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Outdoor Leaders Help Navigate the Unknown


Keith Ruggles ’20 is a longtime Hamilton Outing Club leader and officer, Adirondack Adventure orientation leader, and student writer/photographer for the Communications office. Here, he tells how the training he’s received as an outdoor leader has been valuable in helping him manage the current uncertain environment.

It’s March 31 and online classes started yesterday. A few weeks ago, Andrew Jillings, [Hamilton’s director of outdoor leadership], sent an email out to Adirondack Adventure (AA) leaders encouraging us to use the skills that we learned from trip leading and training to help us navigate this new normal. At first thought, I was a little skeptical, but the more I thought about it and the more I looked at the world around me, the more sense it made. 

I am certainly not where I thought I would be. Like many other students and especially seniors, I was very excited for the second half of spring semester. Coming to terms with that has been a tumultuous grapple these past days and weeks. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. However, this is the point where my first lesson from leading for AA comes in. 

It’s not about me. I’m allowed to feel this way, but my job as a leader is to remember the big picture and facilitate the experience for my participants. I need to be the calm in my world, and I need to help others be calm as well. In doing so, I remind myself that the best I can do is manage the environment I am in. That means taking care of the people around me and doing the essential things that must be done. Everyone is in the same boat, and some people are a little less comfortable with the situation than others. The bottom line is that we are in this together, and so we all need to learn how to navigate our current predicaments together.

Nadav Konforty ’20 had a different immediate reaction to Jillings’ sage words. “Andrew’s email brought me a great deal of comfort amidst two weeks of chaos and uncertainty, but he gave me something to grab on to and reminded me that this was something I am prepared for. The biggest skill that I learned from AA is that when everyone panics, they run hot, but a leader, a leader has to run cold while everyone else is panicking. Your job as a leader is to keep your head. With participants looking to you for direction, your emotions and energy are shaped by those around you, and so if you can keep your head, you can help them keep theirs.”

Whether it be on the trail, in the boats, or at camp for the night, this is the same as on an AA trip. Everything could change at any moment, but we’re still checking in on each other and keeping the big picture in mind. We can only manage the things that are immediately in front of us and we should keep busy doing so. 

Perhaps Emmaline Keene ’20, a fellow AA leader, said it best. “We can only control what we can control, and coming to terms with that is the first step to managing the situation. We should make a plan and be prepared to throw it out the window if necessary.” 

Jillings also reminded us to trust Hamilton, just as we would our co-leader. “At Hamilton there are many smart, dedicated people working to make a new normal happen,” said Libby Lee ’20. “On an orientation trip, you and your co-leader enter new territory and challenges together. It’s critical through every road block along the way that you have confidence your co is looking out for you and the broader good. The partnership between oneself and a co-leader is important for the integrity of the trip, and reciprocal trust is what fuels the relationship. We trust in each other’s preparedness, judgement, and intuition in order to work together to provide the best experience possible for our participants.” 

Some words from Konforty resonated with me after we finished talking. “It’s like we’re canoeing in a bumpy lake,” he said. “You know how to be safe and you know how to be cautious, all you have to do is weather the waves that are rocking your boat and trust.”

I’ve been on many a bumpy lake and can speak to the abundant truth in what Konforty had to say. Yes, the lake is bumpy, maybe you haven’t been in a canoe before, but it takes a lot to capsize, and we will get from point A to point B. 

I’ll leave you with some words from Jillings, “The nature of journeys is that you are never the same after them as before.” 

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