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Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW)
Over 10,000 years ago, continental-sized glaciers scraped their way across much of Ontario and northern Minnesota leaving deep ruts, ravines, and holes in their tracks. Eventually, as the glaciers melted, these ravines filled with water, creating a seemingly endless interconnected web of lakes and rivers.
In 1978, the United States designated over 1-million acres of this Northern Minnesota landscape as a protected wilderness area called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Because no roads, power lines, or motorized craft may enter its borders, the BWCAW has remained relatively unchanged since the glaciers receded. The BWCAW extends nearly 150 miles along the Canadian border and encompasses more than 1,000 lakes and rivers. Over 1,200 miles of navigable routes lead to over 2,200 campsites and provide an unparalleled opportunity to travel by canoe and dogsled.
In the winter, the BWCAW transforms into an even more severe and remote wilderness. While more difficult, winter enthusiasts’ travel over frozen lakes and rivers by dogsled, cross-country ski and snowshoe. Winter in the Boundary Waters is mesmerizing, peaceful, and exhilarating. It is a place of spectacular extremes, trackless snow, bracing cold air, glowing warm embers, and powerful silence.
Homeplace, Voyageur Outward Bound School Basecamp, Minnesota
Homeplace is located at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Situated where the Kawishiwi River meets Birch Lake in the Superior National Forest, the Voyageur Outward Bound School basecamp provides an ideal location for launching/ending BWCAW paddling and dogsledding trips, and practicing white water paddling skills. The surrounding boreal forest also makes Homeplace a great location for spotting moose, wolves, beavers, deer, woodpeckers, eagles and black bear.
Big Bend region, Texas
The Texas course area, one of the most remote and geologically interesting in the Outward Bound system, lies along the US-Mexico border in southwestern Texas. The Rio Grande River carves a huge sweeping bend through the area earning its namesake, Big Bend National Park. This 750,000-square acre wilderness is an ideal setting for desert backpacking, canyoneering and rock climbing. Delicate desert flowers exist alongside fossilized trees millions of years old, mountain passes give way to steep-walled canyons and cliffs.
The Chihuahuan Desert of Texas is usually dry, warm during the day and cool at night. Students may encounter hot sun or a snow shower. Desert temperatures vary widely. Night temperatures are often cooler, averaging 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Solo – Weather and time permitting, an Outward Bound Solo experience provides an important break from the rigors of the expedition and gives students the opportunity to reflect on their Outward Bound experience. The duration of Solo depends on the course length and type as well as the competency and preparedness of the student group. Students on a 3-week course typically spend 2-nights on Solo while students on a 1-week course may spend one night or even just a few hours on Solo. Regardless of Solo length, all students receive sufficient food, water, and shelter to keep them safe and healthy during Solo. Instructors choose Solo sites to offer as much solitude as possible while retaining some proximity to the whole group. While students spend the majority of their Solo time alone, Instructors do check on each student as often as needed, usually 1-4 times per day, to ensure that each student feels safe and comfortable. Instructors work with each student individually to structure a successful, unique Solo experience that meets their specific needs. Solo is purposefully scheduled near the end of the expedition so students have plenty of time to acclimate to their new environments beforehand.
Students often have mixed feelings leading up to Solo. Inevitably, students feel some nervousness and hesitation but are also excited to rest, reflect and test their new skills after spending many days in the wilderness. Students often find that Solo provokes profound and powerful learning in a short period of time and Solo often becomes one of the most memorable parts of their Outward Bound experience.
Final Expedition – Outward Bound believes that an appropriate amount of independence is a powerful educational tool. In order to deliver that benefit, Outward Bound purposefully and gradually transfers certain leadership responsibilities to the students culminating with our “Final Expedition.” Near the end of course, if you and your group have demonstrated the necessary leadership, team problem-solving and wilderness living skills, you may be given the opportunity to travel without your instructors immediately present. Students on courses designed for ages 16 and older may travel without instructors immediately present (although they will be near the group for safety reasons) for one to five days depending on course length, student age, staff assessment of students’ abilities, and terrain. Many of our students feel this phase of the course is the most rewarding as the group learns to work together, problem solve, and accomplish a goal independently while utilizing all the skills they have acquired.
Service – Service is an integral part of the Outward Bound curriculum. In addition to practicing Leave No Trace® ethics on all Outward Bound expeditions, Outward Bound also coordinates service projects with land management agencies like the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, local land trusts, and social service agencies like nursing homes and hospitals. Most Outward Bound students have an opportunity to participate in at least one service project during their course. Intercept courses always include 2-4 days of community service.
Dogsledding and Skiing - The small town of Ely, Minnesota, where the Voyageur Outward Bound School is located, is known as the dogsledding capitol of the lower 48 states for good reason. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, one of the most historically significant and remote wilderness areas in North America, is located just outside Ely’s back door and as temperatures drop, winter transforms these historic canoe routes into beautiful, snow-covered environments ideal for winter travel. During a Voyageur Outward Bound School Dogsledding and Skiing expedition, students travel over frozen lakes and rivers while learning how to manage teams of huskies, cross-country ski, navigate with a map and compass, check ice-conditions, process firewood, and generally stay comfortable in potentially sub-zero temperatures. The group usually consists of 9 people, 7 students and 2 Instructors, and splits into two smaller groups each day. Half the group travels on cross-country skis and is responsible for breaking trail, navigating, scouting for hazards, and checking for safe ice conditions. The other half of the group follows on dogsleds, transporting most of the equipment, and food. Mushing is not a passenger sport and, depending on the snow conditions, often requires mushers to push the sled or run and walk along with the dogs. If the skiing group encounters particularly rough terrain or steep hills, they wait for the mushers to arrive and help maneuver the heavy dogsleds. Groups travel during the day and look for an appropriate camping spot each evening.
Winter Camping - Winter weather in Minnesota varies dramatically from harsh, cold wind to bright, less-cold sunshine, but in general it’s always cold. Temperatures range from -40 to 20 degrees in the heart of the winter (December through February) and -20 to 50 degrees as spring approaches in March. Living outside during a northern winter requires the right equipment, skills, and teamwork, but it can be done comfortably. Instructors teach students how to mitigate cold weather risks, dress appropriately, and manage body temperature with food and exercise.
In order to minimize environmental impact, groups cook and sleep directly on frozen lakes. For this reason, groups always look for a sheltered bay out of the wind each evening. Upon reaching camp, groups divide camp chores to set up camp efficiently. Students learn to take care of sled dogs, set up sleeping shelters, cook meals over a fire, and saw and split firewood. If the weather is particularly cold or wet groups might setup the wall-tent, a large canvas tent with a woodstove. The wall-tent gets very warm and is large enough to fit the entire group inside.
Desert Backpacking - Students backpack through rugged desert up to the mountainous terrain – elevations range from 2,500 to 7,500 feet. During the expedition, instructors will help you learn safe desert travel, teaching how to plan the expedition around water management strategies. The group will navigate “from tinaja to tinaja” – desert water sources vital to desert life. Following trails or traveling cross-country, the group will explore wide open expanses and encounter water-sculptured canyons. Here it will be necessary to scramble around boulders, climb low walls, or give packs or companions a boost.
Students will grow accustomed to backpacking over rough terrain and become familiar with balancing and shifting weight while carrying a pack. Each student carries his or her own personal gear, some group gear, and four to six liters of water in an internal frame pack. Packs weigh at least 50 lbs., sometimes considerably more. Students often choose to redistribute weight according to physical strength. Courses are designed to be challenging. Outward Bound requires that groups travel together for safety and peer motivation and form a blend of everyone’s backpacking styles and needs.
Rio Grande Canoeing - After learning basic whitewater strokes in calm currents, students begin the expedition. The group will spend five to six days traveling downriver through sections of calm currents and whitewater. The whitewater of the Rio Grande offers beginning paddlers a progressive challenge, and a perfect place to learn and hone skills.
When the group reaches a set of rapids, the group will stop to read the current, deciding whether to run the rapids or portage around, examining the river for obstacles and current patterns. As a group, you'll decide the best route, and then plan and assign roles for a river safety system. While two paddlers maneuver a canoe through the rapids, other group members observe, ready to activate the safety system and paddle after floating gear, should a canoe dump or tip over.
Course End – All courses end with a shower, graduation ceremony and celebration dinner. Shower facilities are available at the basecamp.
Wilderness First Aid – A two-day introduction to general medical concepts and basic life support skills. It is targeted to the outdoor enthusiast on day trips or short adventures. The course is taught by professional instructors with significant patient care and backcountry experience. Course topics are: Patient Assessment System, CPR, Circulatory System, Nervous System, Respiratory System, Fractures, Stable Injuries, Splints 1-Extremities, Hypothermia, Hyperthermia and Heat Illness, Near Drowning, Lightning Injuries, Wounds and Burns, Anaphylaxis, Lifting, Moving Extrication, Patient Carries, and Backcountry Medicine.
Personal Challenge Event – Time and weather permitting, Voyageur Outward Bound School courses end with a Personal Challenge Event (PCE), a final individual physical push. The PCE usually involves an 8-mile run starting as the sun rises over the mountains in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
The PCE is non-competitive. Each student sets his/her own time goal for completion and works toward it to see how their mental and physical stamina has grown as a result of their wilderness expedition. Students celebrate the completion of their wilderness expedition and PCE with a final banquet and graduation ceremony at the basecamp.
The following is an example of what your course itinerary may look like. Your actual itinerary will vary according to weather, student skills and abilities, and instructor preferences.
Day 1: The course begins at the Duluth Airport before transporting to the Voyageur Outward Bound School basecamp near Ely, MN. Meet your Outward Bound Instructors, organize your equipment, eat dinner and sleep outside on the very first night of the course.
Days 2-5: Participate in a cross country skiing lesson before departing the basecamp and entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. During this first training expedition everyone skis and pulls a pulk sled full of equipment. Learn how to prevent cold injuries, navigate with a map and compass, read ice conditions and construct sleeping shelters. You will travel during the day and camp in the evenings.
Days 6-8: Return to the basecamp to prepare for the next phase of the expedition. Pack food and equipment, plan a route, meet your dog teams, practice dogsledding on day-trips around the basecamp and sleep in a wood-stove heated cabin. You’ll also spend some of this time learning to build a dog sled, which your group will then use throughout the rest of your expedition.
Days 9-20: Depart the basecamp and enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the main phase of the expedition. Half the group travels by ski and half by dogsled, switching from day to day. Learn to care for a team of huskies, process firewood, cook over a fire, and stay warm in sub-zero temperatures as you travel and camp along your route.
Days 21-23: Spend one full day and two nights alone in your own quiet, bay for the Solo phase of the expedition. Test new skills by building fires, cooking hot meals and constructing a sleeping shelter.
Days 24-27: Execute the final phase of the expedition as a group with less guidance from your Outward Bound Instructors. Continue to travel and camp as you make your way back to the basecamp.
Day 28: Return to the basecamp and clean equipment before taking a sauna and polar plunge in the frozen river (through a hole cut in the ice). Take a hot shower, eat indoor meals and sleep in a wood-stove heated cabin.
Days 29-30: Participate in service projects around the Outward Bound basecamp and within the local community.
Days 31-33: Participate in a 16-hour Wilderness First Aid course and receive your WFA certification.
Day 34: Eat an early indoor breakfast before departing for the airport and traveling to El Paso.
Day 35: Travel by plane to El Paso, meet an Outward Bound staff representative, then travel in the Outward Bound van to Redford, TX, tucked between the mountains of Texas and Mexico. The journey takes about 5 hours and meanders through low and high desert grasslands and small towns like Marfa and Presidio. Local families have lived in Redford for centuries and Spanish is more commonly spoken than English. Upon arrival in Redford you’ll meet your Outward Bound Instructors, organize your equipment, eat dinner and sleep in tents on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Days 36-49: Begin the paddling portion of your expedition with an introduction to whitewater paddling session. Gain experience as you paddle down the Rio Grande, taking time to understand each rapid before and after you paddle through it. Pass through the amazing canyons where the river has carved its way through mountains.
Day 50: Spend the day climbing at a gorgeous wilderness rock climbing site.
Days 51-57: Enter the vast expanse of Big Bend National Park and begin backpacking. Learn to set-up camp, cook over camp-stoves, and navigate with a map and compass. During this phase participate in a solo experience, where you will have a small campsite to yourself overnight and the instructors will check on you periodically.
Days 58-60: Begin the final phase of the expedition. Work with your group to navigate to the course-end location with less oversight from your Instructors.
Days 61-62: Participate in a community service project.
Day 63: Start the morning with the Personal Challenge Event. Clean-up your expedition equipment, shower, and attend a graduation ceremony before enjoying a final banquet celebration.
Day 64: Eat an early breakfast and depart for the airport to travel home.
In addition to the expedition itself and all of the skills and learning associated with it, Outward Bound’s time-tested curriculum includes education on the many aspects of personal growth and learning that can be found in each activity you undertake. You will learn four important Outward Bound Core Values:
You may find that the most important lessons you take home are learning about yourself and your community while acquiring backcountry skills and having an adventure.You’ll learn to protect and appreciate the unique, unspoiled environments through which you travel.
Successful completion of your course demands mastery of skills, trust, fitness, confidence, tenacity, leadership, initiative and compassion. The promotion of these qualities and the discovery of what’s in you is the purpose of Outward Bound.
Weather is always a factor when traveling in the wilderness and it adds an exciting element of challenge to each course. Learning to handle varying weather conditions is essential to a successful wilderness course.
Minnesota’s weather can be unpredictable with a wide range of temperatures. Between December and March Minnesota temperatures can range from -40 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but -20 to 20 degree nights and days are the most common. Days are typically very sunny with bright blue skies. Wind and snow are common.
In Texas the temperatures vary between 35-95+ degrees during the spring. Typically there will be little to no rainfall during the desert portion of your course, though an occasional storm will happen.
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VOBS COVID-19 Practices Page This includes all our COVID-19 policies and expectations.
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