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On Managing Risk and Befriending Uncertainty

On Managing Risk and Befriending Uncertainty


This is the third post in our summer series "Lessons Learned in the Woods." Find the intro here.

Putting ourselves at risk is not something we usually do on purpose. Risk comes hand in hand with uncertainty, neither of which are friends with modern culture. With smartphones and google ever at our fingertips, we're becoming increasingly uncomfortable with both.

Yet we crave adventure!

What makes an adventure an adventure? For me, it’s the thrill of new experiences, the curiosity of discovering the unknown, the challenge of problem solving with minimal resources.

That means risk. And uncertainty.

We learn most when we’re out of our comfort zone. We learn who we are. We learn about our fears. We have the opportunity to face them and grow into stronger, better people, more aware of ourselves and more capable of helping others.

To do this, we must manage risk and befriend uncertainty.

As a wilderness guide of many years, I have learned that “risk” is ever present, whether we get in the car to drive across town or undertake a huge mountain climb. When leading others in unfamiliar places, managing risk is always in the forefront of my mind. My thoughts go something like this:

On the one hand, we’re looking for a certain level of risk because it’s in those challenging situations that learning and growth has fertile ground to work.

On the other hand, minimizing risk is the #1 best way to prevent unpleasant experiences, such as injuries and dangerous situations.

So where is the happy medium?

Sometimes, nature decides this for you.

I remember a women’s Boundary Waters canoe trip I guided a few years ago, in which a severe thunderstorm with derecho winds struck our camp shortly before nightfall. We were a full day’s paddle from any road. It was towards the end of our 5-day trip, and we had just paddled and portaged 15 miles. We were tired.

It happened just after satisfying dinner. Several of us were relaxing in hammocks. Just when the sun should have been casting its lovely golden rays on our lakeside campsite, we suddenly felt the air grow still and the sky darken. A thick yellowish-green wall of cloud began making its way towards us from the edge of the horizon. On a nearby granit boulder, a solitary herring gull stood watch over us from her perch. All was eerily silent.

Then a cold, steady wind began rushing over the lake and through our camp. Whitecaps broke over the water and waves crashed against the stony bank. We retreated to our tents as heavy rain and strong winds began to sweep through the tall red pines overhead. When we felt our tent stakes uproot and the canoes begin to shift in the wind, a few of us left our shelter to secure the canoes and do our best to fasten the tents more tightly.

We were met by a canoe flying through the air. Somehow, we managed to catch it and drag all the canoes more deeply into the woods. We secured the tents again, and then we waited until the storm screamed past. The hair on our arms and necks still tall as one giant bolt of lighting and instant ear-splitting crack of thunder struck only yards from our site.

We were terrified. Yet what could we do? We could do nothing but wait.

As the sun came out and we emerged from our cover, we asked ourselves: what could we have done to prevent the risk? To quell the fear? To be more prepared?

Some things are within our control, but other things are not. When faced with risks beyond our control, sometimes the best we can do is respond in the moment. On this trip, everyone came together to help when needed. We followed emergency storm protocol and survived (mostly) unscathed.

Naturally, we shy away from risky situations that cause fear. Yet it is in those moments that we are able to learn what we are truly made of. When we surround ourselves with people, knowledge, and resources to help us through the unknown, we emerge stronger.

As we learn to take necessary risks, we can begin to trust in uncertainty and to let go of some of the fear. We learn that while putting ourselves in new situations might feel uncomfortable in the moment, the feeling of satisfaction and renewed perspective on life, values, and priorities is a lasting feeling we can carry with us. That strength can help us through the daily grind.

Allow yourself to live in uncertainty. Challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone. Turn off your phone. Plan a trip. Take a hike. Let yourself experience wonder.

Where does it take you?

Share your stories with us in the comments or by taging us on Facebook or Instagram @redbudsuds #thoughtfullyclean.

Read more lessons learned in the woods here.


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filed under: #redbudroadtrip | #ThoughtfulThursday | Thoughtfully Clean Field Notes

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