To kill frogs," Jerry Cox said, in an even, gentle voice, "you just sneak up on them with a stick and club them. Don't hit them too hard, or you'll squash them. All the moss up here is edible. Some of it you may want to boil once and pour the water off and boil it again—it's pretty acid. If you want to kill a turtle, hang it up by one leg. When it relaxes, cut the leg off and do the same with the other three."
Two dozen girls, most of them 16 years old, sat on damp rocks in the Minnesota woods and listened attentively.
"With snakes," Cox went on, "you cut off the head and skin them, but unless it is a good-sized snake it isn't really worth it."
"What if we catch a moose?" one of the girls asked frivolously and, less frivolously, "What about bears?"
July 10, 1966
"You can always gouge out a bear's eyes," another girl said confidently.
I sat on my rock, listening, trying to visualize myself doing those things to a turtle. I was not 16. I was 34 and squeamish, 34 and a little stiff in the joints from the project I was too far into now to get out of. These girls—and I—were preparing to plunge into the Quetico-Superior wilderness area north and south of the Canadian border for 16 days, paddling our own canoes, carrying our own packs and spending three of the 16 days alone, without food, tent, sleeping bag or company. The girls were embarked on the first girls' Outward Bound course in this hemisphere, and the idea was not to have fun in the woods but to test themselves in unfamiliar and demanding circumstances. By way of preparation they had spent five days rising at 6 to run, swim, climb vertical rock faces, maneuver on ropes 15 feet above the ground, negotiate obstacle courses, use axes and practice carrying canoes. They were, as they listened to Cox, cheerful bruised lumps.
Since it had seemed presumptuous of me to try to guess at the particular alchemy by which these activities and 16 days in the wilderness were to engender character and maturity in a group of teen-agers, I had committed myself to the whole undertaking, rock faces, rope course and all. including what would be, for some of us, the real test—the three days alone. I was not exactly savoring the challenge.
Cox's lecture came in the second half of a two-day shakedown cruise, 24 hours of which the girls would spend in pairs and I, an outsider, would spend alone. The day before we had paddled up the Kawishiwi River in the rain and spent the night in tents. This second night we were to spend without the tents, and virtually without food, unless we caught or found it. My squeamishness, I thought, clearly was going to be a liability.
Nevertheless, by the time the instructors had scattered us all around the lake, out of sight of one another, and left us, I was game. I looked around, eager to begin for myself all the woodsy business we had been practicing back at the Outward Bound camp.
It is fascinating—afterward—to look at your own behavior in such a solitary circumstance. Every move that you make is revealing, revealing you either as you have always known you were or not as you guessed you were at all. At my age, I suppose, there was not much hope of surprise; I behaved, I realized later, just as I should have expected, and I look back on the proceedings with the sort of regretful tolerance with which I remember my first date.
I did, sensibly, first hang my raincoat neatly on a tree and then line up my survival can (a No. 2½ tin can containing fishhooks, line, matches, salt and some rice) and my mosquito repellent and extra sweat shirt on a rock. And I did look around to see what might do for a shelter. I decided at once on two trees with forks facing each other at equal heights: I would lay a stick between them and lean sticks on the crossbar. It was the wrong decision, but at least so far I was proceeding tidily.
Then, true to form, I began doing everything at once. I dumped the contents of my survival can on the rock and, knife and can in hand, I plunged into the woods to search simultaneously for firewood, for shelter sticks, for berries and for dead birchbark, keeping my eyes open for anything unexpected that might be useful. Of course, I found firewood, shelter sticks, berries and dead birchbark, all at once, on every trip and, unable to pass up any of it, I tottered back and forth with burdens of perhaps six berries in the can, one straight stick, two chunks of firewood and some birchbark stuffed into my shirt. The can, I finally realized, was in the way, so I put that down, planning to carry any berries in my shirt pocket; but otherwise I fumbled around in the woods in this way for several hours. At the end of that time I did not have enough firewood, I did not have a shelter. I did not have enough birchbark to cover the shelter if I had had one and I had about 24 blueberries, all but three of them well past their prime.
The shelter I was evolving, I saw, was going to take about 13 years to complete, according to the plan I had chosen. The forks of the trees were so high off the ground and the leaning sticks so short that the thing was quite uselessly narrow and at the same time presented a huge area to be covered over. I had leaned sticks up and down and tied sticks across with reeds and had woven small branches into the frame and leaves and moss into the small branches. It was charming, with the late sun shining through it, but it looked like the work of a large and incompetent bowerbird, not of a rational human being engaged in surviving. I sat down and looked at the mess and tried to decide what had to be completed before it got dark.
The answer, of course, was everything, and the darkness which I had hardly considered was suddenly something to be appreciated for what it was—a time when there are things you cannot do. I realized that I should have set my fishline, so as to be catching fish all the time I was stumbling around in the woods, and I rushed to the rock where I had poured out the contents of my survival can. Fortunately I found the hooks and the line and the matches.
I looked around for bait and had decided that one of the blueberries was going to have to do when I saw, in a pool in the rock, an inch-long frog. I put down the hook and the line and crept up on it. About the 12th time I grabbed at him he failed to hop through my fingers, and I held him for a moment in my cupped hands before I acknowledged to myself that I had to let him go, that I couldn't thrust a hook through the loose skin of his back and set him out to struggle in the lake. I opened my hand. The perfect small frog sat there, his tiny belly a single nervous pulse. He would not jump. I pushed him with my finger back into his pool, where he crouched, unmoving. I went off to get a blueberry for my fishhook, tied the line to a log and threw out the hook (it is not easy to cast a blueberry) and looked into the pool on my way back to my shelter. The frog had not moved. I knelt down and tickled him. He trembled but did not stir. I took out my knife and held it by him in the water—he looked and hopped onto the blade. It made me feel very queer. My frog seemed to have turned suicidal, electing to become bait just about the time I had decided to let him go. I put him back in his pool where he stayed, I know, until dark.
In the early evening I gave up on my shelter and collected firewood. As the sun went down I built and lit a fire—with one match; the Outward Bound instructors do good work—and boiled a handful of rice in my survival can. The taste was tinny and unpleasant. I could not eat it and poured it into the Kawishiwi to feed the fish, which were obviously not coming to feed me, and went back to sit on a rock in the twilight. The twilight turned to dark while I sat there trying conscientiously to feel something important. After all, this endeavor was supposed to be, ultimately, an exercise of the spirit, and I did honestly happen to believe that city life was enervating, that one was cut off by rush and struggle from the sustaining natural world.
Now here I was, sitting alone by a fire, listening to the loons crying over the water, smack dab in the middle of the sustaining natural world. I watched the moon rise and tried to think a noble thought. Nothing. I have sat by lakes in the dark before and liked it, and I liked it now, but I did not feel a oneness with nature, or close to the beating heart of the wilderness, or anything, so finally I put out the fire and retired to my shelter.
My shelter turned out, in addition to everything else, to have been set up on rocks. I could only lay my head under my bower and stretch the rest of me straight outside, not that it made any difference. That bower was not going to provide either warmth or protection from rain.
When one is sleeping on the ground, the cold deepens as night wears on. I have felt it before, and always, as I have sunk toward at least a doze, the temperature has sunk as well and the advancing cold remained just enough ahead to keep me conscious and miserable. I lay there, hearing crackles in the underbrush, which were surely bears, and freezing, until it occurred to me to drag up the warm rocks from the dead fire and arrange them along each side of me. I hauled down the basketwork of my shelter and pulled it up like a blanket, stuck my notebook over a cold spot on my left thigh, put my legs into the arms of my sweat shirt and gave up. I slept peacefully for 40 minutes.
The next day the girls proved to have made out better than I had. Cathi Crowson and Devvie Booth greeted everybody with, "We had a moose. What did you have?" Joan Thames and Betty Kilanowski had had a snake. "We just hit it with a rock and cut off its head and ate it," Joan said, "and we put its insides in a jar we found. This isn't all there was inside," she added, holding up the jar, "it's just all we could squash in." Joan had slept so well that her snoring had kept Betty awake. Sandy Chenoweth and Darcy Brown had killed a frog in Sandy's hat. "First Darcy clubbed it," Sandy said, "but we opened the hat and there it was, looking at us, so I stabbed it to death with my knife. But I sat up all night by the fire, on a log with prickles on it," she concluded crossly.
Back in the Outward Bound homeplace, as it is called, the final days of training before the trip into Canada were different. Before the short excursion the school's program had seemed to be arbitrary, irksome or just gratuitously exhausting; now we had some sense of its being pertinent. And besides, we were getting stronger.
Even I, a creaky runner indeed, managed to cut minutes off my time on the obstacle course. Though I slipped from my rock face and swung in the ropes, scraping across a considerable stony arc, I scrambled back and made it to the top—a little bloody but successful and pleased with myself. On the rock-climbing trip we drank water full of bugs and halazone tablets and brushed aside fawn bones with scientific interest, or at least composure, while we waited our turns at the rock faces.
At this stage of our training, even if we were not looking forward to the long expedition with pleasure, it would have been a letdown never to test our peculiar new skills, and I found one day, when I fell 15 feet on the rope course, that my only concern was that the pain in my foot might mean I could not go on the long trip. Though I was just an overage observer, Outward Bound had got to me, too.
The Outward Bound schools, of which there are now 19 in the world, most of them for boys, may roughly be said to aim at strengthening the character by demanding a great deal of the body. As everyone knows, extraordinary circumstances, such as wars, elicit extraordinary performances from people who never guessed they were capable of them; William James even considered that humanity needed "a moral equivalent of war" to tap these ultimate resources. The father of the Outward Bound schools, Kurt Hahn, who was Prince Philip's headmaster at Gordonstoun School in Scotland, felt that one did not need to go so far as to develop an equivalent of war. He believed that young people would respond to challenge and that the ultimate motivation could lie in service—that man will perform beyond his supposed capacities, for example, to save a life.
In 1931 Hahn had already begun to deplore "spectatoritis"—the passive, nonparticipating tendencies in young people, which were resulting in a decline in youthful initiative. The first Outward Bound school, in Aberdovey, Scotland, was a sea school, devoted to sea training and rescue, and the first American school, in the Colorado Rockies, has had occasion to put the rough mountain training of its boys to use in rescue work. However, as the number of Outward Bound schools has increased it has become harder to find locations where there are opportunities for actual hazardous physical rescue, so most of the schools now subject their students to a demanding physical course that drags them beyond what they believe their physical limitations to be. It is amazing to find that you have run six miles when you had thought you couldn't walk two. And, as Kurt Hahn believes, amazement at one's own achievement does a great deal for the self-respect, and true self-respect does a great deal for the character. Hahn's principle inheres in all the programs of the Outward Bound schools.
Beyond the physical effort and self-discipline, Outward Bound is committed to the idea that young people need real adventure. British Historian George Trevelyan said in 1943 in a speech at the first school in Aberdovey, "Without the instinct of adventure in young men, any civilization, however enlightened, any State, however well-ordered, must wilt and wither."
It is a fact that in the course of honest adventuring accidents happen—sometimes serious ones—an agonizing fact which the wardens of Outward Bound schools must occasionally face. The most serious accident occurred in Australia in 1963, when five students and two instructors were lost in a lake storm. But because of potential danger Outward Bound schools emphasize the development of mature good sense. They equip their students with true sea, mountain and wilderness lore, rather than promoting a timidity that teaches a child nothing. While we were in Minnesota there was no more serious trouble than the case of one boy rushed in from an expedition with appendicitis and of another lost in the wilderness for three days when he bolted from what he took to be a bear (it should be noted that he managed very well while lost).
However, accidents are going to occur anywhere, and fatal accidents at Outward Bound schools vanish statistically when compared with teen-age automobile deaths. Young people are, by nature, extremists. They come equipped with a desire to push for the outer limits, which may be why, in a society that does not allow for this fact, children take to robbing their suburban neighbors, using dope or killing themselves and each other playing chicken. The parents of two boys who were lost at Aberdovey donated scholarships to the school in the boys' memory, an assurance that they believed in the aims of Outward Bound. Relatively few parents of boys killed on the turnpikes are buying cars so that needy youths can have the same opportunity.
It is the intention of the Outward Bound schools to have a group of students of thoroughly mixed backgrounds, but this first girls' program at Minnesota was rather weighted with well-to-do young things. During their first days there they were moving about en masse, talking loudly—only to each other and in tortured accents—about topics of such intrinsic interest as the contents of their fathers' liquor cabinets and how much things cost, of passing out at parties and the fun of wrecking motel rooms.
"You guys, she's going to have her debutante party at my aunt's and it's going to be formal and they're going to have it on the tennis court and everybody has to wear tennis shoes. Because it's on the tennis court."
"My father has a baby-blue tux coat."
"My dad has a Black Watch tuxedo."
One of the girls in the course, who had walked many miles to and from school, had helped support herself since she was 13 and now worked 12 hours a day for 50¢ an hour, mentioned that she planned to go to nursing school and wanted to study painting. "What are you going into? Do you know?" she asked one of the Young Things.
"Bumming," she was told.
Now all this, during my first week at Outward Bound, left me feeling pensive. It was bad enough that at my age, and a New Yorker to boot, I should be up and running on a dirt road at 6:30 in the morning and fooling around on ropes 15 feet off the ground. But hardships aside, I was beginning to wonder if I were up to spending a month, 16 days of it in the woods, with 16-year-old girls. You want to be another 16-year-old girl or a 17-year-old boy, or possibly Humbert Humbert, to put in all that time with 16-year-old girls. On the other hand, they could hardly want me around very much either, and it was their show. So I laced up my regulation high-top basketball shoes, the ones with the air holes along the sole, and prepared to do my best.
The evening before we left on the long expedition I spent reading a book on wilderness survival. I decided that I personally was going to survive on plantain. There were some interesting passages on cannibalism, but, except for the three survival days, I had perfect confidence that we would have, if nothing else, plenty of peanut butter. I went to sleep thinking how long it would be before I slept in a bed again.
We left from a canoe base just this side of the Canadian border, our canoes sitting suddenly low in the water, what with packs and tents and us, all hung about with compasses, cameras, flashlights, knives and waterproof maps. We were divided into two brigades, two instructors to a brigade, and we headed separately into Canada. My brigade, with instructors Lynn Cox and Australian Gini Balmain, did not see the other group until the end of the trip, but we did get occasional reports from two Outward Bound boys who followed at a distance, to transport our wounded, if necessary; they told us, for example, that they had had to take out a girl from the other brigade when she fell on a portage trail and broke some bones in her hand. Everybody on our team managed not to cut off a foot with an ax or contract diphtheria, and our "sweepers," as the boys were called, followed us just out of sight, perishing of boredom.
The first day was a misery. After only a few hours of steady paddling I began to think that I would not be able to keep it up. But, of course, there was no alternative to keeping it up, and mercifully I learned that one gets not just a second wind, but a third, a fourth, a fifth. By late in the afternoon we had fallen into a kind of rhythm of exhaustion and revival, but not simultaneous exhaustion and revival, with the curious result that the girls in one canoe would be sulking and fainting at the paddles, while the girls in another broke into sudden giddy song. Toward the end of the day it was exhaustion all the way, and by the time we paddled into a swamp to look along an unrevealing shoreline for the last portage trail, we couldn't believe what we were doing and were faintly mutinous.
We had all known that the point of the trip was to drive us, but after we had paddled and portaged 20-some miles to find ourselves sitting exhausted in a swamp it seemed mad, outrageous. We couldn't be expected to go any further.
The swampy cove was a mass of water lilies; I put my hand over the side and felt a leaf and found that it had a dreadful, insinuating sliminess about it. The lily stems twisted themselves around our paddles, and little pads disappeared, sucked down into the small whirlpools of our strokes, to reappear later in our wake.
I was watching a leech ooze, contracting and expanding, across a large lily pad when our instructors hailed us from the shore. They had crossed a considerable patch of swamp to get there, and it seemed we were to carry canoes, packs and paddles through swamp and high grass to get to where Lynn and Gini were, in order to carry all the stuff on into the woods for an unknown distance.
I think it was the disbelief that sustained us. Betty started off with a canoe, missed her footing and subsided, with loud cries, into the mud. Carrying pack, paddles and an armful of life preservers, I went in only up to my shins, but it seemed enough, and my temper was very bad. My character, I felt, was not developing; it was shrinking to the size of a pea, a small dry pea.
And it turned out to be a long portage, about a mile and a half of mud and treacherous footing. We didn't know how long it was—for all we knew, it was endless—and at one point I felt almost panicky with weakness. As Polly Hill was to say much later, "You just try to keep from screaming or crying or anything," and so you do—a matter of what the boys call "gutting it out." It turned out that there was an end to the trail, and all the first girls who got to it turned back for extra packs.
We made camp in Back Bay on the first night, and we were tired and clumsy. We did get the tents up and we did gather firewood and we did get water into the dehydrated food, but there was a dazed, random quality to the performance. The sun was setting and Lynn and Gini herded the girls into the water to bathe before full dark.
Later Gini said that in Australia it sometimes took four days to get the girls to swim nude on expedition, but on our first night everyone was far too hot, too sticky, too tired to waste any energy in shrinking at swimming naked. We stripped and splattered gratefully into Back Bay, clutching our soap. Girls have very little opportunity to swim without bathing suits. We liked it. Not only does it feel nicer not to have straps and the wet weight of a suit, but bathing naked off the shore of a lake implies such a marvelous momentary possession—no one else, presumably, is around, for as far as the eye can see. There is one thing about it, though, you want Ivory soap. I lost my soap the first night, and the lakes of the Quetico-Superior wilderness must be rich in toothbrushes.
After our swim we ate in the dark, moodily spitting out the mosquitoes in the soup, and groped through the black for our tents. Nature having made arrangements with Outward Bound to further develop our characters, a violent storm blew up, complete with thunder, lightning and a high wind. I was sleeping soundly (this time in a sleeping bag) on some rocks, pressed along the left side of the tent, when it began, and my body broke the seal. Damp, I crawled to the front and lay down along Lynn's and Gini's feet until, after about an hour, I put out a hand to find that I had been lying in 2½ inches of water. I got out of the sleeping bag and moved up and tried to sleep between Lynn and Gini, which is to say, straddling the tent pole with my head on another rock, watching the red tent turn a fragile pink as the lightning flamed outside and thinking about my shoes outside under a bush. It was a bad night. Gini would have called it "a good learning situation" if she hadn't been, thank God, asleep.
On the second day it rained heavily and steadily. We swam in the rain and dressed and stood around the fire watching it rain into our Grape-Nuts. There was nothing to do but ignore it, no point in thinking about being wet through. To be dressed and wet is more like being in a foreign element than swimming is.
Paddling out that day, I noticed that drops of rain were hitting the lake and floating, intact, just beneath the surface, looking up like fish eyes. Why, I don't know. That was almost all I got to notice on the first few days out. The going was hard for us. The packs we carried were too big. The weight was too much. The size was wrong, the balance terrible. The packs would not ride anywhere near our shoulders but pulled, dead weight, in the middle of our backs. One of them, which we called without affection The Monster, we figured to weigh over 100 pounds, and this is a great deal when you weigh 110 yourself.
The boys had commented on how the girls carried packs, going slowly, watching their footing; I think they didn't see that if we lost our footing, we were down and could not get up again. The mud, underbrush, hills, rocks and fallen trees made it difficult to keep our balance, and with The Monster I couldn't keep mine. The weight of it pulled me over and down almost with the lifting of one foot. I fell one day and had to crawl on my hands and knees to a tree and pull myself up, gasping. Everyone had gone ahead. Somebody would be back, but for the moment I was alone with some bugs in the dry underbrush in a hot sun, gasping for breath. I had seen Polly leaning against a rock, almost in tears—"This isn't even Outward Bound, this is just torture," she had said. At this moment I could only agree, and the three days of solitude in the wilderness—each of us alone with the bears—were still ahead of us.
Truly Outward Bound to the limits of their courage and endurance, the girls scatter into the forest to face alone the terrors of solitude, maybe bears—and a diet of ants.