Jellyfish, horses & bears, oh my! Champlain College professor recounts wilderness misadventures in new book
From hiking in the Green Mountains to leading Outward Bound trips in Florida, Erik Shonstrom has decades worth of campfire-worthy adventure stories to share. Shonstrom is an associate professor of writing at Champlain College and the author of four books. In his latest book, I Probably Should’ve Brought a Tent: Misadventures of a Wildness Instructor, he shares stories from his years as an outdoor educator and wildness guide.
Shonstrom spoke with Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak about introducing young adults to the outdoors, writing with levity and humor, and his own reckoning with the legacy of white men exploring "wild" spaces. Excerpts from their conversation are below, edited for clarity.
Mikaela Lefrak: What was it like to be a young person tasked with keeping these kids physically safe, and exuding an air of confidence and competence in situations where you might not have felt totally safe yourself?
Erik Shonstrom: Posturing. Pretending acting? It's a great question, because I was really young. I haven't gone back and checked the records, but I have to have been one of the younger instructors [Outward Bound] ever had. I was 19 when I started. Some of my students were 17.
Lefrak: Were there ever any moments in which you found yourself thing, "Shoot. I have no idea how to get out of this canyon, or swamp, or canoe in the middle of a lake?"
Shonstrom: All the time, every single trip. That's the fun of it, though, right? You do get into these situations where, all of a sudden, the options are not clear, and that increases people's anxiety and panic. And that can be really an exciting, fun, and also sometimes scary place to be.
I've gotten kids lost — like really lost. I know that some of us have been lost in the woods. "Is this trail heading back to the car, is it not?" But I've gotten kids really lost off trail for, like, for a day or two. What you begin to realize in those moments, and what I tried to impart to the kids, is that it's okay. We're gonna be okay. We have all our stuff, we have our tents. And I think that that can really change kids' perspective in terms of how they can rely on themselves, and how they can count on themselves, and how they can count on each other. So, yes, I have definitely been lost and gotten stuck in all kinds of stuff.
Lefrak: While this book is a collection of very amusing stories, it's also not just a book about your adventures outside. You included some pretty tough critiques of yourself, including an acknowledgement that exploring the "wilderness" as a white man is sort of a false notion at its base.
Shonstrom: There has been a real reckoning [among wildness instructors] that came from the protests of 2020 — the Black Lives Matter protests. I think many of us who are connected with the outdoor world began to realize, wait a minute — we are usurpers. There was an entire indigenous population that that existed here. We had created this picture of it where we're the only ones tramping through this untrammeled wilderness, and it's just false. It's a false notion. And I think it's a dangerous notion to move through those landscapes thinking like that.
The problem is, is that I wanted to write a book about how important nature has been for me. My father and I spent a lot of time outdoors together. I spend a lot of time out there with my kids and with my wife. But I also realized that those are the kinds of books that you just roll your eyes at. But I still wanted to write it. So I had to do so in a way that felt honest, in terms of me reckoning with the the privilege of visiting these spaces.
Broadcast on Thursday, August 4, 2022, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.