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The Importance of Outdoor Leadership: An Inside Look

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Looking for adventure in the great outdoors? Let John Abbott be your go-to guide.

A faculty member in the UVM Environmental Studies and the Parks, Recreation and Tourism programs, Abbott has traveled with UVM students to explore the backcountry in the Adirondack and White Mountains, and in Peru and Ecuador.

John Abbott

For Abbott, who began his wilderness leadership work in 1988 as an instructor and course director at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine, wilderness leadership development is all about taking risks to expand our learning and achieve things that we never thought were possible.

He teaches several outdoor and recreation courses to UVM students, including Introduction to Mountaineering in Peru, Winter Leadership Skills & Mountaineering in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, Wilderness Education & Leadership in the Adirondack Mountains, and Backcountry Ski and Avalanche Education in Idaho. Abbott is also UVM’s Outdoor Program Coordinator.

We talked to him about the importance of learning in the outdoors.

How did you get introduced to outdoor leadership courses?

My first exposure to the structured outdoor leadership course was when I worked as a field instructor at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine, soon after leaving college.

What do you enjoy most about teaching your wilderness courses?

Field-based courses provide the opportunity to immediately apply theory and learning to practice. By definition, field-based group experience requires teamwork that allows us to experience interconnection and mutual accountability for learning outcomes. Oh yes…and of course each of these areas offer stunning scenery and cultural experiences as a contextual backdrop.

How are your courses similar? How are they different?

I usually answer this question by explaining that all my courses are a variation on a theme. While each is rooted in specific skill sets and traveling in different environments, they are unified by their focus on personal and group expedition behavior, peer-to-peer skill teaching and use of situational leadership role plays.

What are the most important elements/skills that students gain from outdoor leadership experience?

I think students develop a healthy sense of capability, confidence, flexible leadership style and self-efficacy. There is something unique about wilderness experience that creates a primitive sense of well-being and accomplishment. The Director of HIOBS Land Programs in Bethel, Maine, Andy Bartleet, likes to say that we return from extended expeditions “feeling 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” meaning you feel ready to rise to the challenges of the world. Important to me is that UVM students translate this feeling to other dimensions of their lives as students.

If a student is considering one of your courses but can’t decide which course to take, how would you advise them?

I tell them to find the course that interests them and pull the trigger! There are always going to be other students with more skill and experience than you…wilderness leadership development is predicated on the fundamental notion that taking risk has the ability to expand our learning and the ability to achieve things that may have never seemed possible.

What can students expect from your courses: Where do they sleep? What do they eat? What’s the group dynamic like?

Ahhh, the details! We sleep in tents or shelters, eat lots of great pasta and rice-based meals (never dehydrated food; they are expensive and taste processed) and the team dynamic is very cooperative and supportive. Wilderness skill development draws out the best in everyone. The process requires that you take risk, lead with your heart, be a good listener and communicator, be an effective problem-solver and generally be the best person you can be.

What is something that you always pack / would not leave home without?

Extra headlamp batteries, Leatherman tool, hand sanitizer and a pair of dry socks, and double zip-locked are crucial. And I never leave home without pictures of my family. I miss them when I’m away!

Can you describe a scenario you were unprepared to address and what skills did you utilize to deal with it?

May favorite MacGyver moment was on my Backcountry Ski & Avalanche Ed. Course a few years back. We has skied and rode deep snow all day long in amazing open terrain. We decided to do one last drop into a gladed bowl. At the bottom one of the snowboarders discovered she’d lost the pin that connects her binding to the board mount. The rest of the group went back to the hut, we hiked up about 1,000 feet looking everywhere, and I had to zip-tie the binding to the board. Later in the hut when considering radioing to friends to have them snow-mobile a new pin in, I was able to create an effective pin with a heavy gauge nail and a clip from a telemarking retainer strap! It worked great!

What kind of wildlife have you encountered?

That’s what I love about my job; I bring the wildlife with me! Does it get any wilder than eager, inquisitive, impassioned UVM students? I think not!