Story posted May 06, 2010
Author: Ian Aldrich
Photography: Brian Wedge '97
Each offering of the Outing Club’s Leadership Training program unfolds over the course of several seasons. In the time since writer Ian Aldrich began to chronicle a cycle of Leadership Training for this magazine piece, Bowdoin Outing Club Director Emeritus Jim Lentz died. Instrumental in the founding of the modern Bowdoin Outing Club, and the epitome of a leader to countless Bowdoin students and colleagues, Jim features prominently in this story.
Mike Woodruff knows how to make a good sell. It’s edging toward late afternoon on a Tuesday in September, and Woodruff, the director of the Bowdoin Outing Club (BOC), is giving a tour of the organization’s equipment room—an expansive space that houses among other things, paddles, backpacks, wet suits, surfboards, and skis—when he hears his name called out. Woodruff, who’s got salt-and-pepper hair with a matching scruff of a beard and is dressed in khaki shorts, green sweatshirt, and sneakers, stops mid-sentence while clutching a life jacket, and wheels around to the person asking for him.'
“Molly!” he exclaims, brandishing a level of enthusiasm that draws a smile from the first-year student. “We’ve got a group headed up to Seboomok this weekend for some kayaking. Staying at a cabin up there. It’s plush. You’re going, right?”
Molly looks down at her feet indecisively. “I’m not sure what’s going on this weekend,” she says. Woodruff grins and turns up the recruiting.
“Gotta go,” he says. “You’ll love it. And it’s probably the last chance we’ll have to do a trip like it this year.” There’s the weather, he reminds her—it’s supposed to be spectacular—the chance to paddle a beautiful section of the Penobscot, as well be out with some other BOC members. “So we’ll see you Friday, okay?”
“Well, sure,” she says. “I guess I’ll go.” From there Woodruff shares a few logistical details with the student, before calling out after her as she walks away to be sure and not wait too long to sign up for the trip. “It’s going to be a popular trip,” he hollers out.
Woodruff, who graduated from Bowdoin in 1987 after three action-packed years as an Outing Club member himself, looks satisfied. “With the Outing Club, it’s an easy sell,” he says. “I didn’t have to twist her arm. I was persistent but that’s what you have to be because part of what we’re doing is identifying and recruiting people we think will make the strongest leaders. You have to get them involved.”
Beyond kayaking trips, beyond back-country ski excursions, the multi-day hikes up Katahdin, beyond simple day paddles in Merrymeeting Bay, the Outing Club’s business is largely the leadership business. It’s not surprising that Woodruff has leadership on the mind. In a couple of hours, 12 students, representing a mix of ages, backgrounds, and interests, all of them pretty much strangers to one another, will make their way here for the first part of the club’s Leadership Training course (LT). Over the next three-and-a-half months they’ll commit some 300 hours of their time, becoming better versed not only on Maine’s wilderness, but navigation, planning techniques, first-aid knowhow, and the overall knowledge demanded of anyone charged with leading a group into the mountains or on the water. Which is to say, this isn’t some easy way for students to pad their Bowdoin résumé. The Outing Club trains them because they need them. For the 40 pre-orientation trips it leads first-year students on each autumn; for the more than 100 excursions it runs around northern New England throughout the academic year. At a college so closely connected to the landscape around it, the Outing Club serves as an integral part of the learning experience. The evidence: almost a quarter of the student body are active club members.
“Bowdoin has always been big into exploration,” says Woodruff. “And with this club, the school has leveraged its location—on the coast, and within reach of the mountains and so many rivers—in a big way that’s made it very effective for us.”
Closer to the Woods
Let’s back up for a moment. Because to understand what the Outing Club represents, you first need to understand its history. And knowing its history demands you know a little something about Jim Lentz. Trim, with a full head of silver hair and the face of a man 20 years younger, Lentz is a no-nonsense type who, even at 81, hasn’t let a few recent medical setbacks—a couple of rotator cuff surgeries and two hip replacements before that—derail him from an active routine that includes daily gym workouts and “plenty of golf.” When he walks, he still carries himself with the same assuredness that helped define him during his 16 years as Bowdoin’s head football coach.
While Lentz isn’t the father of Bowdoin’s Outing Club—its history goes back to the 1950s—he’s pretty close. In the fall of 1984, Lentz is finishing up his final season of coaching and wonders what might be next for him at Bowdoin. He finds it in the form of a loosely affiliated collection of students who coordinate infrequent outdoor trips around Maine.
The fact that it piqued his interest shouldn’t have been surprising. As a kid, Lentz spent his time outdoors every chance he could, first on a family farm, then in the Philly suburbs, finding his way to the woods to trap muskrats and selling their pelts for a few bucks so he could buy more equipment. By the time he landed at Harvard in the 1950s as an assistant football coach, Lentz had discovered a passion for fly-fishing. Soon after, a friend introduced him to Maine. Before long, he was spending all his free time up north, first renting, then buying a small cabin near The Forks. And while head coaching offers from other colleges in other parts of the country came in over the years, it wasn’t until there was an opportunity from Bowdoin in 1968 that Lentz decided to leave the Crimson. One of the reasons: “It brought me closer to the woods,” he says.
By 1984 Lentz had logged thousands of hours in the Maine wilderness. In its woods. Along its waters. So much of it, practically right in his employer’s backyard. If any college could support a top-level outing club, he reasoned, it was Bowdoin.
“I felt this was something that Bowdoin needed,” he says. “We’re close to the outdoors. The students that came here aren’t the same that would go to Tufts or go to some place Iike Boston or New York City—they’ve chosen to go to a place that’s out of the way, and I just thought that with the people here, they’d probably take an interest. Turned out I was right.”
Working closely with Bowdoin professors Frank Burroughs and Sam Butcher, Lentz took the reins of the club’s faculty advisor position and began patching together an organization that was devoted to a regular frequency of canoeing trips. Their destinations: Moosehead Lake, The Forks, and the Androscoggin River in Errol, New Hampshire. With no real operating budget, Lentz, Burroughs, and Butcher loaned their own boats to the club and borrowed other pieces of equipment from friends, much of it stuffed in a second floor office of Sergeant Gym, which doubled as Lentz’s office and the group’s headquarters. There were scouting missions, too, trips made to other colleges, including Dartmouth, where Lentz looked at how other successful clubs were organized and run.
“It was really just seen as just another club, something like the College Republicans, by the college,” says Burroughs. “So part of what we tried to do—and Jim gets so much credit for this—was just increase its visibility. It was really an idea whose time had come 15 years before, it just took us that long to get it going.”
All of which of course, required leadership from Lentz, a quality that still included some of the same intensity he had once brought to the football field.
“We’d get on the water and Jim would be on the shore, barking orders at us,” recalls Stephen Kusmierczak ’89, a portfolio manger in Chicago. “He was simply taking his football coaching techniques and applying it to the outing club.”
Lentz laughs at the description. “I was a presence,” he says. “I’m very enthusiastic and made a lot of noise. But there are ways to paddle a canoe and there are ways not to paddle a canoe.”
Almost as important to Lentz, was the set-up of the club. He wanted an ambitious trip schedule, but he didn’t want to have to lead them all. So, he turned to his most experienced students, made sure they had enough first-aid training, and then had them take the lead on different excursions. “I couldn’t go on all the trips, so we had to train the students,” he says. “You come up with some very good people and you let them lead.”
By the late 1980s, the club’s membership had climbed to more than 100 students. Most importantly, a small part of the college’s operating budget had been turned over to funding the club’s annual costs. Canoes and paddling equipment were purchased; so was a boat trailer. There were skis, too, and regular access to a college van. Timing had something to do with the success—outdoor recreation had just started to catch fire as a mainstream activity—but Lentz’s approach of keeping student expenses low and training members to lead trips formed the backbone of its rise.
“He loves Maine,” says Kusmierczak, a St. Louis native and a competitive paddler who had no strong affinity for the outdoors until he met Lentz. “And he really shared his excitement of exploring Maine with us. He was also someone who knew how to do things with few resources and be able to articulate his case to the administration. He was the guy we all wanted to impress, because he had put so much into this program. I don’t think anyone [else] could have done what he did.”
Preparing to Lead
At a little after four in the afternoon, the twelve newest LT students trickle into the main room of the Outing Club’s headquarters. The Schwartz Outdoor Leadership Center—made possible by a lead gift from accomplished outdoorsman Steve Schwartz ’70 and his wife Paula Mae— is a modern, post-and-beam structure that sits on the edge of campus, its design anchored by a large main room that features big windows that drench the space with sunlight, a soaring ceiling and decorative touches that trumpet outdoor adventure, from the white kayak stretched across rafters high overhead to the vintage skis and snowshoes mounted on the walls to the huge display of photos from past trips. The centerpiece of the room is the James S. Lentz Hearth, a massive stone fireplace built with a gift from some of Lentz’s former Harvard football players.
Amid all this, the students take their seats in rocking chairs that form a half-circle around a whiteboard with the word “Introductions” scrawled across it. There’s Russ Halliday ’11, a lanky lacrosse player with a surfer boy drawl and a mop of dark curly hair. Here comes Colby Trenkelbach ’10, a future physical therapist, former dancer, and self-described “people person.” Along with the ten others, the group represents a whittled down version of the nearly three-dozen students who originally applied for LT. The process comes in two parts: a series of short written essays, and then a half hour interview with Mike Woodruff and his two assistants, Bree Simmons and Zander Abbott ’08. “It makes you appreciate what the admissions office goes through,” Woodruff quips.
Through the interviews, Woodruff and his staff search for the each student’s motivations for becoming a leader, finding out if there’s a “sense of purpose” that lies beyond just wanting to have a good time. “There’s the maturity factor,” Woodruff explains, “but also we want to know if they’re open-minded and have a willingness to learn. That’s important because no matter how well trained and experienced you are, when you’re leading trips outdoors, you’re going to have the unexpected thrown at you.”
Part of Woodruff’s strength in all of this is that he’s sort of been through it himself. A Massachusetts kid who found his way to Bowdoin in the fall of ’83 thanks in part to his ability to throw a football, Woodruff played one injury-plagued year as a backup QB for Lentz’s squad before retiring to the sidelines for good. But what his football coach had seen of him, convinced Lentz that Woodruff could lead. (“When he stepped into the huddle he took control,” says Lentz.) So, when the coach moved over to the Outing Club, he made sure Woodruff knew about it.
By his senior year, Woodruff was not only one of Lentz’s top student leaders but an exceptionally gifted paddler, far surpassing even his Outing Club instructors. After graduating, Woodruff passed on his original plan to pursue medical school and carved out a living running trips in North Carolina—where he met his wife Lucretia—and later the Grand Canyon. In 1991, he’d been away from Bowdoin for four years when he heard that Lentz was stepping down as director of the Club. He applied for the job and the following fall took over from his mentor, with Lucretia working as an instructor and later as co-director, until they started their family in 2000.
As it was with Lentz, the success of the Outing Club now has a lot to do with the personality driving it. Woodruff’s passion for the outdoors is matched with a casual, youthful enthusiasm that doesn’t detract from his authority. At any time, Woodruff looks like he’s ready to venture off somewhere, and his office—an eclectic collection of papers, hiking, biking, skiing, and paddling gear, an exercise ball (it serves as his office chair), and maps of the Maine wilderness—is a testament to that.
“He’s a great people person,” says Megan Hayes ’03, a former student leader who worked more than two years as one of the club’s assistant directors following her graduation. “People are drawn to him and his ability to talk to you and draw you in. And he’s not someone who’s deterred by obstacles.“
There’s the shiny new home of course, but the Outing Club’s growth under Woodruff can also be measured in its expanded trip offerings, increased membership numbers, and the three comprehensive LT sessions held during the year, something the director loves to champion.
“There are other leadership roles on campus, but with LT, it’s the one situation where students really have an immediate impact on the safety and well-being of other students,” says Woodruff. “That doesn’t mean there’s always some big dramatic crisis going on, but there enough challenging situations where good decisions have to be made. I think it’s an important thing for a school like Bowdoin to be able to say that we have opportunities for students to actually not just learn about theory, but put it into practice as much as they want.”
That heavy emphasis on empowering students to lead other students on outdoor trips not surprisingly has reverberations that extend way beyond the Outing Club or even the Bowdoin campus. Part of what the program provides is the opportunity to learn how to make quick and tough decisions in pressure packed environments.
“My first job out of school was a software engineer, leading a small team,” says Kevin Saxton ’99, now a math teacher at a private school in Connecticut. “And there were lot of cases when I was put on the spot to come up with a solution or a make decision that would have a big impact not only for me but others. But I was comfortable with that because of what I gone through in the Outing Club.”
It was much the same for Stephen Kusmierczak. In fact, he says the Outing Club was a “game changer” for him, turning a Midwest kid with no real connection to the mountains or water into someone who, even now, still can’t get enough of the outdoors. After Bowdoin, Kusmierczak went to graduate school in Poland, where he won a national championship in whitewater boating. (“That’s something that I never would have considered until I came to Bowdoin,” he explains.) From there, he took a job with Outward Bound to lead long trips under sometimes grueling conditions into Maine and later Germany.
“I like the idea of these very intense experiences that force you to make better decisions in having to lead these trips, which you’re running without support,” he says.
All of which played to his strength when Kusmierczak decided it was time to come out of the woods and pursue a career in finance. “I remember I came to New York City for a job interview at an investment bank and they’re telling me, ‘it’s going to be a grueling schedule, do you think you can handle it?’” he says. “I just said, ‘look, I work up to an entire semester, 24/7, with no time off under some pretty hostile conditions. I’ve been through 25-below temperatures, living in an ice cave for weeks at a time. I think I can deal with the hardship.’”
The LT program isn’t just about personal growth, however. There’s a strong social element to it as well. T.J. Fudge ’02 signed up to lead trips his freshman year as a way to largely further his outdoor skills. When he got married a few years ago, however, three of his groomsmen were fellow LT graduates. “[The trips] bring you together,” says Fudge, now a graduate student in geology and environmental science at the University of Washington.
It’s a similar story for Megan Hayes, Woodruff’s former assistant. The Outing Club, she says, became her social scene. “You’re leading trips together, you’re getting meals together—it’s just a great way to get out and meet people you might not have met otherwise,” she says. “And you’re building confidence and knowledge. I realized that not only could I do these things, but I could help other people do them.”
By 4:30 Woodruff’s newest leadership trainees have all arrived and the director breaks the anxious energy by telling the group a little bit about himself and the club. From there, the each member of the LT team offers up a quick biography as well as their reasons for wanting to lead trips. Some, like Sarah Glaser ’11, who hails from Alaska, and led a number of intense hiking treks while in high school, just want to continue what they’re already been doing. Others, like Russ Halliday ’11, are looking to get something more out of their time at Bowdoin.
“I play lacrosse and for a lot of years that’s been my identity,” he says. “I’m ready to expand.”
A sort of show-and-tell follows, with Simmons and Abbott demonstrating to the group how to tie various knots. It’s a skills session to be sure, but also an icebreaker, garnering plenty of laughs as confounded students try and twist and turn their way toward some success. When it’s over, and the meeting has wrapped up, much of the early anxious energy has dissipated among the students. A few discuss going out to grab a bite to eat. And there’s quite a bit of talk about the LT kayaking trip that’s scheduled in just a couple of weeks.
“Yo, Greg, let’s label these in Spanish.” It’s the start of Columbus Day weekend, a gorgeous Friday in mid-October, and Russ Halliday, along with Colby Trenkelbach, and Greg Conyers ’12, is stuffing bags of food—cheese, bagels, fruit, pasta—into large red rubber dry sacks. Their early work is evident, with similar cinched up bags scattered around them, ready to be hauled outside and packed in one of two trucks in the nearby parking lot. Around the small group, other leadership trainees swirl around them, collecting sleeping bags and tents, rearranging clothes, and running through any last-minute check-offs with Simmons and Abbott.
It’s evident that in the two weeks since that first LT meeting, a busy schedule of navigational training classes, a weekend hiking trip, and other get-togethers, have formed a tight bond among the group members. Halliday and Conyers are clearly buddies, and the latter is all too happy to follow Halliday’s marching orders. “Queso!” he exclaims, getting a laugh from Trenkelbach.
That’s not to say things aren’t being rushed, as the LT team tries to meet its goal of being packed and on the water in just a couple of hours. On the docket: a four-day kayaking and camping excursion that will lead them around Maine’s Casco Bay and have them over-nighting on various small islands. In the LT world, it’s the biggest weekend of the season, “skills weekend,” giving students not only their longest outdoor stint of the training process but hands on-experience in planning a trip, from buying groceries to loading boats. And then there’s the chance to test their leadership mettle. Throughout the excursion different sets of students will actually lead parts of the trip.
By three that afternoon, the group, split into two teams of six under either Abbott or Simmons’s direction, is on the water. Simmons’s group puts in at Sebascodegan Island and it’s a stunning scene: red, yellow, and orange kayaks slicing through the calm Atlantic, around anchored sailboats and the occasional slow moving trawler. A warm sun sprays down while a cloudless blue sky hangs overhead.
The goal today is a modest one: just five miles, with an overnight at Basin Island, a tiny bump of land, dominated by tall pines, that sits in the middle of a small bay. The students move in a sort of line with their boats as they make their way to the different marking points that Simmons points out along the way. Big Hens Island. Sandy Cove. Bear Island. She’s a good leader, checking in with the students, and cautioning them about any boats or rocks that she sees up ahead. Simmons has some help, too, in the form of co-leader, Sam Howe ’11, an Outing Club member and recent LT graduate himself, who primarily monitors things from the back of the line.
As they paddle, conversations come and go between the LT members. About classes. About music. About sports. And sometimes nothing is said at all, the students moving silently as they take in the landscape.
At a little after six, the LT team finds its way to Basin Island, and quickly sets to work on unloading the night’s equipment. Soon, a small village of tents has been erected, the contents for the kitchen unpacked, and the group is following up on a pre-arranged assignment of duties. For Halliday, Aviva Fiske ’12, and Christina Pindar ’12 that means cooking up a dinner of breakfast burritos. With headlamps on, the trio, aided by some help from Bob Wei ’10, set to work, chopping vegetables and setting up the stove. With the boats secured and the night’s camping equipment organized, Simmons floats around in the background, letting the group run the show.
By the time supper rolls around, everyone is ready for it, piling as much egg and vegetables as they can into their burrito shells. After a full group analysis of the day’s highs and lows, Simmons and Howe take Conyer and Trenkelbach to another part of the site to discuss tomorrow’s journey. The schedule calls for another short day, but Conyer and Trenkelbach will lead it, first on a small hike in nature preserve on a stretch of mainland that’s only a ten-minute paddle away, then the four-mile kayak north to Merritt Island, where the LT team will camp for the night.
“We’re going to have high tide at 8:58 in the morning, so we’re going to have some water to deal with,” says Simmons, as the four of them analyze a map. Conyer and Trenkelbach both quickly come to agree that the group should be on the water no later than nine.
The biggest issue concerns Winnegance Bay, a shallow bay with wide mouth about two miles north that, if crossed directly, might prove to be a challenge if the waters aren’t calm. Conyer wants to be cautious and suggests the group take the longer route, and follow the coastline.
“I like your thinking, Greg,” says Simmons. “But I do think that if the day is a good one, it’s okay to cross directly.” With that, Simmons reaches for a small bag. “Let’s listen for the weather,” she says pulling out a small radio.
"Bowdoin has always been big into exploration. And with this club, the school has leveraged its location--on the coast, and within reach of the mountains and so many rivers--in a big way that's made it very effective for us."