool

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Part I

At about 3am on day four of Semester 46’s five-day Student-led Trek, I woke to rain pattering against my tarp.  The weather had been pleasant so far, but there were ample signs that a change was coming: wispy cirrus clouds, stiffening breezes, a halo circling the waxing moon. Half asleep and half to herself, my co-instructor, McNeill, made it official: “here it comes.”  In a few hours we’d be negotiating a cold, wet, and windy, day on the trail.  But for now I was toasty warm in my bag under my fluttering tarp.  I rolled over, delighted with the prospect of another four hours of sleep.

The leaders of the day, Racheal and Uma, woke us at 7am.  We enjoyed a hot breakfast and broke camp under a heavy drizzle rather than the torrents I had expected.  When the skies finally delivered the anticipated downpour perhaps a quarter mile into our hike, we felt grateful for the morning’s reprieve.  No backpacker prefers cold rain to warm sun, but the mood was positive.  Our bellies were full and we knew the hike ahead would be relatively easy: only six miles, all downhill.

We made great time.  By 11am we were within a half-mile of our planned campsite.  Our tarps would soon be up and, if we chose to, we could wait out the weather in warm, dry sleeping bags.

About 300 meters to the northeast of our campsite our trail crossed Grassy Cove Prong, a gentle stream that drains Ivester Gap into the East Fork of the Pigeon River. Typically a hiker can rock-hop across Grassy Cove and keep her boots dry.  Today, however, there were no exposed rocks to hop; they were submerged under several feet of unusually swift water.  Swollen by the rain, Grassy Cove Prong had gone from the “bunny slope” I have easily crossed dozens of times to a “black diamond” that demanded our respect. 

With the rain and wind gathering strength, we started working the problem.  McNeill and I found a route through chilly, waste-deep water that seemed manageable if we ran a hand line to reduce the risk of a swift-water “swim”.  As we considered other risk-mitigating strategies, McNeill prudently suggested that I jog down the trail to scout the Pigeon, which we would have to cross the next day. 

I returned in twenty minutes with a scouting: “Nope.”   Our campsite was flooded and the East Fork of the Pigeon River was raging.    

An instructor’s role on a student-led trek is to step in only when safety is a concern.  Now that McNeill and I had stepped in to declare that “plan A” was unsafe, we once again stepped back; it was up to the students to devise “plan B.”

Uma and Racheal huddled over the map, gathered input from their teammates, made their decision, and advised McNeill and me of their plan to retrace the route we had just completed.  Instead of the six-mile, downhill day we had anticipated, it would be a 12-mile day, and the next six miles would include a 2000-foot climb. 

It was hard news to deliver, but everyone (including the instructor team) agreed it was the right call.  In preparation for the challenge ahead, the team lunched on peanut butter and jelly wraps and then passed around a bag of Gummy Bears, a treat they had reserved for that moment when it was either richly deserved or desperately needed.  Both conditions seemed to apply.    

The hike back up to Ivester Gap and then out to Sam Knob, our revised campsite, was as tough as we expected, but our trek group was tougher.  Occasional tears of frustration gave way to peels of self-deprecating laughter, gallows humor in the face of torrential rain, 30-knot gusts, and temperatures in the mid 40s.  There was one moment during the early afternoon when the rain seemed to ease up a bit.  I had the temerity to wonder out loud if the worst of it had passed.  On cue, the skies reopened, delivering sheets of rain and inspiring ironic laughter.   Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Part II

Our children are reminded every day that they are fragile and weak.  Twenty-four hour news cycles contain an inherent “if it bleeds it leads” bias.  Schools routinely pronounce that safety is their top priority (prompting the question: how far down the priority list do teaching and learning fall?).  At home, well-intended parents are perpetually alerted to new dangers and warned that they must shield their children from the mayhem that lurks beyond their protective arms.    

There are two things that should concern us about this seemingly ubiquitous narrative of fragility and weakness: 1) it’s dangerous, and 2) it’s wrong. 

It’s dangerous because if our children believe that they are fragile and weak, then they are.  Worse, they become vulnerable to the first strongman who can convince them that he, and he alone, can keep them safe.  Fear is a despot’s greatest ally.    What freedoms will we surrender in exchange for our safety?  For our children’s safety?   

The fragility and weakness narrative is wrong because, time and again, OA students prove it wrong.  Our soggy, shivering trek group, huddled on the wrong side of Grassy Cove Prong may have been miserable, but fragile?  No way.  We were invincible.  We laughed at our situation, passed the Gummy Bears, and leaned into the wind and the rain. We arrived at our destination cold, wet, and exhausted, but with energy and determination to spare, bursting with pride in our accomplishment. 

Every OA graduate since 1995 can tell a similar story. 

Outdoor Academy students learn so much about the world and themselves during their OA semester that it would be difficult to declare any one thing as the most important learning outcome.  I would, however, like to suggest a contender: Every OA student learns to tune out the narrative of fragility and weakness.  They learn to manage risk, not run away from it.  They discover deep resources of strength and resilience that they always possessed but had rarely exercised before coming to Pisgah Forest.  It’s a lesson that will carry them through driving rainstorms—literal and metaphoric—for the rest of their lives. 

Roger Herbert

The Outdoor Academy Director (Fall 2015-Spring 2018)