Instructing My First Course

By Alumna and Prior Instructor, Deb Caughron, 1983

“There was nobody to talk to except myself and the creek.  The creek was constantly talking back so I could hardly get a word in.”

—John G. Thomas, Jr., Crew Journal Entry, Solo

My first course as a new assistant instructor in the summer of 1983 had an inauspicious beginning. Program Director Mike Fischesser had put me with a sweet fellow who I knew would gently help me navigate the steep learning curve of leading students through the rigors of an Outward Bound course. Shortly before pre-course planning, my co-instructor injured his ankle and I was hastily paired with the fearsome Ken Peeples. Ken had the reputation of being a gifted facilitator and a tough character.  As we planned, he kept calling me “kid” and I stopped just short of calling him “sir.” I was terrified to be working my first course with a legend.

I had spent a lot of time in the mountains, but I was very nervous about going into the field with a crew of 12 young men and women for whom I was partly responsible. I was not yet comfortable with map and compass and still in awe of the mysteries and challenges associated with being an Outward Bound Instructor. I was pleasantly surprised when Ken asked me to write down three things I was most comfortable teaching.  Hmmm… Packing a backpack? Camp craft?  Doctoring blistered feet? He looked at my list through mirrored sunglasses and said, “OK, kid, I’ll teach these and you’ll do the rest.” Wait… what?  Had this man never heard of compassion? Ken, who would become my mentor and friend, held me to it and taught me more in my first 23 days than I learned in my first full year in the field.


And our crew? They were intrepid, fun, challenging, and enthusiastic. They persevered with humor and tenacity through three weeks of bushwhacking, route finding, climbing, canoeing, solo and service while enduring nonstop rain and lightning drills.  Intrigued by a term they learned in an early First Aid lesson, they named themselves “The Sucking Chest Wounds.”

In 2016, 33 years after this course and a year before the 50th Anniversary of the North Carolina Outward Bound School, someone (the handwriting and zip code point to Ken) sent our crew journal to the town office. What an extraordinary and unexpected gift to be given a window into this transformative time for my crew and myself more than three decades later. After joyfully reading every entry—which ranged in tone from insightful, silly, moving, and profound—I landed on one that, for me, defines the essence of the Outward Bound experience:

“As for the people (on the ropes course), it was as if you were seeing somebody new and the activities done before had little or no bearing at all. People who were weaker at some points in the past showed signs of being stronger, bolder and more confident in themselves.  The same went for people who showed weaknesses that didn’t show up before. I think each new experience we go through here gives us a clearer and better understanding of ourselves. I first came to Outward Bound for the physical (challenge)…but after a few days I realized Outward Bound was more than that.  It is a teaching tool to better understand yourself.”

—Thomas deHaan, Day 9


One thought on “Instructing My First Course

  1. Deb, That is a great article. Since reading the article, I am remembering many courses with you
    as a co-instructor and you as a course director. Those memories become more special as the years go by. I stayed at Sunset Island for a couple days several years ago and found some joy in mopping floors and cleaning windows as a personal service project. Although names are slipping away, I remember you, Carol Maxwell, Tom Zartman, Ken Peoples, Lisa, Buffalo, Flo, Geoff Murray……I didn’t realize it at the time, but you were all, an important part of my life. Take care and know that I would enjoy hearing from you. Keep your antenna up!

    Liked by 1 person

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