How are you going to teach outdoor education online? was the question I was asked most this summer. As a professor of outdoor education, each time I’d read a news story about another COVID-19 outbreak at a summer camp, athletic program, or military base, I’d doubt anew whether we’d be able to run our signature Outdoor Leadership Immersion Semester.
In a typical fall, our students spend seventy days outdoors living together and learning a succession of technical skills from a succession of instructors, each an expert in their skill. My colleagues and I wondered how we would be able to do this without risking illness in our group, perhaps while we were far from medical care.
We first considered wearing masks and maintaining physical distance from each other but keeping everything else the same. We figured we could transport people in vans at half-capacity, and that everyone could cook individually and sleep in their own bivy sack.
But then we’d wonder how masks and physical distance would work for things like whitewater canoeing, swift-water rescue, and sailing. How do you stay six-feet apart from each other when you’re packed into the cabin of a sailboat?
We were flummoxed until we allowed ourselves to let go of our attachment to the way we’d always done it. We were trying to shove the square peg of our previous model into the round hole of “the COVID fall.” Once we asked ourselves what possibilities exist, given the new reality, rather than wondering how to do what we’d originally planned, the answer was clear—we would make our group a quarantine bubble and go into the wilderness for a long, continuous expedition.
We had to slow down and do less.
After all the participants tested negative for COVID-19, we started a fourteen-day quarantine at Forest Lodge near Cable. We spent the time getting to know each other, learning skills that do work with masks and social distancing and planning our next 40 days.
The students decided to canoe the two-hundred-mile border route from Voyageurs National Park all the way to Lake Superior, over the Grand Portage, and then to backpack and climb in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—places they figure we can avoid contact with anyone outside of our group.
We’re now nearing the end of our fourteen-day quarantine and are preparing to depart for the wilderness. It will feel odd, yet liberating, to pack away our facemasks and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our group. We might even hug, or hold hands—human contact we’ve missed over the past six months.
The days will flow, one into the next, as we move at human speed through the crimson leaves and shortening daylight. We won’t need to rush through the curriculum of one pursuit, and then jump into learning the next. Students won’t need to reintroduce themselves to the next instructor.
The students’ “technical resumes” won’t be as stacked at the conclusion of the experience. But we will have shown care for each other, flexibility in our thinking, and a practiced ability to adapt.