Its 6 AM and my little watch alarm is emitting its meager beep, strong enough to wake me while faint enough to not disturb the other four people sleeping near me. I stumble down to the waiting truck and make myself comfortable for the two hour drive from Key Largo to a boat ramp 40 miles inside Everglades National Park.
Course 196 has been in The Glades for about a week now and there has been no more than hour long breaks in the constant, heavy rain. They are wet, rashed, and fighting. The kids that we serve in Outward Bound Southeast range in age from 13-17, but all are classified as ‘at-risk.’ That is to say, they come as a combination of pot heads, school-skippers, rule breakers, parent disrespecting, grade failing youngsters and have been referred to us to teach them a bit of responsibility and hopefully some coping skills while they are at it. Our strategy? Twenty day flat water canoe trips, 48 hours of supervised solo on day 11, and community service to wrap it all up. Basically, we are taking what has become the average adolescent and guiding them through what could be the greatest and most challenging adventure of their lives.
At the boat ramp, we load our canoe and all the resupplies into the speed boat and head out, twisting and turning through ‘islands’ of trees but no dirt. Mangrove ‘islands’ are basically deep rooted trees that grow out of the mucky floor of tropical, slow moving rivers like the Glades. After about an hour we arrive at our drop off spot. We tie down the 13 replacement dry sleeping bags, dry clothes, food, and a dozen other weighty and sizable needs into the center of our canoe and start off towards where the team said they would be. It is 11:30 AM.
At 12:30, we arrive at Coot’s Bay, the intended meeting place. We wait there for an hour and a half as they assume they are lost about but are in fact right around the corner, so to speak. Navigation in the Glades is more of an art than a science. While there are charts (not maps, mind you) the only real reference is previous experience. Often you can get by with, “Okay, I recognize this so I’m pretty sure we are at The Witch,” and othertimes that just gets you more lost. When all 7 of the canoes are lashed up (tied together) it is 2 PM and the team is famished. They are thankful for the fresh veggies we have brought and we dine happily on subs.
We unlash our boats and begin the convoy towards the board up site. Because there is no viable land in 95% of the Everglades, we create a kind of raft to live and sleep on each night. These are made by lashing the boats together and covering them in a network of 2’X8’ boards that we carry in the bottom of each canoe. It doesn’t create a whole lot of living space, but it is enough for kitchen/Food Circle and to lay out our individual, enclosed bug nets each night, albeit shoulder to shoulder. Very intimate quarters no matter how you slice it. Upon arriving at the site, we have to wait two hours in lightening drill, waiting for the storm to pass so the group could safely move around without the threat of electrocution. It takes another 2 hours to complete the long and and still relatively new process of ‘board up’ for the students. There is a lot of shuffling of stuff from one canoe to another to another to get out the boards and then organize everything for easy finding through out the evening and in the morning. In fact, this process has been known to take up to 6 hours depending on the behavior of the students. By 8 PM, the boards are placed, the tarps are up and the ‘kitchen’ is firing on all cylinders. It comes as almost no surprise, however, that shit begins to hit the fan at this point.
“Naw, man, tell him he needs to shut his mouth. I ain’t trying to hear that.”
“Whatever, bitch be crazy. I didn’t say nothin. Tell her sit back down.” Nia raise herself and throws her shoulders towards Tony in the most common intimidation move south of Canada. “Man, I wish I was a pimp so I could slap a bitch.” Right as the word ‘slap’ comes from Tony’ mouth, Nia lunges forward right into the lead instructor, Liz.
“Nia, sit down.” Liz has brough out her firm voice and it works well. “Tony, go sit over there with Eric.” At this point, Tony is usherd out of the scene by Eric, an assist on the course, all the while cussing over his shoulder knowing he is safe from what was impending doom.
“Okay, Nia, I need you to step back and collect yourself before you make a poor decision.”
“Naw, Miss Liz, its easy, just let me stick him. That will solve everything, it will all be over.” She pauses, looks Liz square in the face, “I just can’t let him talk to me like that.”
These sorts of altercations, while not common, are neither rare. We are bringing together kids from different backgrounds and putting them in stressful situations with no break. Kids pick fights in math class just like kids are going to pick the same sort of fights on the river. On the river, however, there is a way of dealing with it that does not include the principle’s office. After Nia and Tony have cooled down, they are brought back into the group and asked to explain themselves, take ownership for their actions, empathize for the other person and finally make a plan to keep themselves from repeating the same behavior. By this point in the course, the students are not new to this technique and come back ready to simply stay out of eachother’s way. Sometimes, however, it is not so easy and students have to remain separate for the group overnight until they can come back and communicate respectfully with a mind for reconciliation. Whether you are in an office or the Glades, communication like this is as simple as it is incrediblly difficult but at least these kids are getting a taste of it earlier than later.
As the meal of some weird pasta concoction is being served to the students, there is suddenly two kids puking off the side of the raft. One young girl, Aleni, has just started her period and hasn’t eaten today. I plant myself, crosslegged, next to her as she heaves into the brown water. Feeling like distraction is the best medicine for her nausea, I try to calm her down and we start talking about how annoying periods are and how aweful it was to use a tampon for the first time today. She laughs, “Yeah, my mom will be surprised,” her voice cracks slightly, “When I’m sick I miss my mom.” We talk about taking things for granted and what it means to truly appreciate. When I ask what she has learned so far, she tells me about knots and paddle strokes and community. “I have never seen people your age, wait how old are you, anyway? Nevermind, you guys probably can’t tell us. Anyway, you guys all talk to eachother and us like, I don’t know, like you are friends and parents at the same time. It’s hard to explain. But yeah, I couldn’t get through this without you guys and the other students.” She giggles, looking out at the black night around us, “We are such a weird family.”
When we are finally able to get the students into their nets, it is past midnight and the team stays up until 4 AM talking about the previous 5 days of behaviors, insane weather, and wet everything. We have brought the gift of refined sugar in its many forms and during the next 4 hours of laughing, venting, problem solving, we all binge like the emotional eaters we have become. When we finally are settling for sleep, it is 4:30 AM.
I ready my space, laying out my sleeping bag and placing my headlamp in easy reach. It is at this point I make a decision that even at the time, I guessed would come back to hurt me. I decide that I will remove me damp, smelly clothes and instead sleep in my sports bra and undies. At the time, the risk is equal to the discomfort so, placing my clothes at the foot of my hammock, I accept the possible consequences and there’s no turning back. Through the night, there is a drip on my face and the constant threat of waking Liz or Eric crammed in next to me with the slightest wiggle. Needless to say, I was not asleep at 6:30 when the wind picked up from 20 MPH to about 40 and lightening crashed deafeningly close.
“Okay guys, let’s get the kids up.” Liz bolts upright next to me and I am awake and scared. I start to unzip my net and look down remembering my untimely decision. Shit, I knew this would happen. I scamble around in sleeping bag and netting looking for my shorts and t-shirt; evaporated. More frantically, I search, “They are bright fucking red shorts, how can I not find them?!,” I scream at myself. I look around as Eric and Phil are pulling the raft in closer to the mangrove, allowing it to protect us from the incredible winds. Liz has moved towards the kids, trying to rouse them from their slumber.
“I need someone to help me get this tarp off the kids.” No one moves towards her, I continue looking for what should have remained on my body in the first place. In a more frantic voice, Liz calls out again, “The tarp is full of water and has fallen on the kids, I need someone to help me lift it. Now!” It was the change in her voice that pulled me, almost without thought, from my net. As I am stepping over and around the sleeping kids, I keep repeating one manta: underware is just like a bathing suit, underware is just like a bathing suit. Its fine, just help the kids, they probably aren’t even awake right now, anyway. Later, Eric would admit that the sight of me running around in my (luckily very conservative) undies gave him a good laugh in the middle of all the tension. You’re welcome, Eric.
Upon completing Operation Undies, I scurry back to my hammock and remember my stinky, yellow rubber rain gear is under my sleeping mat and I pull it on quickly. Once on, I walk to the edge of the raft and look out into the dark morning. It is 7 AM and as dark as midnight, save for the blasts of lightening striking no more than 100 meters away. At this moment, I am the most scared I have ever been in my entire life. We are unreachable by our own base and it is unlikely the park staff will come for us either. I push this thought down as soon as it rises to the surface. I am focused on my part in the machine working to keep everyone safe and as I turn back to the tumult of the raft and start shaking kids awake, I know they will be more terrified than I am.
“Brandon, hunny, you have to wake up. We have to get into lightening drill. Kyle, can you wake up Matt for me?” Brandon is rolling over and begining to wake up, and I raise my voice to explain to whoever can hear, “There is a bit of a storm outside, so we have to all get up and get our rain gear on and take down your nets.” Next to me, Stephanie is trying to wake up Nia, who is refusing all encouragement in that direction. I can’t say I blame them, really. This is their first night in days with adequate tarps and dry sleeping bags. Besides, who wants to wake up and deal with pandemonium? Not I, says the 13 year old inside us all.
Once all the students are gathered, with the wind still whipping at 40 MPH, thunder and lightening crashing, and rain dumping, Liz takes change of the moment. “Do you guys know how Outward Bound was started?” They are all sitting on the boards looking up at her as she sits on a bucket, leaning forward expectantly. Their eyes are riveted to her; the calm center of their universe, the closest thing to a mother they can ask for right now. “The owner of a shipping company approached Kurt Hahn, you know the founder, and said that all the of new sailors were dropping like flies out there in the harsh conditions of sea while the old guys were trying to save their tails and still take care of business. So, Kurt Hahn went out with them and saw that these young guys didn’t have the experience and strength of character that these old guys had and they were dying based on their arrogance and poor decisions. Basically, they were soft and their environments and lifestyles had kept them that way.” Liz took a dramatic pause, all eyes still on her as the world rained down outside of our safe haven. “Kurt Hahn decided to start a school to teach these young men about responsibility, tenacity and fortitude that would prepare them for sea, carrying them safely through the rigors of war and shipwreck and all of life’s storms. And here we sit in the middle of one such storm, having worked together, communicated, stepped up and survived. Feel proud for being here, feel proud for being a part of the Outward Bound family.” All around eyes lowered, some bobbed their heads in agreement, others just clutched their knees in front of them.
After a few minutes, there was business that still needed handled. Snacks were given, space was more effectively cleared and everyone settled to wait it out. After a moment of silence, Matt turns to me, “Yo, Miss Blake, what time did that storm start?”
“Um, about 6:30.”
Matt sucks in his cheeks, showing disapproval, “Man, storms need a snooooze button.”
And we’re back on track.