It’s hard to believe twenty years ago I went out on my first overnight canoe camping trip. Reflecting on it now, snapshots start to roll through my head of places, people and fun that I have had. Am I really that old to have this many experiences outside or have I just been that lucky?
It all started with that first experience being lead by my counselors up a small river which now I would call a creek. I had no idea what to expect, I was amazingly nervous about the whole experience.
Paddling up the Manito-wish River took all day, a route in which I may have repeated 100 times at this point. The teamwork to move around the dam, setting up camp and cooking over the open fire was all a foundational set of skills I have used countless times in my career. Even more important was the foundational experience in which I worked as a cog in the wheel of a team.
I loved these experiences going “on trail” in the summer, I never wanted it to stop. The next step was to change rolls and help lead these experiences. As a novice, I focused on the hard skills of paddling, navigation and camping. Looking back now I see how much I missed in my early leadership roles. I truly was a novice leader and had a lot to learn about communication and leadership. Through time and reflection, these skills too came along.
Summers passed, my college experience progressed. I could not get enough. Annually. at the end of the summer season, friends and I took off for personal trips to the Quetico and French River. This took fun to the next level. I was able to push my self harder, and start to understand my leadership potential. Finally at the end of college a good friend and I took off from Winnipeg on the train for Lynn Lake, Manitoba. Starting on Reindeer Lake we paddled to the head waters of the Seal River and descended the Seal to Hudson Bay and eventually Churchill. Writing this now, I still can't believe we did this trip. The logistical and terrain challenges were intense, not to mention we only had each other to depend on. We reminisced about this trip recently. I think we both agree, we might have been a bit crazy. Life perspective is an amazing thing.
I knew what I wanted to do with myself. I wanted to work, travel and lead outside. I jumped into teaching skiing, guiding sea kayaking and leading for the National Outdoor Leadership School. At twenty-three I had my dream job. I traveled and camped for more than half of the year. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to some of the most amazing places. From Canada's Yukon to the Kimberly of Australia paddling in a wide range of environments with some amazing people. Looking back at the most amazing and successful courses, it was the co-workers and the students that made them successful and memorable for me and not the location. I was able to learn from some of the best, and in turn lead an coach some of the future. I continued to develop my own leadership and teaching style. Spending the time to tweak and perfect things as I went.
At the beginning I had set some goals and about ten years later I had achieved them. I had accumulated over one hundred weeks working in the field. I had realized something was missing for me. I still loved being outside and working with people, but I had this desire to spend some more time at my home in Montana. I don't really know what changed, maybe it was living in an incredible place that made me not want to leave it. Maybe it was that I had just reached my goals. I spent my final full time summer managing NOLS' river base in Salmon, Idaho with my arm in a sling from a recent shoulder surgery.
Working hard through the summer to recover, I pulled a last-second slot on a Grand Canyon permit. The Main Salmon was closed due to forest fires, courses were canceled. Things lined up perfectly. I headed down with some new and old friends to Lee's Ferry. Personal trips, what an amazing thing. 16 days later we took out at Diamond. Wow!
It wasn't the canyon trip that sent me back to school, but a new set of goals. I returned to nursing school. I had my eyes on a lifestyle. Work hard and play harder. I now am a Nurse at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital. I work 6 days on and have 8 off. I use my leadership and communication skills daily as a charge nurse. I truly believe my success in health care can be directly attributed to the leadership and communication skills I developed working outdoors.
I love “being on trail”. I took my Mother (Manito-wish Alum) down the Canyon a few summers back, what an experience to share. This, along with having my trip mate from the Seal, made it an amazing trip in an amazing place. For me now it is all about the people in whatever I do. The skills I have developed and gleaned from co-workers, trip mates, students and family all have made me who I am today. Maybe it was a few decisions along the way that got me to were I am now or just a few lucky opportunities, I don't know. Either way I am happy I was hooked with the first paddle into the wind on my way to “Upper Dam.”
Stewart Chumbley has led trips at both Camp Manito-wish YMCA and the National Outdoor Leadership School. He now lives in Gallatin Gatewar, Montana
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