To kill frogs," Jerry Cox said, in an even, gentle voice, "you just sneak up on them with a stick and club them. Don't hit them too hard, or you'll squash them. All the moss up here is edible. Some of it you may want to boil once and pour the water off and boil it again—it's pretty acid. If you want to kill a turtle, hang it up by one leg. When it relaxes, cut the leg off and do the same with the other three."
Two dozen girls, most of them 16 years old, sat on damp rocks in the Minnesota woods and listened attentively.
"With snakes," Cox went on, "you cut off the head and skin them, but unless it is a good-sized snake it isn't really worth it."
"What if we catch a moose?" one of the girls asked frivolously and, less frivolously, "What about bears?"
"You can always gouge out a bear's eyes," another girl said confidently.
I sat on my rock, listening, trying to visualize myself doing those things to a turtle. I was not 16. I was 34 and squeamish, 34 and a little stiff in the joints from the project I was too far into now to get out of. These girls—and I—were preparing to plunge into the Quetico-Superior wilderness area north and south of the Canadian border for 16 days, paddling our own canoes, carrying our own packs and spending three of the 16 days alone, without food, tent, sleeping bag or company. The girls were embarked on the first girls' Outward Bound course in this hemisphere, and the idea was not to have fun in the woods but to test themselves in unfamiliar and demanding circumstances. By way of preparation they had spent five days rising at 6 to run, swim, climb vertical rock faces, maneuver on ropes 15 feet above the ground, negotiate obstacle courses, use axes and practice carrying canoes. They were, as they listened to Cox, cheerful bruised lumps.
Since it had seemed presumptuous of me to try to guess at the particular alchemy by which these activities and 16 days in the wilderness were to engender character and maturity in a group of teen-agers, I had committed myself to the whole undertaking, rock faces, rope course and all. including what would be, for some of us, the real test—the three days alone. I was not exactly savoring the challenge.
Cox's lecture came in the second half of a two-day shakedown cruise, 24 hours of which the girls would spend in pairs and I, an outsider, would spend alone. The day before we had paddled up the Kawishiwi River in the rain and spent the night in tents. This second night we were to spend without the tents, and virtually without food, unless we caught or found it. My squeamishness, I thought, clearly was going to be a liability.
Nevertheless, by the time the instructors had scattered us all around the lake, out of sight of one another, and left us, I was game. I looked around, eager to begin for myself all the woodsy business we had been practicing back at the Outward Bound camp.
It is fascinating—afterward—to look at your own behavior in such a solitary circumstance. Every move that you make is revealing, revealing you either as you have always known you were or not as you guessed you were at all. At my age, I suppose, there was not much hope of surprise; I behaved, I realized later, just as I should have expected, and I look back on the proceedings with the sort of regretful tolerance with which I remember my first date.