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“You're not on vacation. This ain't camp. It's an experience. It's an opportunity to become something bigger than you already are,” instructor Lindsay Land tells her crew of 10 students, age 14 and 15, and two fellow instructors on day one of eight for Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School’s Sea Kayaking and Environmental Leadership course. By the end of the program, these students paddled between 30 and 40 miles of the Nanticoke River. They camped at six different sites along the river, where the lack of development and light pollution revealed a sky full of stars, the most stars some of the students had ever seen in their lives. They also learned how to read navigational maps and tide tables, cook and clean with very limited resources, and live without the usual comforts of home—refrigerators to preserve food, indoor plumbing, beds with mattresses and sheets, electronic devices with wifi.
The Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School works to build leadership within communities by providing students, educators, school administrators and community leaders with opportunities to develop a better understanding of their capabilities and value to their community. The sea kayaking program began in 2011, when Joel Dunn, then executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy met with Outward Bound Executive Director Ginger Mihalik to discuss how to get students out and experience the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the nation’s first all-water national historic trail. The Conservancy provided funds for equipment and helped plan the route for the expedition, finding places for crews to launch, stop along the trail to camp for the night, and load up boats and participants to shuttle home at the end of the journey. Today the program takes high school students, age 14 to 18, and immerses them in the wonders of the Chesapeake in an effort to expand the curiosities of the eco-minded and adventurous.
“Outward Bound and the Chesapeake Conservancy share a common goal of encouraging the exploration of the Chesapeake region,” said Dunn, who is now the Conservancy’s president and CEO. “At the Conservancy, we believe that when people of all ages are able to experience the Chesapeake, they fall in love with it and want to protect it. That bond means that they will vote for it, donate money toward conservation and restoration efforts, and even dedicate their careers to it.”
Mihalik said the sea kayaking program is one of Outward Bound Baltimore’s most popular programs, filling up the before all other programs.
“This program is unique in that the challenges are different. You're dealing with tides, you're dealing with wind—it is a multi-dimensional challenge,” Mihalik explained. “The one-on-one interaction with the Bay has more implications for students. They come back and they have fallen in love with the Bay. We have seen many of our students want to be activists for the Bay when they come back.”
The most recent expedition began at the Outward Bound campus in Leakin Park. The students arrived to meet each other and the three instructors who would accompany them throughout the trip. Each student came from a different background. Some people knew each other—friends who moved away and reconnect through summer programs or relatives who decided to do the course together—though most were total strangers. Some had experience paddling on lakes, rivers, and even the Long Island Sound. Some had never sat in a kayak before. Some had never been to the Chesapeake or experienced the summer climate (or the mosquitoes) of the region. Each had a different reason for signing up for the course—family tradition, previous experience with similar courses, even saying “why not” when parents suggested the program. What they all shared was an excitement about what the expedition held in store and the opportunity to experience the scenery of the Chesapeake, meet and get to know the 12 other people they would paddle next to in the course of the week, and possibly make lifelong friendships.
Iyana Hill gets the hang of paddling against the current of the Nanticoke River. (Peter Turcik)
Day one focused on preparing the crew for the expedition ahead in every facet. The instructors gave each student the necessary equipment—sleeping bag, water bottle, group water bottle, sleeping pad, and everything else they would need—and showed them what needed to be stored inside the kayak and what needed to be readily available in the mesh deck bag that would be strapped to the outside of the boat, as well as how to keep gear dry and properly stored so that every inch of the kayak’s cargo hatches could be utilized. The next tasks involved team building initiatives—working together to balance on a platform, using wooden boards to get across an imaginary lava pit—all designed to gauge and test the crew’s communication and cooperation skills. While teaching the crew how to assemble a tent, the instructors worked on maintaining visual focus by performing the demonstration in total silence.
When darkness fell and no more preparations could be made for the day, the crew gathered for an exercise where each individual, student and instructor, drew out their goals for the trip and life, which were laminated to bring along as a reminder and motivation during the paddle. The instructors gave the crew some descriptions of what tomorrow and beyond would be like, emphasizing the importance of tenacity and perseverance in the face of this and every challenge.
“Similar to an Outward Bound course, life throws challenges at you. They are not always going to be easy to walk through. It's going to keep happening. You can either persevere and be resilient and show grit, and shine when you're challenged or you can go the other way. You can give up and fall apart. People are not learning grit and resilience and perseverance at school. That is not something you can learn from a book. The only way you can learn it is through experience and to be challenged,” said Land, who participated in a seven-week Outward Bound course when she was in college. “It gets you out of your comfort zone. It gets you in a unique learning environment. It gets you away from creature comforts, away from your favorite foods, away from family, with a new group of people and that in and of itself is a challenge. Add on top the physical challenge of paddling and that is where the growth happens. You can take the lessons you learn from overcoming that challenge and carry it forward with you into your life back home—help you meet your goals. I think because Outward Bound taught me how to get through the challenges in my life, I am a better person.”
Day two began at 5:30 a.m. as the crew packed their gear and drove two and a half hours across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore and south to Nanticoke Harbor Marina—the initial put in point. Here the crew learned the skills to be able to paddle their kayaks up the Nanticoke River, into the smaller tributaries, toward their final takeout on Broad Creek. Instructions included how to get into the boat while in the water, attach a spray skirt to keep excess water out of the boat, how to get out of the boat in the event that it flips and the student is submerged underwater, as well as proper paddling technique that uses the core muscles of the body, rather than simply arm strength.
Instructor Lindsay Land (left) shows crew member Alina Zasloff what to do when the kayak flips. (Peter Turcik)
After the lessons, packing every square inch of the boats with gear, and a simple lunch of pitas with hummus, cheese, and veggies, the crew was ready to get in and put these new skills to the test. Some took to the water immediately, others required help from the instructors to avoid crashing into the rock jetty, unaccustomed to dealing with tidal current. The timing of the launch meant that the crew would have to paddle against both the wind and tide the entire six miles from the marina to the campsite at Wetipquin Park. Newly initiated into sea kayaking, the crew found difficulty in staying together in formation the first day. The more athletic students enthusiastically took the lead, leaving much of the group behind. Frustrated, they frequently stopped to wait for the group to catch up, all the while drifting backward with the tide and losing progress. However, that is the first day. Land said by around the third day of paddling, the students usually have their tasks dialed in.
“I started to understand how the flow of the day was supposed to go—what the instructors wanted us to do to attack the day from start to finish,” Egor Berezin, 15, said, adding that one of the main lessons he learned on the trip was about motivating himself, rather than relying on his instructors. “I can't just rely on an adult to motivate me. I learned from this experience that I need to motivate myself. Indirectly the instructors prepared me for that from day one.”
Two navigators take the lead and keep the crew traveling in the right direction, paying attention to landmarks and keeping an eye out for the night’s campsite. Flankers on either side of the formation and sweepers at the rear keep the group together in the diamond shape, which provides safety from the larger boats that frequent the waters. Also by day three, members of the crew have had ample time to get to know one another closely.
“It became more of a social challenge to try to work with other people and get along,” said Ethan Dasilva, 15. “Everyone has their differences, but we all had the same goal in mind—to complete the course and work together.”
These social interactions take the mind off the hard miles paddling, which can be up to 12 miles on the hardest day, and also creates a strong bond with fellow students and the instructors. Conversations can range from typical teenage subjects like Pokemon Go to music and sports. Instructors ask about students’ goals in life, family, what they like to do for fun—the usual—but can also stray into more esoteric topics, such as a student and instructor talking about their Persian heritage and how that culture fits into life in the United States.
“Every group is different, especially with the different age groups. Sometimes they see you as a friend. Sometimes you are a confidant and they really open up personally. Other times you are the crew’s caregiver, who they are coming to when they don't feel well or are home sick. They are coming to you when they are very excited about a fish that they saw. And also, you are the person who is prodding and pushing them outside of their comfort zone, so you are the one who has to drive them and tell them things they don't want to hear—several different roles within one week with each student,” Land commented.
Luca Caccamese sports the navigator's helmet, a tradition with the crew where the day's navigator either wears the helmet or sports it on the front of their kayak. (Peter Turcik)
In addition to the skills the crew learns to successfully navigate the waters and survive backcountry camping, the instructors take the opportunity to weave an environmental education exercise into the experience, unbeknownst to the students. The instructors brought along a bag of candy, which they stashed in a secret location. One by one, they told the students about the bag, with instructions to take as much as they needed and to not tell anyone. During the evening meeting, the instructors learned how many pieces of candy each student took, which varied greatly. This exercise demonstrated the Tragedy of the Commons, an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action. The crew discussed real life situations in which this theory has occurred, such as overharvesting oysters throughout the Chesapeake.
“We are not necessarily an environmental education organization, we are more of a character education organization, but it is impossible to be out there and not have the environment woven into the program,” Mihalik noted. "Traveling from the Chesapeake Bay into a large river such as the Nanticoke, up into smaller bodies of water provides the students with a personal tour of a watershed and shows them the interconnected ecosystems firsthand. It helps them see, if I pour something down my drain it really does end up in the bay. They see where all the water is coming from in different tributaries. Living it, breathing it, and touching it brings it alive for them in a different way."
Day eight began extra early for this group, waking up at 3:30am to pack up camp, eat breakfast, and get on the water in time to see a vibrant Chesapeake sunrise, the culmination of a week of immersion in the Nanticoke’s many different ecosystems. By this time the crew had seen all manner of land and waterscapes as well as wildlife they had never seen before. The pristine Nanticoke River is home to bald eagles, osprey, and pelicans that rule search the waters for fish. Sometimes the interactions with the wildlife came a little too close for comfort. Alina Zasloff, 15, found this out firsthand when a two-foot longnose gar leapt completely out of the water and found itself flopping around in her boat, one of her less pleasurable experiences of the trip, in spite of the rest of the crew calling it the highlight of the trip.
The ultimate goal of every Outward Bound crew is to be able to function as a single cohesive unit, such that the students have gained enough confidence from the experience to be able to paddle without supervision. Not every group is able to achieve this total autonomy, as was the case with this particular group. However, that did not stop many in the crew from becoming very close. Nearly every crewmember commented on how they enjoyed working with their teammates, many of whom plan to participate in another program together next summer.
“I feel like I have really gotten to know all of these people and even though it's only been a week they have really become my family and I trust them with everything,” Zasloff commented after returning to the Outward Bound campus.
Others said they could change positions while paddling and hang out with any member of the team and have a great time. Even early morning wakeups and long days on the water could not stop the students from talking late into the night and getting to know everything about one another. They forgot about their phones, which they surrendered upon arrival, the outside world, and every other distraction and enjoyed each other’s company as well as the breathtaking scenery of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Find out more about the Sea Kayaking and Environmental Leadership course and other Chesapeake Bay Baltimore Outward Bound School courses at www.outwardboundbaltimore.org.