Picture it: We’re backpacking in the desert in Texas, it’s hot, dry. I have my shade umbrella, making myself as small as possible hiding from the sun as we hike to an oasis. We are desperate for some relief from the heat but since we are a group of 10 we need about 60 feet to properly social distance. We’ll see what we find…
We finally get to the oasis and it’s a waterfall with a deep, clear pond. It’s surrounded by ferns, birds in the air, dragonflies buzzing near the surface of the water and it is just magical. Can we really find enough space for a circle that is 60 feet in circumference here? As it turns out, the wilderness provides again and here we are with the space we need.
And then we played a game. It was one that folks were using as a Zoom icebreaker for virtual programming so I was skeptical. We were in person, after all. And once again, my doubts rushed away as we began laughing and playing together.
And in that moment it was clear: our Covid practices are working, we can still have fun. We just hiked through an intense desert landscape and then reached this amazing place where we had a rejuvenating break before dinner. We built a community and sat in this incredible oasis. It was so good.
In April, just weeks before students were set to arrive in the High Sierra for the first overnight expeditions since early 2020, Elena Chin, Associate Program Director of Course Delivery at Outward Bound California (OBCA), found herself lying beneath the stars in one of the darkest night skies in the country on an Outward Bound course not as an instructor, but as a participant.
In what she described as “hiking with rad people,” Elena and nine other Outward Bound program leaders from all across the country visited the sacred lands of the Jumanos, Kónitsąąíí gokíyaa, Coahuiltecan, Mescalero Apache, and Chiso nations in Texas on a Staff-only expedition hosted by Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS). Each person brought with them a deep knowledge of outdoor leadership programs and a passion for safety, and together they created, tested and practiced a new way of delivering an Outward Bound course in the era of COVID-19.
“How are we going to cook dinner, have a chow circle and do those rituals that make Outward Bound so special?” Elena realized as she and her crew put into motion the safety practices they’d been planning for over a year, that she was still without a doubt on an Outward Bound course, just a little further apart physically. There was still the excitement, challenges, and connection that Elena was seeking, the magic of navigating the wilderness together as a crew.
Using the experience of staff members from VOBS who have been running overnight expeditions since the fall of 2020, the crew of staff was able to glean wisdom, successes and learnings from each other as they prepare for the arrival of staff and students this month. Nearly every course Outward Bound is offering this summer is fully booked so we know that students and their families are motivated and excited to get out from behind the screens and into the woods.
And staff are excited to get out there, too. For many staff, OBCA is their home. For a few months every summer, staff come together from around the country (and sometimes from around the world) to live and work at the Outward Bound High Sierra Base. The same thoughtfulness that is keeping our students safe in the field this summer is keeping our staff safe on base. After all, it is their dedication and passion for our students that allows OBCA to do what OBCA does best.
So with Elena equipped with practical and practiced knowledge, a professional safety and risk management support network and a few new friends, she and the Program Team in the High Sierra are welcoming staff and students for a summer filled with transformation, leadership and a few mountaintops.