DIY Outward Bound

In 1941, educator and Outward Bound creator Kurt Hahn was called upon to answer a question that plagued the British Navy: Why was it that older sailors survived longer than their similarly equipped but more youthful counterparts when the going got tough? The answer, Hahn determined, came from within. And if you have a few thousand dollars and more vacation days than the average American earns in a year, his program can transform you from a swiftly sinking youthful sailor into a confident old salt who actually returns home after each mission.

Although the Outward Bound terminology is maritime — "outward bound" is a term used for ships heading out to open sea — here in America most of the programs revolve around camping, hiking and climbing.

I'm all about the personal growth and confidence building that Outward Bound advertises, but there's no way I would spend money and time that could be used at a Jamaican resort to get it. So I started my own program: Do It Yourself Outward Bound.

There may be some copyright issues with the name, but the program works as well as Hahn's, without the painful strain of writing a fat check.

My initial plan was this: go to Ocala National Forest with a compass and a backpack. Abandon the trail built for pansies and navigate my way through the brush like Davy Crockett's younger, smarter sister. Camp and sleep under the stars with a roaring campfire to keep me warm. After a few cups of campfire coffee, navigate my way back, appreciating all manner of flora and fauna along the way. Arrive home with a renewed sense of my ability to survive without a cell phone and Dine 11.

Eager to get started, I called up Ann at the ranger station in Ocala National Forest and told her of my brilliant, cheap, DIY Outward Bound plan. Her initial assessment of me and my idea was this: I was a dumbass and my plan would almost certainly result in my well-deserved demise.

"This isn't a State Park," Ann said. "We don't get out there and mow the lawn every day, you know."

Navigating off the trail would be like trying to maneuver through Wyoming after being dropped in the wilderness by a plane, she said. When, not if, my friends and family began to call the ranger station saying I was missing "somewhere in Ocala National Forest," all Ann would be able to do is laugh. "We wouldn't even know where to start looking (for the body)," she added.

Not only is navigating with a compass much harder than it looks in movies, we had bigger things to consider than getting lost, Ann said. Like bears.

I hadn't figured on bears.

Plan B was this: I would arrive at Ocala National Forest with a map, a backpack and my boyfriend, who could distract the bears while I ran. I would stick to the pansy trail.

Ann loved plan B. She got all friendly and helpful and stopped pointing out all the ways I could die in the forest. She told me to bring bug spray, plenty of water and to have a good time.

My boyfriend and I had planned to go to the bookstore and check out some survival lit, but we ran out of time and ended up swapping survival advice we'd seen in the movies. "If you're attacked by a bear you should just play dead," he said.

No, I countered, if a bear is stalking you, you have to turn the tables and start stalking it, like Anthony Hopkins did in that movie The Edge.

We'd never seen a poisonous snake and didn't know what one would look like, but if we got bitten we agreed that we had to cut a little X where the fangs went in then suck out the venom.

There were bobcats in the woods, but we didn't need to make out a plan for dealing with them since they're so close to extinction that they'd probably run for their lives at the site of a human.

We also had no plan for the biggest, scariest creature we would run into on our overnight trip — me.

I had planned on arriving at Alexander Springs in Ocala around noon. That way we'd have time to snorkel before setting off on the trail. I put on my bathing suit and a pair of shorts before I left the house so I wouldn't have to waste time changing when I got there.

I had made such meticulous plans that when I encountered 10 mph traffic and Mapquest directions that took us 30 minutes out of our way I couldn't accept these setbacks with any patience or grace. When we arrived at Alexander Springs four hours later than planned I was grim and tense.

I did not get to commune with nature; instead I hauled ass up the trail trying to hike in as far as I could before nightfall would force me to make camp. I ridiculed my boyfriend's need for rest and water. I strained a muscle in my shoulder because I didn't want to stop and adjust my pack.

At the beginning of the trail, the woods were sparse and I saw plenty of places we could camp for the night. I wasn't concerned as the sun began to sink while we hiked. Within an hour, though, the woods became dense and I started to realize that I might have miscalculated the time I had to choose a site. It could be miles before we hit another clear area and we'd have to hike using our flashlights.

I mulled that over as we pressed on and felt relieved when my companion pointed out the perfect nook to make camp in the crowded forest. Relieved and a little disappointed. I'd wanted this to be a hardcore trip and we'd hiked for less than two hours. Setting up camp with at least another hour of sunlight seemed like copping out, even though I knew that this nook might be the last of its kind.

To my companion's dismay I insisted we keep hiking. I wasn't going to settle. If I were one of Hahn's sailors, I'd have been a teenage drowning victim.

After another half-hour with no camp possibilities in sight, I gave in to my partner's obvious fatigue and agreed to circle back to the nook.

I'd car camped at populated campsites before, but never backpacked in the forest. And the forest in my imagination didn't look like the forest I was in.

I was scared.

I knew how to start a fire but was afraid that it would rage out of control and I'd go down in history as The Girl Who Burned Down Ocala.

My guy had never even car-camped, so I was the only person who could allay my fears and make us a bivouac. And I wasn't sure that I could. With my cell phone rendered useless and no other human beings for miles, I had to. And I did.

I set up the tent, made a fire and apologized to my boyfriend for being a bitch. I admitted that I was afraid. On the hike back I oohed and ahhh'd over flowers and joked about not having seen a single animal. I stopped trying to control everything and went with the flow. I didn't burst into tears when it started to rain. I did relapse and try to hike an extra three or four miles before going snorkeling and returning home, but a gentle slap from my boyfriend brought me back around.

The program was a success. I gained confidence and learned more about myself than I really wanted to know. I didn't have to spend a lot of time and money to do it.

Now it's your turn.

For information on Alexander Springs, which has access to the Florida Scenic Trail as well as a natural spring for snorkeling and diving, call the Seminole Ranger District at 352-669-3153.

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