The Kids are Alright

Sep 02, 2010
Sherry handed out digging tools and showed knapweed to her volunteers. She explained the importance of removing it - that knapweed, like all invasives, gobbles up soil and nutrients that native plants and livestock forage need to flourish.

by Mary Sojourner

You might think you know Outward Bound - wilderness jaunts for teens; river rafts filled with kids learning to challenge not just the elements, but themselves; troubled kids climbing up a rock face, linked securely by ropes to their belayers - and linked even more strongly by growing trust to their teachers and companions; business executives leaving not just their cell phones and I-pads behind, but their cherished roles, as they move slow step after step up the last stretch of a guided mountain summit climb.

I confess to once being cynical about Outward Bound and any of the other Get in touch with yourself through nature programs. I lived in the Colorado Plateau for twenty-two years, the heart of hundreds of similar expeditions and guided adventures. We local river runners, hikers and climbers were more than a little cynical about the organizations that we thought packaged wilderness and served it up as a relatively safe freeze-dried meal.

Still I have always believed that any experience that weaves human connection with the living earth has value - and any organization that promotes earth awareness is far better than a workshop in playing video games. So two weeks ago when our Land Steward Sherry Berrin invited me to go with her to Rimrock Ranch to meet a few dozen Outward Bound teens and their leaders, I wanted to learn more. The young women and men were going to clear invasive knapweed from floodplain around a mile plus of Whychus Creek. That was my first dose of reality about Outward Bound. I hadn’t realized the organization put its students to work on the land.

Sherry and I drove out to Rimrock Ranch and through the big gate onto the property. She’d told me the ranch was owned by Gayle and Bob Baker who had entered into a land preservation agreement with the Land Trust in 2006. Whychus Creek, to be an important link in the restoration of steelhead and salmon in Central Oregon waters, runs for 1.65 stream miles through the property. The ranch holds rich habitat for wildlife: mule deer, elk, river otter, mountains lion, beaver, golden eagles and other birds and animals.

Sherry and I pulled up to a big tree that shaded a few dozen Outward Bound students and their leaders. The early August sun burned down. Sherry and I waited while the kids were briefed, then we all walked and drove down a steep dirt road to the creek. Sherry handed out digging tools and showed knapweed to her volunteers. She explained the importance of removing it - that knapweed, like all invasives, gobbles up soil and nutrients that native plants and livestock forage need to flourish. She explained that the knapweed had probably been brought in accidentally through contaminated seed or ballast.

I watched the kids’ faces. A few of them looked bored.. Most of them paid close attention. A few of them were clearly chomping at the bit to get going. I was also eager to move on - not to yank knapweed but to get out of the 90+-degree heat back into the shade. Call me a wuss, but once I reached 55, my thermo-regulation system began to break down!

I took a few minutes to ask the group two questions: Where did they come from? Had they ever lost a natural place they loved? I’ve asked those questions in readings and talks for the last twenty-five years - in presentations for Elderhostel students, workshops for college students, land trust Writing from Place circles for adults and children. No matter the age of my listeners, most of them have a story to tell and often, tears to shed.

The Outward Bound teens told us about losing a little woodlands just beyond the edge of their suburban home that they had called The Wild; a patch of grass and trees in a big city downtown and the family of rock doves that lived there; a stretch of lonely beach along the Pacific Coast. Their young eyes were sad. Their voices were quiet. When we were done talking and listening, Sherry led everyone out to the edge of the floodplain.

Two young women and a young man came up to me. Jen was a dark-eyed, dark-haired girl with a serious gaze. “I wanted to tell you a little more,” she said, “about why I’m here.” “Me too,” her friend Christopher said. The second girl grinned at me. Her blond hair was pulled up under a Greenpeace cap. “Me three,” Amanda said. (I’ve changed names to protect their privacy.”)

“I was anxious about going on Outward Bound,” Jen said. “So I made myself do it. I was really afraid of the part where we run rivers. I’ve always been afraid of water. And, hiking up high? Forget it. But, I’m not a child anymore and I realized I need to challenge myself. That’s the heart of what I’m doing here. Challenge. This is the Challenge Jen Summer. And I love it. Every time I do something I’m scared to do, I end up knowing I’ve just had the best time in my life.”

Christopher nodded. He is a tall sturdy young man with an open smile and intent eyes. “My challenge was more to push myself physically. I love working hard, climbing hard, running hard, but most of all the working hard part. I love how I feel at the end of a day of hard work. I knew I’d get to be intensely physical most of the time. And I have. And now,” he dug into the dirt around a knapweed, “I’m the Exterminator!”

I told Chris about my best guy friend, a National Parks work crew leader and former wilderness ranger. “He and his buddies call each other Brush Hogs,” I said. "They’re the ones guaranteed to get a job done. He says there is nothing better than pushing yourself hard for ten hours, then coming back to camp for a meal, a fire and sleeping under a big sky.”

“That’s it!” Chris said. “That’s how I want to live the rest of my life!”

Amanda stepped forward and showed me a woven bracelet around her wrist. “Me and three of my best friends wear these. See, the threads are gold and brown. We started a campaign to send money to a group that protects Asian tigers. We raised five thousand dollars by cookie sales, garage sales, getting paid for tutoring other kids and just plain nagging people. Plus, I just found out I’ve been accepted in a sustainability Honors program at a cool college. This,” she waved at the creek and the canyon walls, “this is the world I want to live in.”

We exchanged e-mails. I asked them to write me and promised to send them some of my essays. Then the heat won out and I went back up to my car. I opened the windows, jacked up the air-conditioning and looked out at the golden-green range land and the elegant mountains. I made a few notes about the three young people. Challenge. Hard work. The world I want to live in. I understood that my ignorant cynicism about Outward Bound had been smashed. Not just by Jen, Chris, Amanda and their teachers, but by the Rimrock Ranch owners’ commitment to conservation and Sherry Berrin’s patient teaching.

I rolled up the windows, turned around and drove back to Bend. Despite the heat, I saw the signs in leaves and grasses that Fall was coming. I knew I’d come back to Rimrock Ranch in cooler weather and when I did I’d bring with me the memory of the Outward Bound gang putting their young hearts, minds and bodies to work for restoration.