Will Gadd
Credit: Red Bill Content Pool

My first job in the outdoor industry was perhaps the best, at least until I lost 10-year-old Joey.

At the tender age of 15, I was paid $200 per week by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada to take kids, ranging in age from eight to 18, outside and impart some form of outdoor knowledge to them. There were two adults running the program, both of whom were in their early twenties and as well-versed in outdoor education as I wasn’t.

Now, I grew up backpacking, climbing and generally beating around the Canadian Rockies, so I was comfortable in the mountains, but my parents tended to teach outdoor education through the rather old-school method of direct experience and repetition.

This method is simple: you had a difficult, if not life-imperiling experience, and then you tried not to repeat it. Due to the vast quantity of time we spent outdoors as a family, I rapidly learned many things I didn’t want to repeat. I will forever remember pitching my tent under a large fir tree (shelter from impending rain) but neglecting to notice that my solo tent (I was six and excited to sleep on my own) was pitched in a groove (bad). When the rain fell, my hollow filled, and I initially did what we all do in that situation—huddle away from the water and hope the rain doesn’t last. This strategy mostly worked, until I couldn’t find my teddy bear. I was able to locate my dim flashlight and discovered that my bear had ridden the small rapids running through one side of my tent down to a pool near my feet, where fortunately he’d eddied-out before exiting the building.

To this day, I will not pitch my tent in terrain that is even remotely concave. And then there was learning to chop wood (still have the scar); rationing food (don’t, a bear might eat it all anyhow, best to be full now); fighting a wolverine that had climbed down a woodstove pipe (the wolverine won); and other experiences that I was expected to draw on to educate the youth of Canada.

But there were gaps in my outdoor education.

So when Joey started whining about having to walk uphill during a short excursion from the top of the Jasper SkyTram, I didn’t have a lot to offer beyond, “If you want to climb a mountain, you’re going to have to walk uphill.” I suggested that he hike down to the gondola station and sulk there while we finish the hike. The other 10- to 18-year-olds agreed, and since the adult leaders had decided it was a good time to let me work with the group on my own, I gave Joey some explicit instructions on where to go. Joey headed down all right, but instead of going to the top of the gondola, he headed straight for the valley, 1,200 beautiful metres and many kilometres below us through some great grizzly habitat with the odd fatal cliff mixed in. 

I didn’t think this was a real problem. Sure, there were bears and the odd cliff, but there are always bears and cliffs, and Joey was pretty much a pain in the ass who could use a bear to scare some sense into him. Joey’s parents, however, were not impressed when they discovered a 15-year-old had lost a 10-year-old, and that the 15-year-old thought this was pretty much OK. I remembered losing my parents while camping (my parents denied they had forgotten me so strenuously that I believed them for many years until a friend told me the truth), and I tended to stick closer to the group after that experience. Joey would be OK. Most likely. Then, the impact of having really lost someone in my care hit me, and I learned another lesson about being a leader.

I learned to climb, kayak, ski and paraglide the same way. I have now taught all of these sports for many years, for better or worse, and since learned there are alternatives to direct experience and simply hoping to not repeat any negative experiences. But, while I believe outdoor education has advanced dramatically for the better, I also think one of the best lessons I ever learned from the outdoors was to think ahead—and to imagine the future, as it would be upon me sooner than I realized. And it was only through powerfully screwing up that I learned to look ahead for myself. Today I can identify the kids—and adults—who are truly thinking about the future consequences of their actions. They don’t assume, “It’s all going to be good.” They know that they can get lost, fall off a mountain, run out of food and lose their teddy bears—and each other—if they don’t imagine the future. If you can imagine something, you can plan and deal with it—but unimagined future events lay waste to our plans. We all predict the future with our imaginations, but only by getting those predictions wrong do we learn to predict the future better.

So, while I now teach people “safety” and how to avoid common fatal errors, I also think those basic and hopefully non-life-threatening errors are very important in shaping a healthy attitude (and imagination) in the outdoors. No amount of theoretical learning will stoke the predictive imagination as well as being cold, scared, bloody, or losing your teddy bear.

Put another way, there are an infinite number of possibilities for how any given day might end. In the mountains, and in life, the trick is to imagine and utilize the hazards while doing the same with the perceived rewards. The experiences we survive during each day shape our ability to forecast our remaining days. I like the old adage, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”

Joey had a series of experiences that day, and so did I. It all ended well, but I’ve never lost anyone in my care since that sunny summer day. I can imagine the looks on the faces of the parents if it didn’t work out well, and I can still remember the burden I felt for only a few hours while we frantically searched for Joey. 

Joey somehow decided he liked the Boys and Girls Clubs’ camps, and signed up for a few more weeks of experience despite his parents threatening to make him stay at home and watch TV for the rest of the summer. And my parents? They recognized a kid who wasn’t going to listen to them until he learned what they said had validity. A lot like Joey. With experience, I would handle a day like that differently. But it sure was a great job, and I owe a huge debt to the adults who let me screw it up.