In late December, a small group of NYC Outward Bound Schools students and instructors spent eight days canoeing through the Florida Everglades, learning about native wildlife in the mangroves, and even catching a spontaneous fireworks show on a distant shore. It was a New Year’s celebration unlike any other.
The expedition was run in partnership with North Carolina Outward Bound School, and gave 13 adventurous students from Brooklyn Collaborative, Channel View, James Baldwin, Leaders and WHEELS, the opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and into a completely new environment.
For Jean-Marcel, a 12th grader at James Baldwin, the adventure began even before arriving in Florida.
“I was really excited for the flight, because this was my first time on a plane,” he said. “But the whole way there, I was nervous about the trip, thinking — how am I going to do this?”
The group of 13 was split into two smaller Crews for the duration of the trip, and each navigated their own course, paddling for hours — a task that came with a steep learning curve and sore arms.
After a full day of paddling through open Gulf waters and narrow mangrove tunnels, the Crews would set up camp on nearby beaches — or sometimes, on the canoes themselves, using boards to cover the hull and seats. Evenings were marked by brilliant sunsets, Crew meetings and chow circles under the stars.
“Setting up the boards on our canoes felt like it took hours,” said Katy, an 11th grader at James Baldwin, mentioning how physically taxing the beginning of the trip felt. “But those were the best sleeps I’ve ever had!”
As the week progressed, the days fell into a more predictable routine, but not without some obstacles along the way.
“We had some bad weather, new challenging experiences, some homesickness over a holiday — but the students really bonded together. They were family,” said Emma Turcotte, one of two NYC Outward Bound Schools instructors on the trip.
“I think back to day one, when none of us had any idea what we were doing — and then to see the whole Crew paddling together on the water by the end of the week. That was the best moment,” added Marcus Mekhail, a NYC Outward Bound Schools instructor and Leaders alum. “It was textbook Outward Bound.”
Unlike NYC Outward Bound’s overnight camping trips to the Hudson Valley, this expedition combined students from five schools across the network, asking them to build trust in each other and work as a team.
“No one was left behind,” said Emma. “And that was the theme for the whole trip — very early on, they started looking out for each other.”
Emma, who attended a canoe trip to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters in high school, says that enduring challenges and seeing the transformation of the students across eight days reminds her why these types of trips are important.
“A week can really open someone’s eyes,” she said, “And make them feel more confident.”
Chaperone Ashley Juvonen, a special services teacher in the math and science departments at James Baldwin, said that she enjoyed seeing her students in a new light.
“Seeing Jean-Marcel fearlessly board up the canoes and jump back and forth between canoes was really fun. It was great to see him do what needed to be done and lean into that confidence. And I saw Katy open up and step into leadership roles, both formal and informal. She’s a really powerful and kind leader, and people listen to her good judgment.”
The trip may be over, but the Outward Bound experience isn’t. Jean-Marcel and Katy developed a slide deck and presented to the entire school about their expedition, ending on a powerful quote from James Baldwin, himself — ”Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“I want to do more Outward Bound courses or maybe lead them,” said Jean-Marcel, who recently signed on to be part of NYC Outward Bound Schools’ new rock climbing student internship. “I brought more confidence back with me, and that’s an experience I want to bring to other people.”