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Rain-on-Your-Tent Marshmallow Trips

By Andrea
May 7, 2014 10:07 pm

Do you remember your first camping trip?  Roasting marshmallows around the campfire; watching shooting stars at night; being terrified of the creature outside your tent at night that must certainly have been a bear, and a REALLY big one – only to realize it was a raccoon.  … or a chipmunk.  Swimming in mountain lakes, skipping stones on any body of water you could find, climbing rocks and trees, eating food that may or may not have been good, but always tasted beyond amazing when you were eating it outdoors after a day in the sun or the rain…

Sometimes we get to create those touchstone experiences for the young people we work with.  They are invariably some of my favorite CAT programs.  Our most recent trip was to South Carolina for the East Coast Paddlesports and Outdoor Festival, with a young man who participated in the 2013 Gitchi Gumee Project – and this trip, too, was amazing.

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I don’t know whether my favorite thing about this trip was the 80 degree weather in early April, the hospitality of the organizers and coaches of the event, the variety of sports and craft that Jose got to try out, or the fact that, once again, I had the tremendous privilege and joy of introducing a young person to something brand new to him.  And then getting to show him even more of that sport – new skills, new crafts, new venues, a broader cross-section of the community…

I think, when it comes down to it, that what makes my favorite programs my favorites is this.   It’s about that same visceral, not quite speakable sense that comes with the smell of rain and the sound of it on my tent.  The years-long search for the perfect golden brown marshmallow, and a way to melt the chocolate for the S’more it will fill.

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Jose was nervous about paddling when he joined us at the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium for the Gtichi Gumee Project.  Some of our volunteers were worried, the first day, when he had a difficult time staying calm with a wet exit.  (A wet exit is a required skill when you paddle a sea kayak if you wear what’s called a spray skirt. The skirt keeps water from coming into the cockpit – it’s not so important, it turns out, to stay dry; but a skirt is helpful for the stability of the boat.  A boat filled with water handles sort of like a dishpan filled with water.  If you’ve ever tried to carry a full container of water, you know that once it starts sloshing, it just starts sloshing more.  It can be tricky to keep your balance in a boat that’s doing that.)

I worked with Jose for a good 30 to 45 minutes, helping him to find a way to stay calm as he dumped his boat over, pulled the skirt off his boat, and came back to the surface holding onto his boat and his paddle.  Two days later, he was surfing on Lake Superior.  The grin on his face touched the hearts of a whole lot of paddlers.  It was one of those rain-on-the-tent marshmallow moments that none of us quite had the words to describe.

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Jose can surprise you.  He’s very quiet, almost painfully shy.  It can be hard to tell if he understands a piece of technique you’re teaching him, whether or not he’s having a good time…  Then you watch him in a class on technique and realize he’s really quite talented, and is taking in everything the coach is saying.  He’ll tell you that he hopes he gets to come back to the event, and you realize, in the tone of his voice and the way he looks directly at you once he’s finished his sentence, that the event hasn’t just been fun for him; it has made an impact on his life.  You ask him what the best part of the trip was, and he says it was the rescue class.  You ask him why, and he says it was because the instructor trusted him to demonstrate how to stabilize a boat as the instructor climbed in and out, demonstrating a variety of entry strategies.  You hear him say that it “touched his heart” that the coach trusted him to do that.  Now, you realize why he wants to come back.  You begin to realize the nature of the impact this has had on his life.

*     *     *     *     *

Jose is very quiet.  Sometimes, when others are quiet, we want to talk.  When there is silence, we want to fill it.   — If we can listen into silence; if we can listen long enough to let someone else talk; if we can listen our young people into speech…

… if we can listen, we realize that our young people have something to say.  And that we will find our hearts split open

warmed and filled – touched, perhaps

at what they have to say.

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I got to accompany Jose on his first airplane trip and his first time seeing the ocean.  I got to teach him how to tip at dinner at the Baltimore Airport on our way home.  I got to paddle with a dolphin with him.  I got to watch him learn archery, struggle with short track mountain biking, learn to sail a kayak, practice a variety of rescues when he still doesn’t much like a wet exit, learn to move a boat with some precision, try out a surf ski and paddle a SUP board without falling down once.  I got to watch coaches take the time and care to coach him well; and to watch him experience trust.  My job was to accompany him.  To watch and to listen.

I got to listen him into speech.  And then I realized –  we’d had a rain-on-your-tent marshmallow trip.

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