Remember how every day we thought we were going to die back in camp? And we didn't? It got better?" Polly Hill would say when the going was especially rough on the long trip the Outward Bound girls were taking in the Quetico-Superior wilderness. She always spoke with a gentle, unconvinced optimism—as if she didn't believe it herself but knew that it was only mannerly to try to be cheerful. This was good of Polly: she was looking forward perhaps as little as any of us there to the approaching three days of solitary survival in these woods without food, tent, sleeping bag or toothbrush.
Polly was a comfort during the long afternoons when, for hours, the principal excitement was paddling on the other side of the canoe. She would talk to us about Venice and school in Belgium and Chenonceaux in France; she mused aloud, but essentially to herself, in a sweet, high child's voice. "Isn't it funny," she would say, "how old everybody's getting! [Pause.] You wonder what your last name is going to be. [Pause.] You might be going to get married to a cripple or something, or someone who was dying. I don't think I will, though. [Pause.] Are you happy? I haven't been happy since I've been here, except once I was, after the competition, when we were all drinking cocoa. Of course, I know we aren't supposed to be happy. [Pause.] My feet are all shrinking."
My feet were all shrinking, too. It had been raining again and, besides, we had all got the idea by now that there was no keeping dry, and we slopped briskly into the water at all the portages. The flower of American girlhood, brought up on, "Get out of those wet clothes!" had learned a marvelous new truth on this trip. When soaked to the skin, keep all that wet stuff on, and with body heat, a fire and any luck at all you may be dry by the time you have to try to sleep on the ground. As Lynn Cox pointed out, if you rush to change into what dry things you have, the rain may begin again and everything you have will be wet—and half of it will have to be packed that way.
Still, what with wading at the portages, getting out to travel the canoes over beaver dams—and the rain—I had been damp from the knees down for so long that I had a sort of diaper rash, or jungle rot, or perhaps mildew, all over my knees and calves. It was a comfort when the sun came out and we could air our sleeping bags and ourselves and wash our clothes on a rock with some hope that, spread on the canoes in the sun, they might dry.
July 17, 1966
We traveled half a day to Lake Robinson and stopped early to dry out. For the first time we finished supper before sunset and were not scrubbing pots in the dark with flashlights held in our teeth—a position in which one is singularly defenseless against mosquitoes. But it only meant that before bed everybody was hungry again.
"I'm not just munchy, I'm hungry," somebody said, and the girls dug out the reflecting oven and made a cake and sat around the fire poking it to see if it was done. Conversation was desultory and not very woodsy.
"I don't really miss anybody, but I do miss my dog," Betty said.
Polly asked, of nobody in particular, "Don't you just love birthday cake? It always tastes so good, even if it's just regular cake—you pull the candles out and lick the icing off—"
Genie Mitchell appeared out of the darkness. "You guys, somebody has got to have those socks. Somebody is holding out."
The moon rose, and one canoe, in the silver track, suddenly gleamed out on the dark water. Betty was enchanted. "Oh, look how pretty—how pretty it looks out there!"
"Just think," Maxine said. "You could take your honeymoon on the moon."
"Oh, ishy," Polly said.
"I swear I'm never going to the moon," Sandy agreed.
Polly said, "I hate the moon."
"What do you mean, 'I hate the moon'?" Max was indignant.
"The moon is for looking at. It isn't for going to."
"I want to go," Max said stubbornly. "Just like my father took the first flight from Minneapolis to Chicago."
They sat in front of the fire. Sandy rested her head on her arms, her arms on her knees, and began singing softly and very privately to her stomach. Polly had to bend so close to the fire that her bright hair fell over her notebook; she was writing down all the boys' names she could think of that she liked at all—we had all offered every distinguished-sounding name that we could remember or invent.
"How does the cake feel?"
The cake never got done. The girls ate it wet.
We spent one night on Wicksteed, a desolate, eerie lake where the trees were dead of what looked like a blight, and "Wicksteed" began to ring in our ears like "Manderley." We had divided up. The girls camped in separate groups of five, and Instructors Lynn and Gini and I were together. We all found everything easier in small groups, and relations with the wilderness were more cordial—13 is an invading army.
We were on a tiny island about half the size of a football field and, while it had some trees and undergrowth, the whole island was one solid rock. Lynn and Gini paddled off at twilight to take the first-aid kit to the girls and left me to cook supper. I set the beans to boil and put on water for coffee in our blackened tin can and sat in the dusk listening to the loons. The edges of the island gleamed with mica; I pried off great soft chunks with my knife and amused myself by flaking it into innumerable sheets. Camping on that knobby rock was like being tiny and living on a specimen in the American Museum of Natural History.
Later on we were to night-paddle Brent Lake, so we spent the afternoon beforehand sleeping in the sun. We had a large, peculiar lunch, culminating in a thing called the "MOBS can" (MOBS for Minnesota Outward Bound School), which proved to hold a mixture of Wheat Chex, chocolate M&M's, raisins and peanuts. As somebody said, it looked like what's left in the bottom of the bag at Halloween. There was much complex barter, everyone picking out the peanuts or the raisins or the chocolate to trade for the chocolate or the raisins or the peanuts. Half asleep, I heard one of the girls inquire, "Does anybody want the inside of a fig bar?" I wondered what she got for it, but I had just swum back from basking on a rock out in the lake, and I fell asleep before I could find out.
After supper we waited for the moon to rise, and I sat on one of the packs and recorded some more of our Thoreaulike conversation.
Sandy: My kidneys are about shot.
Genie: I have pretty good ones. I've noticed that about me.
Sandy: I wish I had high cheekbones.
Betty: What's so low about your cheekbones?
Genie: Oh, she's got saggy cheekbones.
Pat: My mother has neat cheekbones.
Genie: So does my mother. If I'm remembering the right woman, she has neat cheekbones. Darcy (casually, to Darcy, who was doing sit-ups), you're going to throw up.
The moon rose, and so did the wind. The girls were sitting around the fire, singing—not the rock 'n' roll they had tried on the shakedown cruise during the early days of training. Rock 'n' roll, quavered in thin, doubtful voices without accompaniment, echo chambers or the rock 'n' roll singers' peculiar competence, sounds pathetic and queer, and rather unpleasant in the woods. The old rounds and some plain and pretty songs rose sweet and more appropriate in the wilderness.
When it seemed to be late enough we put in the canoes and left. The wind was driving clouds across the face of the moon, which would disappear entirely only to reappear in a caldron of cloud that, moonlit, made one think solemnly of the darkness upon the face of the earth and the first primeval light. However, by the time Brent Lake opened before us into a wide, moonlit plain, the girls had stopped their quiet singing, had stopped feeling awestruck and, in fact, had to be told to stop making duck noises and moose calls. We rafted up in the middle of the lake in the moonlight and ate raisins, and then made camp in the dark at the other end of Brent.
We had one more bad storm. Darcy woke the girls in her tent and told them to put on their tennis shoes, and Polly in another tent wept in her sleep at the thunder. By now everybody's nerves were tightening at the thought of three days of (hopefully) survival alone in the woods. We were to go off the next day, with our four matches, some fishhooks and line, a tin can and some Band-aids and antiseptic cream. No tents, sleeping bags, mosquito repellent, flashlights, soap, toothbrushes. No food. Lynn told us patiently that bears were not going to care about us, since we would have no food but, of course, that didn't help anyone who was afraid of being hungry.
"Actually," somebody said, "you can't die in three days."
"Is that a fact?"
"I'm not scared of being hungry," Darcy said. "I'm scared of being scared."
Two of the girls had a squabble over the ax; Sandy commented mildly, "Splash, splash, splash!" and Polly said pacifically, "Just think, after three days everybody will be so happy to see everybody else again." Genie said that she doubted it.
A little later on two Outward Bound boys came by, bringing us supplies, and Polly asked them hesitantly, "Did the boys get through their solo all right? I mean, did any of them get awfully lonesome or anything?"
The boys reassured her.
"Did they—did they—I mean, did they find themselves? I mean, I was just wondering if it really did any good." After they left, she said, uncomforted, "Oh, the boys. They always sweat over something, and then they say how easy it is."
And that's how we were feeling about the solo.
Three days entirely alone in the woods is an unfamiliar business for the average American. Without even a blanket it promises to be at best uncomfortable, and for children whose sleeping-out experience may consist of half a night in the backyard, equipped with a friend and within comfortable view of the house, it is frequently frightening. Some of the Outward Bound boys, unable to take the night and the solitude, have had to be brought in, and perfectly stalwart young men have found themselves spending a whole night clinging, in tears, to a tree. Solitude in our society is hard to come by if you want it and an extreme punishment if you don't, with the result that we are not very good at it.
I was not, like Darcy, scared of being scared, but being an urban nut, who wouldn't get on the crosstown bus without something to read, I was certainly scared of boring myself to death. And with reason. Lynn deposited us on our respective bits of wilderness the next day and left us, towing our canoes behind her. My notes begin:
"This time I have been efficient. I have made a bed and a shelter, set out my fishline, made a fireplace, collected wood and hunted for berries. Thus I have nothing to do for two and a half days. I am sitting on the ground, reduced to my own intellectual resources, and it is just as I have always suspected, there hardly are any. I shall have to tame an ant, or whittle."
As that day wore on, I found myself in a frenzy of boredom. I took a walk, but it shortly seemed to be a pointless struggle with the underbrush. I checked my fishline every three minutes. I did try to whittle. By the time I got around to cutting both my thumbs—one of them rather badly—while trying to pry the eyes out of my sneaker to weight my fishline, it was almost worth it to have the briefly absorbing task of stanching the blood. As soon as it turned somewhat dark, I settled down and tried to sleep but, of course, all the usual anti-sleep factors were operative—the cold and the lumps and the bugs—and the night lasted and turned into a sort of hallucinatory peregrination around the forest floor, on all fours, in search of any hospitable nook. I slept only after the morning sun had begun to break that deadly cold.
I wasn't hungry. In camp and on the trail I had been automatically ravenous an hour before mealtime, but with no meal in view my stomach left me alone. I was very perceptibly weaker late on the second day, though, and conscious of it because of a habit that seems to develop in the wilderness of gauging one's own strength objectively, as if it were gasoline in a tank; still, I did not feel hungry.
I gave up hope for the fishline. There were frogs, but in the essentially artificial circumstances I couldn't kill them. If I had actually faced starvation perhaps I would have pounced and chewed them up raw, but as it was I knew almost to the minute when I would be picked up and taken back to the peanut-butter supply. A couple of pairs of frogs' legs were not going to make the difference to me that they would make to the frogs and, besides, starving mentally as I was, I needed the frogs more for amusement. So I watched them and a beaver that came by in the evenings. He swam back and forth, coming closer and closer, peering at me over wet whiskers—perhaps he didn't have any intellectual resources either and needed to be amused—until something would frighten him. Then he would slap the water with his tail and vanish. The sound was precisely that of a large rock dropped into the lake.
The second night was no better than the first, except that I was resigned to not sleeping and kept the fire going and so at least was warmer. On the third day I felt really unpleasantly weak. Exploring in a new direction I did find some blueberries, withered and dry, and I sat down and ate them on the spot. I thought of a bowl of blueberries, with sugar and cream, that I had once had at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston, and of all that was implied by the addition of the bowl and the cream and the sugar and a spoon—of all that had to be learned before men could put this fruit into a bowl and eat it with a spoon. I was sitting, unequipped, in the woods, and I could wrest nothing from them, but man had begun unequipped in the woods and progressed to silver spoons.
On the morning of the day Lynn was to come back and collect us, I was watching at dawn for her canoe. Having been up all night again, I could have watched for anything at dawn with considerable interest but, eager and lonely, I wanted to see Lynn and the girls. When she arrived I nearly swamped the canoe clambering into it in an awkward state of combined weakness and enthusiasm, but then I found that, lonely as I had been for three days, I had apparently forgotten how to talk. Paddling back to our campsite, and for some hours afterward, I felt like a hermit at a cocktail party.
All of the girls had stuck it out, most of them without eating, though Joan Thames had had two pairs of frogs' legs, some berries "and the inside of a tree," and Cathi Crowson had eaten 12 ants, in groups of four.
Genie had constructed an obstacle course and spent her days running it and had memorized the label on her survival can and the whole of her last letter from Bill (which, strictly speaking, I don't think she was supposed to have had with her at all). Max said she had sat and sung to herself every song she knew. Sandy had built what sounded like quite an exquisite ant trap, with a lid. She lured ants into it and squirted them with antiseptic cream. We were all of us somewhat enfeebled, and the girls looked more wan and spiritual than they will probably look again for 30 years.
Survival over, we settled easily into the last days of the trip. Fed again, we were stronger, and rather competent. Darcy took to carrying two packs, one back, one front, now that the food packs were lighter. On long portages Sandy's interest was in carrying the canoe the whole way without a rest, not just in whether she was going to live or die. One day several of the girls double-portaged a mile-and-a-half trail, thus making the trip with packs three times, and then walked it a fourth and fifth time, in the rain, to help a vacationing couple they had met. I myself had shaped up and could swim more than a mile and not feel winded.
Bob Pieh, the head of Minnesota Outward Bound, had told us when we left camp that there was a rhythm to the wilderness that would catch us up, and it was true. We had no watches, and we just went along, getting up after the sun rose, going to sleep after it set. When we were thirsty we dipped a cup over the side of the canoe and drank, or we drank from our paddles. When we were hot we took off our clothes. When we wanted to bathe we jumped into the lake. I brushed my teeth in pools with minnows gathered to nibble at the cloud of toothpaste, and I hung my clothes on a tree. Life was very simple. We got tired, but that is a simple matter, too, and most of us became very tranquil—even those of us who were most miserable were tranquilly miserable.
I came out of the wilderness on the 16th day. The girls were being held back an extra day upriver because of confusion in the schedule, but I came back on time to the homeplace, and it seemed very queer. "Civilization" is a term infrequently applied to the MOBS home-place there in the woods outside of Ely, but it had become civilization to me. I had missed it and expected to feel only relief to be back. I found instead that I was not quite at ease. There seemed to be so many objects.
I went immediately, of course, to the kitchen, to beg a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll, and I stood there, feeling awkward, conscious of all those objects, seeing them out of the corner of my eye—the stove, the sinks, tin cans, boxes, table, chairs.
A professional guide, John Stedman, was there, drinking coffee. He regarded me for a minute and then observed that I looked pretty rough, and it occurred to me that for 16 days I had not seen my own face. Fascinated, I went upstairs and looked into a mirror. I did look pretty rough. My pants and blue denim shirt, both of them hacked short with a hunting knife, were raveled at the raw edges and haphazardly worn from scrubbings on rock and drying in the sun. The denim shirt revealed at the throat a provocative glimpse of my husband's very old black sweat shirt. My knee socks were raveling and drooping over the tops of my high-cut basketball shoes. The shoes were worn through after only 16 days. They were filthy with mud and blood which constant wear in the lakes of Canada had not soaked out, and were missing the several eyes I had cut out to use for fishline weights during survival. As for my face, that was somewhat improved, I thought, thinner and browner, but the state of my hair was unfortunate. After a week in the wilderness there had been 11 teeth left in my comb; for the last few days, only four.
Thoughtfully I peeled off my raveled, faded, stained woods clothes and retired to the shower, where I made serious inroads on the MOBS hot water supply, and then I went to dinner, where, to my surprise, I was unable to overeat to the extent I had planned for more than two weeks. After dinner, to my greater surprise, I felt compelled to go out and walk for two miles because I had too much energy to sit still. Finally, I could not sleep in a bed. I had slept for 16 nights on the ground, and I felt stifled and unsupported in this contrivance, with its thin legs and a mattress hanging in springs—it was as difficult to rest in as I have always imagined a hammock must be if you are seriously trying to sleep.
"The girls came out the next day. I don't think that Lynn Cox ever did believe that any of them had been really unhappy—that anyone could be unhappy in the woods—but several of them had been. They were sick of the wilderness, and they wanted to go home. In spite of this, their manners and their tempers had done nothing but improve.
If they looked a little gritty when they finally emerged, they were more thoughtful, more gentle and more ladylike by far than they had been when they went in (something the so-called "best" girls' schools in this country might ponder—that the Canadian woods succeed where they too obviously fail). The girls had gone into the wilderness teenagers and had come out human beings—no small transformation.
It had happened, and I had failed to see it develop. Having made a point of going all the way to watch for it, I had even missed the moment when it began. However, I am sure that the cause was partly pride. The girls had done a good job; they were properly proud of themselves, and the dignity of their pride did for them just what Kurt Hahn used to explain that it would do. Beyond that, I think it was example. Gini Balmain says that finally the wilderness will strip you down to what you are, and so it does. And when the time comes, good temper, good sense and a bit of fortitude shine like the pure gold that they have always been. Mannerisms and pretentiousness and what may have been In at the country club can be a serious drag in the woods after about six days. You find yourself trying to get rid of it all and rooting around in your soul to find and dust off such virtue as you have.
None of us, I suspect, who was not an outdoorswoman before all this has become an outdoorswoman because of it, but that was never the point; in fact, whichever girl liked it the least has probably come off best, having learned more than any of us what she is capable of. And that is the point. We are better than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.