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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.
Portaging – Groups work as a team to carry packs and canoes over portage trails when transitioning from one lake to another or around challenging rapids. Portage trails are rugged and often rocky or hilly. They vary in length from 10 yards to a mile or longer. Pack weights also vary depending on the length of the trip, and how much personal equipment each group member brings along. Personal packs weigh at least 40 pounds and sometimes considerably more. Food and equipment packs usually weigh between 50 and 70 pounds. Each canoe is outfitted with shoulder pads on the center thwart, and when turned upside down, can be carried on one person’s shoulders. Canoes weigh 75 pounds.
Rock Climbing – At one or two different points during the expedition, students have the opportunity to climb at a stunning, outdoor rock climbing site. Outward Bound chooses rock climbing sites that provide a number of different route options including cracks, sheer faces, and chimneys. Regardless of a student’s rock climbing background, everyone is sure to find something that will both challenge and encourage them. All Outward Bound rock climbing experiences are heavily supervised and employ safety systems that are compliant with national standards.
During climbing days, students learn about general rock-climbing equipment, safety and etiquette before practicing how to belay. Students have many opportunities to climb, belay, and rappel throughout the day. Rappelling involves stepping over the edge and controlling one’s own descent.
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.
High Ropes Course – The Voyageur Outward Bound School High Ropes Course is an incredible obstacle course set 30-feet in the air. Students look out over the top of the boreal forest as they swing from Tarzan ropes, walk on a tight-rope wires, and climb a cargo net before jumping off the zip line for a smooth ride back to solid ground. Most groups have an opportunity to test their nerve on the ropes course if their course incorporates a short stay at the Outward Bound basecamp, usually before or after their field expedition.
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.
Personal Challenge Event – Time and weather permitting, Voyageur Outward Bound School courses end with a Personal Challenge Event (PCE), a final individual physical push. In the summer, the PCE usually includes a triathlon-style paddle, portage, and run. In the winter, the PCE involves a distance ski, sauna, and polar plunge.
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.
Canoeing – It’s possible to canoe to the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans from the Voyageur Outward Bound School basecamp in land-locked northern Minnesota. These journeys, which take anywhere from 3 months or longer, always begin in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW); a million-acre protected expanse of interconnected lakes and rivers. It is also one of the most historically significant and remote wilderness areas in North America.
Because all Voyageur Outward Bound School canoeing courses are un-resupplied, groups paddle with absolutely everything they will need for their entire expedition, allowing students to journey deep into the wilderness. This type of extended wilderness experience, along with our highly-trained Instructors, help students develop and refine new expedition skills, cultivate a deep connection with the environment, form meaningful friendships, and develop a better understanding themselves through challenge and discovery.
During a Voyageur Outward Bound School canoeing expedition, students learn a variety of paddling skills to contend with diverse weather and waterway conditions as they canoe from campsite to campsite. Wind speeds tend to increase around noon and sometimes remain strong throughout the day. For this reason, groups will often rise early to take advantage of flat waters in the morning and then enjoy a longer lunch break as they wait for the windiest part of the day to pass. Paddling partners work together to steer and power their boats through rivers, swamps and lakes, usually traveling between 8 and 20 miles a day. Students also learn how to portage, navigate with a map and compass, cook over a fire or stove, and employ Leave No Trace® wilderness ethics.
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.
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 in El Paso before transporting to your first campsite near the Voyageur Outward Bound School basecamp in Redford, TX. Meet your Outward Bound Instructors, organize your equipment, eat dinner and sleep under the stars.
Days 2-11: Enter the vast expanse of the Big Bend and Chihuahuan Desert Region and begin backpacking on-trail and navigating washes, canyons, and ridges by map and compass. 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 12-14: Begin the final phase of the backpacking expedition. Work with your group to navigate to the course-end location with less oversight from your Instructors.
Day 15: Spend the day climbing at a gorgeous rock climbing site overlooking the Rio Grande.
Days 16-29: 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.
Days 30-31: Participate in a Community Service project, clean up, and participate in a Personal Challenge Event.
Day 32-35: Travel with your group to Duluth, MN
Day 36: Enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and begin traveling. Learn to paddle and portage a canoe, set-up camp, and cook over a fire. Travel until it’s time to set-up camp each night.
Days 37-50: Continue paddling and portaging from campsite to campsite as you refine your wilderness skills and get to know your group.
Day 51-52: Experience Solo. Take time to rest and reflect at your own little campsite on the shore of a lake. You will not travel during this time and your Instructors will check on you occasionally.
Day 53-54: Work with your group to navigate back to the Voyageur Outward Bound School basecamp.
Day 55: Spend the day Rock Climbing at one of the area’s beautiful climbing sites.
Days 56-61: Plan and execute the Student Planned Final Expedition.
Day 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. Spring is a great time to experience northern Minnesota. It is cool and crisp and the forest is filled with peace and quiet. Spring brings melting ice and dramatic change across the watery landscape. The weather can be unpredictable, ranging from bright sunshine, warm rain or sometimes snow. Average temperatures are cool, but can range from 30-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Evenings can be chilly, but it’s typically sunny and comfortable during the day.
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.
This tab houses ALL of the COVID-19 information for your course. Please refer to the following resources and information for any questions you may have about COVID-19 and your course.
*If you have received a COVID-19 vaccine you still need to adhere to all COVID-19 safety practices.
This page houses information about pre-course policies/expectations, testing and travel guidelines, and on-course policies.
If you have a question about anything related to COVID-19- look here! The answer is probably included on this page. If you cannot find an answer to your question on this page please reach out to your Course Advisor.
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Testing timeline example: If your course starts on 2/4/21 then your 3-day prior test should be completed on 2/1/21.
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