Plans to resume operations in fall
Due to safety considerations about COVID-19, the Northwest Outward Bound School has canceled all programming until Sept. 1, including its operations on Lost River Road in Mazama.
“In early March we started realizing that COVID-19 restrictions were going to have a significant impact on the way we operate,” said Program Director Joel Reid. “We made the decision to cancel based on several things: Outward Bound safety policies, state restrictions, and limitations imposed by the land managers we work with for our special use permits to use the forests, recreation areas, and national park.”
Reid said that he had hired roughly 50 new and returning staff to work out of the Mazama basecamp, some of whom would be leading expeditions and others of whom would be in support roles, such as food and gear systems, basecamp maintenance and transportation. For the summer, Reid will remain in his role as program director, but at 25% of his normal capacity. A caretaker will continue to live on-site as well.
Giving up the summer season — the busiest one for the Mazama basecamp — will be hard, said Reid. “The summer is the part of the job I like the most,” he said. “All winter we plan for the big summer season; we put so much effort into getting ready. We sort of tolerate the administrative work of the winter in order to get to the really rewarding work of the summer.”
Reid continued, “Delivering Outward Bound’s mission, seeing our impact on students, training staff, enjoying the camaraderie of the community — we are all going to miss that a lot this summer. But we’re putting all of our energy into planning for the fall now. We’re still taking enrollment and planning to operate programs.”
Some of these planned fall programs, said Reid, include the orientation programs that Outward Bound has been running with the Methow Valley School District for seventh- and ninth-graders, as well as students from the Independent Learning Center (ILC). “Our plans hinge on many factors,” said Reid, acknowledging that fall 2020 school operations are still up in the air, “but we don’t want to miss an opportunity to work with the more than 100 local students we are planning for. We will adapt to accommodate necessary restrictions and safety measures.”
The orientation program Reid refers to was initiated years ago, with a grant through the No Child Left Inside initiative. When that grant funding fell through, private funding within the valley covered the cost for seventh- and ninth-grade students, as well as ILC students, to spend one to three days, and one or two nights, at Outward Bound, learning basic camping and navigation skills, rock climbing, hiking, and completing a service project, as well as developing a sense of unity, learning to work together, and exploring interpersonal dynamics.
“It’s an important partnership,” said Reid of the collaboration with the school district. “We try to reach every student in those grades and at the ILC. Many local kids have spent a lot of time learning outdoor skills, but many haven’t. They end up working together, belaying each other, learning to trust each other, and developing a different relationship than they might have had before. They all go through it together.”
Reid noted that for many years, Outward Bound’s scholarship pool has covered the cost of a local teen completing an Outward Bound 14- or 22-day expedition, and would have done so again this summer. Additionally for summer 2020, Outward Bound secured verbal commitments from two local donors to cover the cost of expeditions for two additional students. None of those programs will happen this summer; however, Reid is hopeful that they will resume in the summer of 2021.
Methow Valley nonprofit organizations that benefit from Outward Bound’s robust service component will be affected by the summer programming cancelation as well. In 2019, Outward Bound students and staff provided more than 600 hours of service to local organizations like Methow At Home, Little Star Montessori School, TwispWorks, Classroom in Bloom, and Methow Arts. Those service offerings, too, are now postponed until the fall.
For the 50 staff members who would have been employed by Outward Bound this summer, the season ahead looks unlike what they had hoped. Some are staying employed in the service jobs they worked over the winter; others are collecting unemployment and looking for other work. A few are employed at least until the end of June doing special projects for Outward Bound, through Outward Bound’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.
But the staff isn’t just taking a financial hit; they’re taking an emotional one as well. “These instructors and base staff are committed to our mission and our work,” said Reid, who has been working for Outward Bound since 2008 and living in the valley year-round since 2015. “This is their home and they love it. It’s hard for them to give that up for the summer.”
Outward Bound’s founder, Kurt Hahn, famously wrote “Your disability is your opportunity,” and in true Outward Bound fashion, as soon as summer programming was canceled, the Outward Bound community immediately began talking about other ways to engage students, staff, and alumni during the pause in operations.
“We can’t offer summer programs right now,” said Reid, “but as the world starts to recover from the pandemic, Outward Bound is going to be more relevant and more needed than ever before.”
Outward Bound’s relevance has shown itself during periods of global instability for the past 70 years, and in fact, owes its existence to one such time of turbulence. During World War II, when British merchant ships were being sunk by German submarines and sailors took to lifeboats, older sailors survived at a greater rate than younger, more fit, cadets.
A merchant ship line-owner determined that it was young sailors’ lack of life experience that defeated them, and enlisted Hahn to help him develop a training program that would “arm the cadet against the enemies within — fear, defeatism, apathy, selfishness.” That program evolved into the modern-day Outward Bound.
Outward Bound develops resilience, Reid said. “What better time for young people to work on their resilience than now?”
Reid also addressed the civil unrest in the country right now. “Equity, diversity, and inclusion are big priorities for Outward Bound,” he said. “Respecting and living in harmony with people who have different beliefs and values than you– Outward Bound facilitates that. Things like this make our work at Outward Bound more important than ever before.”