By Rachael Jennings
The Rapid River off Lake Umbagog swirls clear in places, bright, hissing, misting against a bright blue Maine sky. A group of students and their leader scramble up the shore, life vests buckled, hands empty of the paddles they’ve been towing the last six hours. They watch the Class II+ Rapids rush, their eyes wide. A few are eager to float feet-first down the rapids, and one follows, curious.
Moments before, we would have found faculty leader Katie Curtis and three students talking about how to safely ride the rapids. Two students would have barely been able to wait to jump in, but the last one would have paused.
That third student would have turned to Ms. Curtis, saying,“I don’t know that I’m ready to do that. I don’t know if I’m comfortable.”
Ms. Curtis would have smiled and asked “Can you come up with us to just see? Just check it out?”
Then, there they were. Four figures abreast with the Class II+ Rapids, the sun beaming down. The other students were encouraging but not demanding or judgemental. It took a few minutes of the third student surveying the scene to say, “Wait, I think I can give this a try.”
After the group jumped in and rode the rapids once, they wanted to try again. They had so much fun that they wanted to find a new, higher starting point, even.
Ms. Curtis knows that the moment of safely constructed exploration is what Dublin School’s camping trips are all about. The moment of saying, “Let’s go check it out” gives students the opportunity to explore, decide, and take healthy risks that push them outside of their comfort zones.
“It’s a place to push your comfort level but to do so in a safe space where you can grow,” she says. “The kids are there to support each other. [We] leaders are there. And we figure it out. Another student decides, I am going to hike with a student who is having trouble hiking instead of telling riddles with my friends. I am going to help start the fire. I am going to try something new and see what happens.”
Camping trips mean more than splashing journeys down the rapids, though. “You learn how to ‘figure it out’ from everything you do: how do you set up a tent? How do you go to the bathroom in the outdoors? You try to encourage kids to take advantage of the new opportunities and push themselves to try something new,” says Ms. Curtis.
Camping trips begin with checklists: many checklists, many plans, and hours and hours of cleaning, arranging, and organizing gear. Ms. Curtis put in many intentional, checklist-driven hours of work this summer so that leaders would be well-prepared for their specific camping trips. From gear to appropriate and nourishing food to maps and plans and proximal activities, Ms. Curtis’ lists gave way to the successful camping adventures that followed.
Part of the reason that Ms. Curtis invests so much in preparing Dublin’s camping trips stems from her own love of the outdoors and the linked values she has learned from her own camping experience.
“I have a huge family, and every summer growing up, we’d go on around three camping trips,” she explained. “The intensity increased as my sister and I got older. By high school, our summer was a June ten-day trip to the Allagash, July was a week-long trip to the West Branch of the Penobscot River and Chesuncook Lake, and then we’d always have an extended family trip to Mooselookmeguntic Lake.”
During these trips and in her time spent outdoors with her father, who is the Director of the Junior Maine Guide Program, Ms. Curtis learned to respect nature and to value the resources that we have. As she explains, a huge part of that cultivated respect is simply “unplugging: being in the woods without music, with other people, playing card games.”
The other motivating part of Ms. Curtis’ work with camping trips stems from the brilliant departures from the checklists. In her words, “once all of the plans are made to ensure safety, you can mess up. And that’s okay.” Indeed, camping trips return to campus laughing over strangely combined flavors for dinner, slight diversions from the trail, even getting lost in the van ride back. The departures from the checklist sometimes create the best adventures.
Because when you depart from a checklist, you discover the opportunity to “figure it out.” You learn to cook, start a fire, paddle, reorient yourself in the woods. You learn to make due. You learn to make an adventure out of a surprise.
“You see a spark [in this respect],” Ms. Curtis explains. “During the paddling trip this year, we had a 14-mile day. At the start of the day, you have kids that can’t go in straight lines, and then they figure it out. You give them a couple pointers. And they figure it out: how to hold the paddle, how to fix the stroke. We had some really hard winds, and no one complained. They learned. It was pretty cool.”
Part of what makes that learning process essential to the Dublin experience is that it is a community process. Yes, individuals set goals and follow passions and curiosities. But the building process comes with many voices, questions, and diverse personalities who meet as a team for the task of “figuring it out.”
Ms. Curtis finds that the intentional small group on camping trips helps nourish that community spirit and truly allows individuals to open up. She recounts that while she was shuttling a bus down the road, Mr. Lindsay Brown, her co-leader, told her that “for the first half hour [she] was gone, the kids didn’t talk. He got them loading canoes, which had minimal talking. And then, somehow, by the end of the three days, everyone was talking.”
“It’s one full, cohesive unit,” she elaborates. “The students surprise you with what they say and what they are comfortable saying, and I don’t think that would happen in an on-school orientation. This gives them a group. Even though they probably go in different ways, they know that they’ve felt safe and comfortable with people from Dublin. It’s a fresh new start with people you can trust.”
When the trips have turned in and everyone is home on Dublin’s campus, each group unpacks the school tents and sets up each tent on Upper Field. The field is colored with bright red, blue, and orange tents, their rain flies set, their zippers open to catch the breeze and air out from rain and backpack-stuffed dampness. Students have worked together to set up all of the tents before returning to their dorms and homes.
Soon after all of the tents have been happily staked to the field, a sudden windstorm tears across campus. Branches are flying, the wind is wheezing, and all of the tents, having been so immaculately set, go flying. Ms. Curtis e-mails the campus, and students run up to help catch the flying tents. Students and faculty members run up in waves to help, only to be greeted by a tumultuous rainstorm. Right when one tent is secured, another flies away.
Right when the job seems done, it isn’t.
“Even the best laid plans,” smiles Ms. Curtis.
The departures from the checklist extend beyond camping trips. We plan and we expect, but sometimes, we end up laughing and running across a wind-swept field, trying to captured the colorful, flying tents.
The learning process extends beyond camping trips into the way that we conduct our lives here and outside of Dublin. “Things will always go wrong,” says Ms. Curtis. “Even the best planned trip: something will happen that you never expected. Be ready to adjust, to laugh with it, and to enjoy the surprises. Once the safety measures are there, most things can go wrong, and you will figure it out together.”
Camping trips show us all that you can plan a hike only to meet rain, you can spill a Nalgene on one of the essential dry ingredients for dinner and reinvent the meal with cinnamon, you can barely have a handle on paddling, and, instead of someone telling you what to do to stay the course, you can try a few times until you figure it out.
We have since returned to the nourishing rigors of academics: with our planners, our calendars, our reminders, our checklists. We meet deadlines, we give our all, we will ourselves to learn well and creatively. Once we have our books and our assignments and our plans, we get to the real fun: the sometimes messy, always collaborative, refreshingly adventurous journey of figuring it out.