Carrying Heavy Shit: Teaching and Unteaching Gender in the Wilderness

It was the morning of the third or fourth day of our month-long wilderness expedition. As we sat on logs around the now-cold fire grate eating our granola, the team’s talk turned to the miles of trail ahead of them. Their bodies and minds were still adjusting to the rigor of the expedition; that the food in their packs weighed the most at the beginning of the trip did not help. One student began to share something like, “I wish I could carry more weight, and make things easier for the rest of you. But I’m a girl, so I just can’t carry as much as the guys.”

My job description as an instructor on the expedition was already fuzzy. Teach navigation, campcraft, cooking. Teach leadership, feedback, self-reflection. Model respect for each other and the environment. Make space for them to get perspective on their “other” lives. Get them all home in one piece.

Add in the element of living together, in a group of nine, with minimal interaction with the outside world. No one punches out, goes home at the end of the day, or gets a day off. My students will see me five minutes after I’ve woken up. They’ll see me three weeks in without a shower. They’ll hear many of the conversations I have with my co-instructor, the only other adult present, but whose friendship is already surpassing our working relationship. The boundary between personal and professional exists, but not in many of the ways it does outside the woods.

So I jump in with my piece: “That’s one of the cool things about this trip, actually. No one’s here to judge. We just have to figure out how to get all of this gear from one campsite to the next. Things like gender don’t really matter out here. We’re all just people carrying heavy shit.”

I also get to swear if I like.

The students packed their packs, and off we went, down the trail. I was proud of my little bit, laughed about it with my co-instructor. We saw this as the first piece of gender education we might do during the trip, something to return to and build on as the trip progressed.

A few weeks later, we’ve swapped our hiking boots for canoe paddles, and thankfully, the canoes are the ones carrying the heavy shit. Our instructor boat hangs back behind the three student canoes, giving them the space to practice their skills navigating and managing the group dynamics, and giving us privacy to discuss curriculum. I’ve been toying with how to teach my next lesson on gender to the team. As the trip progresses, our daily lessons move from the essential – fire building, setting up a tent, emergency medicine – to the finer pieces and whatever else – conflict resolution, personal goals, journal prompts. Tree identification, indigenous history, and maybe gender.

What I’ve come to struggle with in the canoe, and years later, is which way to go. To continue my first argument, to dismantle gender, or to teach gender – to teach what it means to be a strong, dirty woman, to ask my co-instructor to teach positive masculinity.

There’s an easily accessible narrative in wilderness travel, to pretend we’re living outside of society, and to strive to create a better version of it. The temptation to argue that “x doesn’t really matter out here” rears its head in all of the usual places: race, socioeconomics, gender, age. The separation from technology, familiar environments, and known people is part of our educational principles. Being in a new environment leads to learning and growth, so long as the environment feels physically and emotionally safe. That same separation that primes our students for learning also makes our team feel unmoored, disconnected from culture. After all, we’re sitting on the ground and eating dinner boiled in water we scooped from the lake. Wilderness travel requires we break some of our students’ deepest social norms: the rules for how we cook, eat, sleep, and shit out here are all different. We take care to remind them that not all the rules are gone. Brush your teeth, wash your hands. Living in the woods doesn’t mean we’re going to be gross.

I look to cast gender out of my society-in-miniature that I’m crafting because it’s been haunting me since I followed my crying twin brother down a portage trail on one of my first canoe trips. We were thirteen. As he carried the canoe to the next lake, I walked behind with a pack. Helping him would have been the obvious choice, but I did not, because I was being taught that girls weren’t strong enough to carry canoes.

I learned to paddle and to camp, and when I began to canoe for a living, I was finally expected to carry canoes. The bone-crushing weight of the boat sort of dampened any gender-role-smashing freedom of the moment. My portaging skills caught up with the rest of my woods skills, but two feats eluded me. All of my co-instructors could flip a canoe floating in the water upside down onto their shoulders by themselves. With a rock of their hips, they’d send the boat arcing into the air, the yoke landing on their shoulders, and off they’d head down the trail to the next lake. With coaching in the parking lot of our base camp, I once flipped a canoe up by myself, but never succeeded in doing it in front of my students. This skill has no purpose other than eliminating the need to ask for help. All of my co-instructors could also carry a canoe for a mile without a break. There are few trails that long in the areas we traveled, and certainly time enough in a month-long trip for a break. After carrying a canoe down a three-quarter mile trail one day, I decided to celebrate instead of resenting the non-existent quarter-mile that would have put me on par with everyone else.

The 75-pound canoes are hard on everyone’s bodies, and my trouble had more to do with mass than gender. At 110 pounds myself, carrying canoes was hardly good for my body, regardless of how many people it took to get it on my shoulders. I knew there were other instructors who struggled to carry canoes, but I rarely got to work with them. Most of my co-instructors were men, and all of them were larger than me.

Early on in my career as an instructor, I came across an article titled “Women’s Outdoor Adventures: Myth and Reality,” in a book by Karen Warren, called Women’s Voices in Experiential Education. Though much has changed in outdoor education since the book’s publication in the 1980s, the author’s argument about the myth of the superwoman still rang true. The superwoman, Warren explained, “can carry the heaviest pack with a smile on her face.” In order to earn her place in a profession dominated by men, she has become an expert in every aspect of the wilderness. She projects competence and confidence. In doing so, the superwoman provides students “a way out” of the conflict playing out in their heads as they try to reconcile society’s message that women don’t belong in the wilderness with the presence of their trip leader. The superwoman is seen as exceptional, unlike other women. Thus students can return home with their beliefs about women intact.

The superwoman also becomes less accessible as a role model to other women, written off as “I can never be like her.” The author briefly presents a few tactics for combating the myth of the superwoman, including showing vulnerability and being intentional about sharing skills that one is still struggling with or learning.

I knew Warren was looking at me. I dutifully copied down her words and brought them on each subsequent trip. The page was sort of like a crossword puzzle I couldn’t solve. I just brought it. I read it a few times over the course of each month. Sometimes I read it to my coworker. I didn’t know what to do with it.

If Warren was right, and I knew she was, then my quest to portage a mile was exactly the opposite of what I should be doing. All of the energy I’d been pouring into carrying heavy shit wasn’t proving anything to my students (or my coworker) other than that I was stubborn. My students were often witnesses to my determination to never be perceived as less than. They were witnesses to my pursuit of what I saw as the highest standard, to be free from the request for help or to give up. I spent one of the last nights of a trip trying to light a fire in the pouring rain for two hours. The team had cooked dinner on the tiny camp stove, set up their wet tents and their damp sleeping bags, and shoved the rest of the soaking gear under the canoes for the night. I knew a fire would lift spirits, and I was determined that no amount of pouring rain would stop me. They were tired, and said they didn’t care whether there was a fire or not. I went at it alone, hunting for dry twigs under pine branches, peeling shreds of birch bark, fighting wet matches, and endlessly fanning young flames to dry the wet wood. I had my bonfire, and my students had another example of the superwoman.

Besides Warren, no one was talking about this. It didn’t appear that anyone in thirty years had developed a method for following her scant instructions. The more trips I led, the more likely I was to be paired with younger, less experienced coworkers. The model of an expedition that I showed them would be what they subsequently tried to replicate. Dismantling my superwoman would require an ongoing practice of vulnerability, with only Warren to hold me accountable. I began to say things like, “I’m tired,” and “Some days you just don’t feel like it,” and “Can you help me with this pack?” to my students. I started telling my co-workers that solo-flipping a canoe was unnecessarily risky, and we would model as instructors how we wanted our students to do it, which was with help. Owning my mistakes in front of my students was never comfortable, but I tried to do it anyway. I began to tell more stories about my first trips in the woods – not the one where my brother cried, but the ones where I cried. The time I wanted to give up, and my teammates dragged me up a mountain. The time I got the whole crew lost insisting I knew the way and didn’t need to look at a map. I think a side effect of this un-superwoman endeavor was that my students began to like me more.

My students are all carrying canoes for the first time. I want to support them through this mostly unpleasant but kickass experience. I want to challenge them and inspire them. I want their process to be about perceived limits and inner strength and asking for help. I don’t want gender to have anything to do with it. I want to protect them from excuses, learned helplessness, machismo, and obligation. Also, I can’t. They showed up as people with their own ideas of gender, and we have barely touched those.

They’re mostly youth who have spent little time discussing gender and gender presentation with their peers or adults. Most are not ready to scrap it, and most are returning to social spheres where gender and gender norms remain strongly entrenched. Positive models of womanhood and manhood, and teaching them how to perform their gender in ways rooted in compassion for themselves and others may be more useful to them than trying to dismantle the paradigm.

Professionally, I’m not sure how far my organization will back me up. I’m protected in large part by the privacy of the woods. But the phantom parent phone call to my supervisor looms in the future when I send these students back out into the world to tell the stories of the trip – the adventure, the food, the weather, the other students, and their two weird instructors.

And so I err on the side of gender. I teach a poem I like, Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” We write our own Phenomenal Woman poems. I teach positive mantras to fight a pet peeve of mine: the moment when they see their first mirror at the base camp, see their own faces for the first time in a month. I detest watching my fierce, strong students crumble as they lean in to pick and pluck at their faces. I make them pinky-swear to compliment themselves and each other in that mirror. To his part of the team, my co-instructor teaches what he sees as the most important thing to teach young men: consent. He tells me they discuss respectful language and recognizing objectification.

If it feels weird to discuss gender on a canoe trip, our students don’t say it. The lessons feel as if they may have been more for our benefit as instructors than theirs. The feeling that at least we’ve done something. That they’ll be incrementally more prepared the next time an educator approaches them about gender.

But trip after trip, mostly we don’t teach. Mostly it gets shunted to the side, less of a priority than the miles we need to make, the goals we want them to set for home, the notes to take for written student evaluations. We’ll let the experience speak for itself. After all, each one of them has accomplished far more than they ever thought possible. No matter how heavy their pack, it was heavier than they planned on. No one can take that experience away from them.

Eight years into my career as an outdoor educator, I still wrestle with myself about whether it is my job to teach or unteach gender to the youth in my care. There are no easy solutions to the problems of institutional support or the superwoman. Dismantling gender, even in the tiny society of nine where I play puppeteer, seems mostly like a fantasy. It isn’t something my students, or my supervisors, asked for. My co-instructors might go along with it. After all, they’ve seen me portage – they knew better than to try to stop me. But mostly it’s about me, and the world I might prefer to live in. One where my brother and I had traded places halfway through the portage trail, and both arrived at the next lake crying.

Once – this actually happened – I reached the water’s edge at the end of a portage trail, canoe still hiding the upper half of my body. A pair of travelers were headed the opposite direction, pulling their canoe onto shore. One tried to warn the other of my approach. “Here comes a gentleman with a canoe.” This happens a lot. Usually I smirk when I flip the boat down into the water, or raise the pitch of my voice for an extra-feminine “‘Scuse me” as I move by. But this time, before I could smirk, the stranger looked closer. “Not a gentleman, sorry. Gentleperson.” By the time my co-instructor arrived with the last of the students, I was flushed with the power of ambiguity. I tried to explain it. A stranger had chosen to stop looking, stop policing, and let me be. I was, for an instant, just a person carrying heavy shit. It stood out because it happened only once.

And on my most recent trip, we were unloading our canoes at a campsite for the evening when the students discovered a large bug in one of their canoes. A kill it/no don’t debate erupted, with the no don’ts winning this round. Winners quickly turned to a naming ceremony. A few names were floated, but then a student stipulated, “Wait, we need a gender-neutral name, since we don’t know the bug’s gender.” They were choosing not to kill it and making sure to respect its unknown gender preference? What else could you ask for, at the end of the day in the woods?

Renee has written 1 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Wow wow wow what a great article! I felt like I was right there with you, a heavy canoe swallowing my body. Thank you for this nuanced look and for teaching your students about gender in a way that makes sense for them

  2. This was a thought provoking, exceptional read. Thank you.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially with how uncomfortable I am around people being defined by their genders. And I think at least some of it comes down to what we value in society. Right now that seems to be character traits that are typically associated with those who identify as male, which I think is at least partially responsible for those who identify as women seeking this “superwoman” status. We haven’t yet learned to value a variety of character traits that would allow all people to feel comfortable with who they are and with their gender. So should we teach gender, or should we teach people to value a variety of positive traits? How intertwined are those two ideas? Would a society that values many different things end up deconstructing gender or reinscribing it? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

  3. This is an amazing piece! The myth of superwoman and the work we do every day to uphold it, often without realizing; the pure joy of ambiguity; and the pivotal question of teaching/un-teaching gender! So fucking complicated!! So glad you’re putting words to these experiences!!!
    Seriously, thank you for writing this.

  4. This is amazing, thanks!
    I co-led a teen wilderness trip when I was 19 and working as a counselor at a summer camp. In retrospect I think I was too young to teach those kids. I’d like to think I taught them respect, teamwork, and basic wilderness survival skills, but I was so confused about gender and identity myself, that I wasn’t in a position to help them through their own paths. I learned recently that one of the girls on the trip transitioned, and I wish I could have been in a better position to teach/un-teach gender and gender roles. This stuff is so complicated, and I have mad respect to you for putting in so much work!

  5. This is a great reflection on teaching gender, and one I will ponder for a while to come. Also, I need to say I love just being reminded of the wilderness; how time works on a long trip, how hard it is to carry heavy stuff… how much kids can grow when journeying together. Thank you!

  6. Thank you! I haven’t thought about it before, if we teach/lead “by example” that this could stop with admiration and the feeling in those I want to support that they could never do what I do, and hence stop before even trying. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with this perspective now but it’s interesting to reflect upon this – and regardless, it’s a wonderful piece, so thank you!

  7. This was the best part of my day – thank you, Renee. I’m a past outdoor guide turned preschool teacher. I really appreciate this article because it shows that gender education can take place in all types of environments.

    Too often, I fall into the trap of convincing myself that the classroom is the only place I can make a difference — and I’ve been reluctant to make a career change for that reason and go back to guiding on the river. Thank you for reminding me that I can be an example wherever I go.

    Also, “how to perform their gender” is so appropriate. The way I like to explain being trans to my students is that gender is the grandest of plays. We are all given roles – some get to be the princess – maybe others a dragon, or Romeo, or space alien robots. What’s important is that we’re happy with those roles. If not, it’s time we demand one that fits. We all deserve that happiness ^__^

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