An Outward Bound canoe adventure for women only

Canoes took five women and their Outward Bound guides on a 35-mile, five-day journey down the Delaware, starting in Milford, Pa., and ending at the Delaware Water Gap.
Canoes took five women and their Outward Bound guides on a 35-mile, five-day journey down the Delaware, starting in Milford, Pa., and ending at the Delaware Water Gap.
Posted: July 29, 2012

For my 50th birthday, I got a tick bite, a bee sting, a case of poison ivy, and four sleepless nights in below-freezing weather with five other middle-aged women — and I paid handsomely for it. It was a gift to myself: an invitation-only Outward Bound canoe trip.

Once an eager backpacker and a fire-starting, rope-tying Girl Scout, I had let my career as a Philadelphia environmental lawyer and years of domesticity with a family of less-outdoorsy types lead me to make do with occasional nights of camping within sight of our car and afternoon kayak trips in the Jersey Pine Barrens. (The last family overnight at a crowded state park, camping next to a pack of Coors-drinking, Mets-listening twentysomethings, had proven less than satisfying.)

But part of me still longed to immerse myself in the woods burrowed in a sleeping bag far from other campsites.

My original plan was to go to the Shenandoah Mountains on a long weekend backpacking trip run by REI, the recreational equipment outfit. I wasn't looking for a serious physical challenge, I simply wanted to unplug and focus on nature. A male colleague, who happened to be on the board of the local chapter of Outward Bound, insisted, "You have to try it. Other outdoor programs are ‘touristy.'?" When I told him that the Outward Bound excursions I had investigated online were too long and expensive and seemed geared to the under-30 crowd (not to mention requiring extended stays in the woods, alone, with only a pocketknife, matches, and an apple), he assured me that the Philadelphia chapter could tailor a shorter, easier, more affordable trip to my needs.

I met with the director of the Philadelphia office. "How about a canoe trip on the upper Delaware River, starting in Milford, Pa., near the New York border, and paddling down to the Delaware River Water Gap?" she asked. I had been there once before and knew how scenic this area was. The course the director suggested was 35 miles, which sounded like a nice, relaxing trip for the five-day period I had in mind. Outward Bound would provide guides, instruction, food, and all gear, if I would round up five other participants willing to cough up a sizable fee (a large portion being a charitable contribution). I decided to invite only women, to encourage bonding and self-reliance and avoid possible embarrassment about a decided lack of personal grooming opportunities. No port-a-potties, no showers, no loofahs. Whatever a bear does in the woods, we would too. My husband, Jay, was quite happy to be left behind with our teenage son, eating take-out and enjoying unlimited evenings of ESPN.

It took three months to recruit five hardy girlfriends. A typical response was, "No, but if you were asking me to spend five days with you in Tuscany, that would be a different story." Although I knew everyone I had invited, they didn't know one another. My recruits were a nonprofit administrator, a fund-raising consultant, a psychotherapist, a dental hygienist, and another lawyer. All of us were on the brink of 50 or just over. None of us had been on an Outward Bound trip before.

On a rainy Wednesday in early May, we met for a corny icebreaker game of Get-to-Know-You-Bingo and repacked our clothing and gear into impossibly small waterproof sacks. Our reserved but competent main instructor, Tricia (she had a dagger strapped to her life jacket), and her young, energetic assistant, Jen, had us sit in a circle and share our biggest fears about the coming trip. "Learning to canoe in rapids," said Linda, newly separated after 27 years of marriage and on her very first outdoor trip. "Having no cellphone and being out of communication with my office for five days," admitted my cousin Darcie. "Poison ivy and bee stings," I ventured. "I'm allergic to both."

The Outward Bound director had decided to come along on the trip, too, which made me feel we would be well cared for (until I realized that they had never run a women's invitational before and that she was there largely to observe whether it was tenable). For the first of many times, the director read to us from a little blue book of Outward Bound "teachings." "Outward Bound uses the trials and tribulations of time in the wilderness as tools to foster leadership, teamwork, and planning skills," she recited. "Founder Kurt Hahn, a German exile, decried young people's decreasing level of physical fitness and their increasing reliance on machines." (This was in the 1930s.) We learned that the program Hahn founded eventually established centers and schools around the world, serving more than 70,000 participants annually.

I hadn't realized that Outward Bound was more about team building and character development and less about enjoying nature. The program's concept seemed fine when applied to at-risk youth or a group of company managers, but I was skeptical that six strong-willed, middle-aged women would appreciate being molded into a team or even acknowledge that their characters needed to be developed. Don't we get all the character development we need trying on bathing suits in department store dressing rooms?

At this point, there was nothing to be done other than accept that we were about to embark on a "challenge by choice," an Outward Bound catchphrase used frequently by the director as if to remind us that we were all there at our own risk. (The multipage liability waiver we had to sign before the trip underscored this point strongly.)

Because of a violent storm, we were chased away (thank goodness) from the originally planned high-ropes course in Fairmount Park and spent a rainy first night at High Point State Park in New Jersey. I lay awake in my little tent for hours, listening for thunder amid the gentle snores of my tentmate, ready to run outside and drop to my haunches as part of the protective "lightning drill" Tricia taught us before bedtime.

The next morning, it was clear that this was not going to be the type of outdoor trip where we'd wake to the smell of fresh coffee brewed by smiling guides. Tricia barked, "If you want coffee, make it yourself." She then gave us a quick lesson in how to use the camp stove. I toasted my fingertips on the flames a few times before getting the hang of the propane starter. It was like that for each task, from setting up the two-person tents to hanging plastic bags high off the ground to keep food safe from bears. They provided one short demonstration and then we needed to do it on our own, with Tricia and Jen intentionally ratcheting down their support and presence each day.

"Next time I'll consider glamping," my friend Wendy joked as we hauled our canoe up a steep, poison ivy-laden slope into our rocky campsite, referring to a form of camping (glamorous + camping) where trip leaders set up your tent and mix you Tang and bourbon at the end of the day.

Tricia and Jen imposed daily "challenges by choice" designed to move us out of our comfort zones and require leadership and organizational skills. One day we were tasked with a two-hour deadline to set up camp at the opposite end of the island from where our canoes were "shipwrecked."

"We should steer through the rapids and around the submerged logs to get to our campsite," opined Lauren, an experienced paddler. "I'd rather see if we could portage the canoes across the island," offered Christie. "I don't feel that my concerns about this plan are being heard," complained Linda. As assigned leader of the day, I was tempted to simply make the decision for the group. But that's not the Outward Bound way. Consensus was eventually reached, and old and new friendships stayed intact.

I find discussions of group dynamics tiresome at best, so having them while being under-caffeinated and observed by instructors was difficult. And as someone who would have preferred to set aside imposed time constraints and simply pitch the tents when we tired of paddling, I found myself annoyed by the very concept of a timed challenge in the woods.

"Their lack of planning is turned into our character building," grumbled Lauren, feeling that the gear list should have encouraged us to bring our own higher-quality sleeping bags and mats. Darcie, ever good-natured despite desperately missing her BlackBerry, complained only that "the instructors should have packed s'mores, or at least more chocolate."

On the other hand, I was getting what I had signed up for: glorious blue skies for three of the five days; bald eagles swooping and a dozen turtles sunning; a shower of golden maple-seed "whirlybirds" twirling into the sparkling water; and a chance to feel the power of my arms and shoulders as we moved our red canoes along a remote section of the Delaware River. Two days passed when we didn't see another soul, even though we were within an easy drive of more than 50 million people.

One night, I stood in awe staring up at the inky sky filled with unimaginable numbers of bright stars. The next morning, we brought our sleeping pads out to the harvested cornfield behind our campsite and Lauren led us through a half-hour of yoga, with the deep green mountains of the Appalachian Trail as a backdrop. I wonder whether any hikers saw us posed in Downward Dog?

After dinner each night we formed a circle and were asked to state "ownerships" — things we wish we had done differently that day — followed by "appreciations" of others. What had struck me as New Agey at first started to seem valuable toward the end of the trip. I found myself becoming more aware of these positive and negative behaviors, knowing that I would have to talk about them around the campfire that evening.

"I own that I volunteered to be the cook for breakfast but didn't get my act together soon enough and someone else had to step in," I offered.

"And I appreciate that Jen leaped through the poison ivy this morning to catch my sleeping bag before it rolled into the river, and that she had Benadryl handy to treat my bee sting."

We gradually stopped complaining about the challenges, although never about how shockingly cold we were at night (three layers of clothing, a hat, and gloves didn't make a dent) or how absurdly thin the sleeping pads were, and started enjoying pulling together as a group. We even came up with a crew name, "Sturdy Girls," and figured out how to eat noodles with a short plastic spoon — very slowly and then lick the bowl clean of leftovers to Leave No Trace when you rinse out the bowl. Most of us even got comfortable doing "the One Hundred" in the woods, so called for the hundred paces we had to walk away from the campsite to do our business.

For some, the biggest challenge was jumping in icy water during lifesaving practice. We rebelled when our instructors wanted us to take a swim test on the blustery first day of the trip. But with the sun now shining brightly, a few of us gamely volunteered to float in the swift current while the rest practiced reeling us in by throwing ropes.

The test of endurance for others was the surprise solo on Tocks Island one night at sunset. My heart sank, because I distinctly remembered my conversation with the director about "no solos." Nevertheless, Tricia led us each to a separate location, out of sight and earshot of one another. We were given a whistle, our sleeping bag, a small journal and pencil, and were encouraged to write a letter to our future selves about (1) what we would take away from the outing, and (2) what we wanted to leave behind (metaphorically) on the island. As darkness settled and I was sitting very still in my sleeping bag on the shore's edge, a river otter swam past, circled back to take another look at my unfamiliar form, and glided slowly away.

I was reminded then of Mick Jagger's line, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need." Eye contact with a river otter? Priceless.

Several hours later, Tricia and Jen came back, gathered us up, and led us with their headlamps through the underbrush to a sandy spot where dinner was waiting. "Miso soup and rice with vegan sausage never tasted so good," joked Wendy, a confirmed but hungry carnivore.

Back at Outward Bound headquarters in East Fairmount Park two days later, we sat in our final circle and took turns saying a few words about one another and about facing our challenges. "I felt more confident by the end in voicing my opinions even though all of you were so outspoken," offered Linda. Lauren admitted, "I realized that my expectation about what the trip should be got in the way of having the experience itself." "At first I resented having to work toward artificial goals," I said, "but then I realized that the process of doing so made us work together as a team."

Will Outward Bound run a women's invitational again? When my husband came to pick me up, the instructors confided, "That was the hardest trip we've ever been on. We'd rather deal with surly teenage boys than a half-dozen grown women who question everything we do." So maybe not.

I had known some of these women for years but had never shared such an in-depth experience before. My friendships with all of them were unquestionably deepened. And my friend Lauren, who grumbled the loudest? She's looking into Outward Bound trips for her 13-year old son. But for my birthday next year? That villa in Tuscany is sounding mighty good.

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