An Outward Bound Adventure

An Outward Bound Adventure

"You begin an Outward Bound course the day you sign up."
-- Sandy Kobrock, Outward Bound instructor

Signed up for OB's Rogue River trip today. Reviewed brochures, medical forms, etc. Interested to learn that six to eight weeks of preconditioning are suggested for the "fairly inactive." We leave in six days. Noted also the course diet: cheese, nuts, grains, cereals. Went shopping for recommended items: synthetic-fleece shirt and pants, polypropylene gloves and socks, wool cap, wet-suit booties, insect repellent, flashlight and batteries. Also purchased pocket radio and several periodicals featuring Roseanne on cover (for insomnia), a bottle of 15-milligram phenobarbital (insomnia and migraines), two half-pound bags peanut M&M's (dietary supplement).

ONE -- Despite Sandy's advice, nothing much happens between signing up for course and leaving for it. On my way to LAX, however, at the foot of the canyon I live in, I almost run over Tom Snyder, the talk show host. He interrupts his fast walking to flash me a look as ominous as the one Alfred Hitchcock gave Janet Leigh in "Psycho". At Medford airport my flight is not met by Zeke Zeliff, the trip's organizer. I inquire at the information counter whether any messages have been left by OB officials. At this point a bearded man in sandals, trunks, and polypropylene shirt emerges from phone booth and introduces himself. Zeke looks a little like Jon Voight, a few years down the road. Instead of "Psycho," scenes from "Deliverance" suggest themselves.

In baggage claim we meet Stan, another participant. Stan has flown in from Tacoma, Washington, where he is an education consultant for Weyerhaeuser. During van trip to Galice Lodge, he and Zeke discuss wood products, wilderness courses (it's Stan's 10th), and kids. Stan and Zeke each have two children. Stan asks if I have a family. I'm part of what census takers identify as a nontraditional household. "No," I reply, "but I'm co-parenting a pug." Stan and Zeke, nonplussed, in unison: "A pug?"

We pull in to the lodge just as three more OBers return from several-mile jog, evidently the first thing they felt like doing upon arrival in Galice. They are Larry, Tim, and Conn, all in customer service at Florida Power & Light. We also meet Cate, who has driven her white Lexus up from Portland, where she is contract manager for Intel, and Bill H., a freelance management consultant based in southern California. Cate tells me this is her second retreat. For Bill H. it's number four.

At dinner the rest of the guides are introduced. There's Sandy and three others whose names don't stick. They all have hair the color of flax and the sort of suntans you see on ski instructors and the homeless. Tim, a marathon runner and cyclist, describes his 1,700-mile bike trip around Alaska last summer. Conn asks a waitress for a beer, is reprimanded by one of the guides.

Crystal and Christian, a couple from the Bay Area, arrive during dessert. Am cheered by their appearance. She has long Pre-Raphaelite curls and mirror-applique blouse, is first woman I've seen in lipstick since LAX. He is French, intense, can be imagined smoking Gauloises and writing poems on napkins. Like Bill H., Christian runs a management consulting company. Crystal identifies herself as a movement psychologist.

After dinner, orientation. Sandy stands in front of a stone fireplace and makes the observation about the course beginning when we signed up. She also says the following things:

"A lot of what happens on this trip has to do with y'all."

"Certain stuff we'll do will certainly be out of certain people's comfort zones."

"We are not guides, we are instructors. You are not observers, you are participants."

"We don't know what's going to happen because we don't know you. For instance, last weekend some people went over Rainie Falls backwards."

"Is this a group that's going to pitch in and work together or isn't it?"

On a presentation board, using felt tips in different colors, Sandy draws a diagram that looks sort of like this:

ACTION...to....REFLECTION....to...LEARNING...to...TRANSFERRING...(repeat)

"Or," she says, "first the test, then the lesson."

We're each instructed to recall a mistake we recently made and the lesson it taught us. After a few minutes we form a circle to share our mistakes and lessons. Larry describes leaving his ATM card inside a cash machine. Cate mentions her failure to fix a shower drip. Someone else packed the wrong kind of tennis shoes for the trip. Before I have a chance to change my mistake, it's my turn. I mumble something about forgetting to buy health insurance last year.

Before we break up for the evening, the last two OBers arrive: Deb, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Michigan, and Bill M., the photographer. Bill M. is my roommate for the night. He's from San Francisco, has a goatee and a wry smile; I peg him as a fellow skeptic. Just before we turn in he confides, "I've wanted to do one of these trips all my life."

TWO -- Breakfast at the lodge, a quick van ride through pines and firs, and we're on the river, sort of. Spend most of the morning on shore squeezing belongings into waterproof duffels. At last minute I decide to leave behind my down pillow and magazines. We pour ourselves into rubber wet suits with the faint but unmistakable aroma of vomit.


There are five rafts -- two for supplies, three for us. Raft groups are drawn up carefully, like scrimmage teams. Stan, Conn, Crystal, and I are with Zeke. Zeke takes us through the basic paddle commands: forward, back, left turn, right turn, and California paddle, a sort of flaky half-stroke. The Rogue is wide and calm, appealingly flat. Crystal spots a mountain beaver sunning on the riverbank; a rare sight, Zeke says. Surrounding us, another local species: the river family. Characteristics include beer coolers, lawn chairs, dogs in bandannas, boom boxes playing "Long Cool Woman" -- all in rafts not much bigger than ours. We paddle past steep coniferous slopes on one side, broad meadows of manzanita on the other. Abruptly, the river narrows and drops; there's a low roar in the distance.

"Stop," orders Zeke. "Hear Rainie?" His eyes gleam a little.

Rainie, I recall, is the rapid that the last Outward Bound group navigated backward. We have learned that all the rapids are rated according to difficulty, from I to VI; we're now notified that Rainie is a class VI. From above, Rainie looks a little like Niagara, with bigger rocks. We watch a group of kayakers negotiate the rocks like low-scoring pinballs. The river families go down as docilely as passengers on a Disneyland ride. We hike back to our raft. Suddenly Zeke seems to be barking all the paddle orders at once. I respond by California paddling. The river's authority is greater anyway: we paddle maniacally, carom between boulders, scream, get soaked, swallow water -- and it's over.

Some other things happen our first day on the river, but they feel a little anticlimactic. Crystal takes over as captain. We watch a run of chinook salmon, learn how to upright a capsized boat. I also learn, toward the end of the day, quietly paddling along, that every time I thought I was left-turning I was right-turning.

Arrive at Whiskey Creek campsite by sunset. Tasks are assigned for the next three days. OB tasks are an intricate business. There are kitchen crews, cleanup crews, tarp-layers, historians, journalists. Tonight, I'm responsible for choosing a passage from the OB "Book of Readings" to recite before dinner, and for cleanup duty after. I look up the selection from Woody Allen, hoping to find his old joke: I am two with nature. Discover instead an est-like sentiment worthy of Werner Erhard: People can be divided into three groups: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened. Wonder if I'm a watcher or a wonderer.

Dinner is something stir-fried. While we're eating, my cleanup partner, Tim, the marathon runner, sprints to the river several times to fetch water. By the time I clear the plates he has boiled water, set up soaking, washing, and rinsing tubs, and is fixing a gas leak in the propane stove.

We form a circle around a kerosene lamp. Sandy points out how rare it is that we take a few minutes just to reflect, suggests we do this now and afterward anyone may share whatever they wish. One of the guides breaks the silence to congratulate the other guides on their efforts today. Larry, historian for the day, shares what he has learned about animals inhabiting the shores of the Rogue: there's the black bear, the Pacific rattlesnake, and the common scorpion, which hides in dark places like shoes and carries enough poison in its tail to cause fatal convulsions. Deb says she's beginning to realize this isn't a vacation. Crystal expresses gratitude for the special connections she is starting to make and, in a Judy Collins alto, begins to sing: "The river is flowing/Flowing and growing./This river is flowing/Down to the sea."

THREE -- Crystal says her influences range from Wilhelm Reich to Basque shamans. At dawn she leads us through some tai chi movements and a routine that involves walking on all fours and growling in order to get in touch with the ape within us. My back has the flexibility of concrete. Don't know whether it was the loudest snoring I've ever witnessed, surprising firmness of sand, or being downwind from outhouse, but am fairly certain I didn't sleep.

After breakfast one of the guides, Richard, uses pebbles, sticks, and a plastic toy boat to demonstrate raft maneuvers and terms. We learn how to ferry and thwart, to look for eddies (safe pools) and sleepers (which conceal rocks). It all seems much clearer to me now. I volunteer to captain my raft this a.m.

I'm with Zeke and Conn again, along with Deb and Bill M. I issue orders -- left turn, right turn, stop. We circumnavigate sleepers and aim for eddies. Zeke mentions that we're coming up on Wildcat, a class III rapid. I nod, calmly say, "Forward paddle." Approaching the white water, I urge the back paddle, a favorite command of Zeke's and a kind of stalling tactic. But then we're on top of a sleeper, Zeke is yelling his own commands, and I'm having a hard time distinguishing them from those of Sandy, whose boat is lunging toward ours. What she's screaming sounds like "duck" -- and then she broadsides us, sending Bill M.'s camera equipment flying and Conn overboard. When we've hauled Conn back in the raft and Zeke has steered us to an eddy, he takes a deep breath and says, "Okay. That was good to back-paddle at first. But the worst position you can EVER hit the white water in is sideways."

Deb takes the helm. The water is glassy for miles. After lunch we stop for an initiative -- a rappel off one of the canyon's sheer cliffs. Am not good at gauging cliff heights, would say this was roughly 20 stories high. Hiking steep tortuous trail up back of palisade, am put in mind of Mount Everest. Several years ago a childhood friend managed to scale Mount Everest; on his way down, however, he lost his footing and fell off.

At the top, guides cheerfully assist with our harnesses, repeatedly stress safety of belay system. To no one in particular, Sandy says, "If you're a little nervous about doing this, you might want to go sooner rather than later." Am unaware nervousness shows until Cate begins massaging my shoulders, suggests I go soon. Then I notice difficulty breathing and odd paralysis in legs. Meanwhile, people are hooking up and launching off like ballooning spiders. I make my legs deliver me to Zeke, who is supervising the descents. "Awright, PETER," he says. "Let's do it for your pug. Do it for Pugsley."

Overhang is so sharp the ground below is hard to locate. Focusing intently on my own hands, gripping rope in manner that will ensure burning of palms for two days, I start to inch my way down. In no more than 60 seconds my feet are touching the earth and my back is getting pummeled by Christian, Deb, the other survivors. I feel light, faintly embarrassed by my mountaintop histrionics.

Have I had an OB epiphany?Later my mood is more speculative than triumphant. The only problem I have with contrived challenges is the feeling that I've never lacked for the real thing. Seated around the kerosene lamp that evening, with the floor open for sharing and most having shared, I feel compelled to say something relevant concerning the day's events. Finally I offer this: "On top of the mountain today it came to me how much I take for granted."


Stan, tonight's historian, reads some passages from a river-safety manual concerning hypothermia: signaling the chilling of the body, symptoms include numbness, unconsciousness, and, if untreated, respiratory failure.

The gibbous moon is so bright it almost washes out the stars.

FOUR -- Stan and I slide lard across the griddle and slap on some bagels. Christian announces breakfast menu in French and it sounds like a five-star meal.

After an exercise in which we identify the most effective work teams we've been involved with, we hike to a clearing in a pine grove for our morning initiative. It's called Cup of Dreams. Sandy hands out slips of paper, instructs each of us to jot down a dream or goal, collects slips, puts them in plastic bowl, places bowl in middle of circle traced in dirt. We're divided into two groups: the implementers and the guides. The implementers are blindfolded and each given a length of rope attached to an elastic cord. Object is for guides to get implementers to stretch elastic cord around bowl and move it to middle of another circle.

Implementers' penalty for crossing circle: forfeiting a dream. I'm a guide. When Sandy says, "Go!" other guides and I immediately begin screaming orders at confused implementers. The elastic cord stretches and shrinks, doesn't get near plastic bowl. I think, If I couldn't see, I would want maximum guidance. I start to lead one of the implementers around by the hand, instruct other guides to do same. Progress very slow, but elastic cord is close to clasping bowl. "Time out!" says Sandy. "Crystal went over the circle. A dream must be forfeited." She walks over to bowl, extracts slip of paper, reads aloud: "Finish my novel." Somehow knew it was going to be mine.

Initiative continues, with me sort of in charge. Shouting instructions, I have another inspiration: I'm taking control, demonstrating leadership skills. When bowl is finally moved, Sandy points out elapsed time of 27 minutes, invites group evaluation of the effort. "I think we could have been more involved in the process," says Bill H., one of the implementers. "Yeah," says Larry, another. "There should have been more communication, more listening to us." General consensus that implementers had been neglected.

The other dreams are revealed:

  • Stan (education consultant, Weyerhaeuser) -- Go to Australia
  • Larry (customer service supervisor, FP&L) -- Be financially independent
  • Tim (customer service trainer, FP&L) -- Find someone and settle down
  • Conn (computer supervisor, FP&L) -- Be good to partner and grow
  • Cate (contract manager, Intel) -- Take a photography safari
  • Bill H. (management consultant) -- Act according to values versus appearances
  • Christian (management consultant) -- Be a good father
  • Crystal (movement psychologist) -- Have a tv show to spread consciousness
  • Deb (organizational behavior instructor) -- Visit the Mediterranean
  • Bill M. (photographer) -- Live in different places around the world


Sandy unfolds a slip of paper and hands it to me, announces that I may have my dream back.

Lunch at cabin of Zane Grey, erstwhile New York dentist whose western novels about lone wolf gunslingers made him one of the most popular authors of 20th century.

Back on the Rogue, sharing raft with Zeke, Larry, and Christian. The canyon declines into dark gorges; tiny waterfalls and tufts of orange penstemon splash down walls of black shale. Last spring, says Zeke, he came across a Styrofoam cooler and a life jacket floating in the water here. Downriver a bit he discovered one waterlogged man perched on a boulder and two others clinging to an overturned raft. There was a fourth in the party, originally, but he was never found. A long, very quiet paddle to Blossom Bar, the last white water, a class V.

Like the other falls, Blossom is scarier in expectation than execution. We lose one baseball cap, take in 50 gallons of water, otherwise escape unharmed. The river widens and flattens: for the first time since our collision with Sandy's raft, I'm elected captain. Nice and easy, says Zeke. It's dark when we glide up to our camp.

Richard has made macaroni out of things that come in envelopes. We circle around the kerosene lamp to hear Zeke's OB pitch: today's businesses are all about adapting to change, and that's what OB has always practiced -- the very first OB course (1941) was designed to prepare British sailors for the rigors of the North Sea. Crystal leads several rounds of "The River." A moment of silence is broken by gunfire, probably deer hunters, Zeke says. We're at a place called Solitude.

FIVE -- Our final day on the Rogue is quick and staccato, beginning with an a.m. solo. We hike to isolated spots in pines above campsite to record our thoughts for 15 minutes. My thoughts interrupted by growl of Jerry's Wild Rogue River Rat -- mile-long jet boat hauling many overweight passengers with camcorders trained our way. Have usual difficulty ruminating meaningfully on command, end up sketching pinecones.

Following solo, the pin exchange. We each draw names to learn whom we'll present with the small steel ornaments inscribed with the un-Zen OB motto: "To serve, to strive, and not to yield." I've drawn Conn, whom I nearly drowned and who told me back at Zane Grey's cabin that he must be a wuss because he missed his wife and daughter in Daytona Beach. I comment on his "gentleness" and pierce the bill of his cap with the pin. Am a little apprehensive about who has drawn me. It turns out to be Cate, who says: "I had the great honor to draw Peter, who I think in some ways has grown more than any of us." Am unfortunately reminded of "most improved camper" award I received 20 years ago.

Like the last meal at camp -- when the parents arrive and everyone gets strawberry shortcake and goes home with a warm feeling about the place -- our final lunch on the river looks like a banquet. There are two kinds of sandwich bread, Pepperidge Farm cookies, Snapples. We feel entitled, having made last leg to boat launch; seen Deb off to airport to teach multiculturalism class this p.m.; cleaned, sorted, and dried raft gear like indentured laborers.

Van ride back to Galice Lodge and our first showers in four days: I make the mistake of letting Bill M. go first, but even lukewarm water feels luxurious. Larry gets word that there's been some job trimming at Florida Power & Light; a call assures him and Tim and Conn they made the cut. We toast them at dinner. We're allowed to order beer; after second beer I decide Galice Lodge is beautiful place, Sandy's smile is warm as Mother Teresa's. We circle around the fireplace for a final chant: "The river is flowing/Flowing and growing. . . ." Then diplomas are distributed. Mine reads: For participation in Pacific Crest Outward Bound School XPRA-516 . . . this recognition of achievement is awarded to Pete Handelman.

"The Outward Bound experience is a continuing adventure, not a onetime event" -- OB literature

A few months after the event, checked in with fellow travelers to assess the impact of their continuing adventure.

  • Stan -- Trip reinforced worth of his own developmental programs and was spiritually invaluable.
  • Larry -- More inclined to challenge self; signed up for flying lessons.
  • Tim -- Embraces each day; has run marathons in Australia and Maui and is training for one in Russia.
  • Conn -- Was put in charge of E-mail at FP&L, where he keeps Bill M.'s photos of trip on desk.
  • Cate -- Procrastinates less and was promoted to worldwide software commodity manager at Intel.
  • Bill H. -- Has used visualization principles as demonstrated by Richard with pebbles and toy boat.
  • Crystal -- Group experience reinforced desire to create communal environment in Pacific Northwest.
  • Christian -- Experienced renewal and gained a greater appreciation of the outdoors.
  • Deb -- Made it to class on time; with Zeke conducted Cup of Dreams for leadership course at Stanford.
  • Bill M. -- Got into habit of reciting selections from "Book of Readings" to girlfriend before meals.
  • Peter -- Mountain descent possibly mitigated subsequent challenges; still haven't finished book.


The Outward Bound Professional Development Program now accounts for about one third of the 53-year-old organization's business. The sessions range from one-day insight seminars to nine-day wilderness courses. A physical examination is required for participants 45 years and older. Preparation, clothing, and supplies vary per trip; Outward Bound provides equipment. The Rogue River rafting trip is sponsored by the Pacific Crest Outward Bound School in Portland, Oregon, one of seven Outward Bound schools across the country offering the Professional Development Programs. For information, call 800/779-7935.

PACIFIC CREST OUTWARD BOUND
0110 S.W. Bancroft St., Portland, OR 97201
800/547-3312 or 503/243-1993
Pacific Crest offers year-round half-day to two-day insight seminars in Portland, Los Angeles, and other sites ($200-$300 per person a day); 1 1/2- to four-day base camp courses at lodges around the country, ($200-$300 per person a day); and four- to five-day wilderness courses ($1,200 per person) with hiking in Joshua Tree National Monument (October-April), sailing on Puget Sound (April-October), or rafting on the Rogue River (May-October).

Other Outward Bound schools across the country provide similar programs.

COLORADO OUTWARD BOUND SCHOOL
Denver
(800/477-2627 or 303/837-0880)

HURRICANE ISLAND OUTWARD BOUND SCHOOL
Rockland, Maine
(800/341-1744 or 207/594-5548)

NEW YORK CITY OUTWARD BOUND CENTER
(212/608-8800)

NORTH CAROLINA OUTWARD BOUND SCHOOL
Morganton
(800/841-0186 or 704/437-6112)

THOMPSON ISLAND OUTWARD BOUND EDUCATION CENTER
Boston
(617/328-3900)

VOYAGEUR OUTWARD BOUND SCHOOL
Minnetonka, Minnesota
(800/328-2943 or 612/542-9255)

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