Student Stories: Cooper’s Fire Watch

Fire Watch has been build into many Outward Bound expeditions. The history begins with Outward Bound's founder, Kurt Hahn, who often would call on his students to serve as lighthouse watch in Scotland- to keep the fire going so others wouldn't lose their way. While just teenagers, Hahn fully believed, "There is more in you than you know". With challenge in front of them, the students would step up for their important task. On modern Outward Bound courses, stepping into challenge is at the core of our design principles.

Students are asked to open their perspective, try new things, and push themselves beyond what they thought was possible. On current day Outward Bound fire watches, crews are given the challenge to build a fire, an as a group, keep it alive through the night.

Youth Leadership Corp alumna Cooper A. shares her experience of fire watch from her 14 day expedition:

The Build Up

We'd split the eight hours from 9 in the evening to the 5 a.m. sunrise into shifts of two hours, letting six of us sleep while two watched and fed the fire, but no one really wanted to sleep. Eventually, as midnight approached, people began to leave to snatch a few hours of sleep, but others kept coming back to take their places. Firewatch isn't something you sleep through easily.

"Gather a pile of sticks about the size of a small car," Anna and Nick had told us after we finished setting up camp. We stared, nonplussed. But after a few days on a course you trust your instructors implicitly, even if they're a little crazy and have weird inside jokes and sing Disney songs off-key, so we scoured the area around the campground dutifully and speculated about why, exactly, we seemed to be preparing to set the entire state of West Virginia on fire. 

"Several times the fire seemed on the verge of burning out... "

The tradition of Firewatch comes from Kurt Hahn's Gordonstoun School in Scotland, where select students would spend the night keeping the fire burning at the lighthouse near the school. For a group of eight high school students in the West Virginia Dolly Sods, it meant keeping a fire going from sunset to sunrise.

And it's no easy task. Several times the fire seemed on the verge of burning out as one large section of charred logs suddenly collapsed at once or a log proved to be damper than predicted. As the night wore on, we had to venture out into the surrounding woods, headlamps turned up high, to resupply our rapidly-dwindling pile of sticks. 

Through the Night

For our crew, Firewatch wasn't dramatic.  Firewatch is a quiet experience. You stare at the fire until your eyes begin to prinkle from the smoke, talking in low voices so as not to disturb anyone trying to sleep. Even the fire has to be kept low so that it doesn't burn itself out. You talk about everything -- your friends, your family, where you want to go to college and what you fear and what you want to do with your life and the ambitions that drag you out of bed in the morning. These are probably things that you've never told anyone, maybe things that you've never even articulated to yourself, but somehow in the glow of the fire you're telling them to these people who you hadn't even met a week ago. Sometimes, without realizing it, you lapse into that kind of silence, free from awkwardness, that you've never experienced with anyone other than a family member. 

And that's the thing. Maybe your crew, like us, was close even before Firewatch. But after Firewatch, you'll be family. 

Our Firewatch was special for me in another way: I turned sixteen that night. Name a better way to celebrate a birthday than your nine favorite people in the world singing quietly to you in the middle of the night as you all sit around a warm fire. I'll wait.

"The fire was still burning just as brightly as it had burned when we had lit it."

Then -- and it didn't feel like it had been eight hours -- dawn was breaking and our instructors were awake and we were making s'mores over the fire and laughing and talking and the fire was still burning just as brightly as it had burned when we had lit it. Our campsite was near an overlook, and we watched the sun rise through the mist. The beauty might sound cliche, but everything in nature is a bit like that. And when you've only slept for an hour in the past day and a half and you're leaning against each other like you've been friends for years and eating chocolate and graham crackers everything makes you feel giddy and you never want the course to end.

A Crew Nonetheless

That day, my birthday, we hiked over seven miles, scaling a peak in a way that resembled rock-climbing more than hiking and then making our way through a building rainstorm and mud-covered trails to a partially submerged campsite. It wasn't the kind of evening that produces radiant smiles all round. 

It wasn't our first day of rain, either. It had rained the very first day of our course, adding damp misery to the first day's ever-present awkwardness. But there was something different this time, as we laughed when the cooks spilled the macaroni and sighed when the tarp collapsed for the third time under the weight of the rain. When Anna and Nick produced a brownie cake, it wasn't just the cake's warmth and sugar that made me happy. We weren't a collection of dispirited individuals. We were a group, a team, a crew. A tired, cold, blistered, and very wet crew, but a crew nonetheless. We'd kept a fire going for an entire night, and we were-- are -- a family. 

Cooper and the 2019 YLC Crew