By: Joel Johnston
When I thought about writing this piece, I initially struggled with what to call it. Which gave me some immediate anxiety to think that if I was having trouble with a title, this was not a good omen. But then, what do you call something that tests you in so many ways — one that involves successfully planning and executing events for possibly dozens of people you may have never met before; one that may require you to master a skill set you never had – or more likely one you didn’t know you had, to a degree of proficiency which may allow you to teach it or lecture (or pontificate, if you have that pedigree) about it; one which requires you to work together happily (gasp) with other people to provide a professional-grade service to the general public — in a fantastic ‘work’ environment — all while helping support something you love? Can’t be a job, because we don’t get paid for it. Oh yeah! Volunteer trip leading!
I came to this avocation like most other people, I suspect — I backed into it. I don’t think many people came to Venture Outdoors with plans and dreams to do all the things I began this piece by describing. Certainly not gratis, and after working a ‘day job’. We came to Venture Outdoors because of something we read, or heard or saw. Next, we probably registered for some activity, most likely with a friend, relative or significant other. When we showed up, we could have been looking for ‘something new’ to try. We could have wanted to test skills we were pretty sure we had possessed at some point in our ‘outdoor education’. We could have just needed the reassurance that doing something with other people brings — that ‘safety in numbers’ motivator.
Whatever the individual activity we registered for, we liked it. So, we registered for another activity…… and then another, and another. And well, somewhere in this process, you knew full well where this kind of thing would lead. The more you got outside, the better you felt. You felt better about the world around you (because you were always in one gorgeous outdoor setting after another). You felt better about the people around you (because they were usually fairly like-minded, ‘city-dwelling, nature-seekers’, like yourself), so most interactions were pleasant and devoid of ‘hot-button’ topics. And, most importantly, you felt good about yourself. And how can you not feel good about yourself? You’re enjoying being in the outdoors. And the more you do this or that activity, the more competent and confident you feel. The more ‘at peace’ with yourself you feel because you are doing something healthy and positive for yourself, all while meeting new people and seeing and doing new things. Countless hours of research have been conducted, and reams of paper wasted, writing about the ‘phenomenon’ that you’ve probably already experienced if you’re reading this — getting outdoors for physical activity, both in the short and long term, is the best thing you can do for both your physical and mental well-being. And all that feeling good – did the trick. Because, next, you start to think, or more appropriately, someone within Venture Outdoors finally suggests, “Hey, you should think about becoming a trip leader.”
My trajectory from trip participant to volunteer trip leader began much the same way. I went on some activities with my wife, and then with our daughters, and then invited friends to join us on several Venture Outdoors events. (Fatefully, one of those activities was a fireworks paddle.) While I had been in Boy Scouts when I was younger, it had been a good 15 years since I had done any camping, or any real outdoor activities which weren’t focused on what could be done on a clear day in a city park. As with some participants, the ‘appearance’ of children (still a bit of a mystery to me where they magically come from, but that’s outside the scope of this article) became an obstacle to my full reintroduction to the outdoors. Not until we thought they were both ‘old enough’, did we start to “get outdoors” — but when we did, it’s true, ‘Venture Outdoors made it easy to get outside!’ The trip leaders had scouted every trip. They knew where we were going, and were familiar with all the local flora and fauna. Once introduced to yet another outdoor venue we had not previously known about or seen, we could return, either with or without children. I was almost there. And then it happened.
Someone asked if I would help with a kayaking class in the Sarah Heinz House pool. That led to ‘assisting’ on activities, then leading activities. Along the way I took most of the training Venture Outdoors offered. And then I found myself going outside the organization for other training. I went to Tennessee to get my Leave No Trace Master Educator certification. I went to Annapolis to get my American Canoe Association Instructor certification, and last summer got an Adaptive Paddling Endorsement to add to that. My wife and I also went to Virginia for ACA classes on river paddling and leading river trips. Mind you, none of this was required at the time I began leading trips. But the more I enjoyed the experiences, the surroundings, and the other great people you always seemed to meet on Venture Outdoors activities, the more I became involved. And the more I started to think I owed it to myself, ‘my participants’ and this organization I/we all love, to be a better volunteer trip leader. And, to think, this was something I really just backed into……………