Camaraderie, Growth, and Empowerment: Stories from WOLC23
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Camaraderie, Growth, and Empowerment: Stories from WOLC23

A guest blog from photographer and storyteller, Sarah Hewitt

On a frosty day in December 2023, Sarah Hewitt spent a day at Loch Eil alongside the participants of the Women's Outdoor Leadership Course.

In this blog, she delves into their unique journeys within the outdoor industry and explores the advantages of enrolling in a women-only programme.

We crunch along the towpath, the mist cloaking everything in an eerie silence. Gradually, as the sun begins to break through, we can see that the ground and the trees and the lochs and the boats are all encrusted with a very hard frost, glistening in the gloomy morning. Then we see that the Caledonian Canal is mostly covered in a thick layer of ice.

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Verity and Lucy, assisted by Mike and Alice, take the canoes off the trailer, and being careful not to slide straight into the ice, manoeuvre the canoes down the ramp and place them in the icy water. Togged up in warm clothes and dry suits, buoyancy aids and with thermoses of hot tea, they each get into their boats, and attempt to paddle away. I say attempt, because in reality it’s a case of breaking the ice with the paddle enough to move a few metres.

I cross over at the loch and keep pace with them, watching as they take it in turns to be the “ice breaker”. By now, the sun has fully come out and the Canal is a winter wonderland, Scotland in its December finest.

I am here to spend the day with the participants of the 2023 Women’s Outdoor Leadership Course, or WOLC for short. Since 2019, Outward Bound has run this unique 10-week course once a year to a small number of women, trans and non-binary folk. With a focus on professional development and leadership practice, it is less about gaining qualifications and more about giving participants a chance to hone their leadership style and give them a taste of what working for Outward Bound is all about.

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As Verity and Lucy practice turning their canoes and different paddle strokes, Beatrix and Muireann are out on Loch Shiel with another instructor practising their sea kayaking. The rest of the group have all been struck down with a cold bug that is perhaps inevitable after 8 weeks of school groups and being out in the Scottish winter.

Later on, warming up over a brew at the Loch Eil Centre, I chat with the group about their experiences on the course. Having worked a lot in the women’s space in the outdoors, I was curious to find out what they thought about the industry and this course.

Apart from the practical reasons such as the financial viability of the course (you pay a £500 deposit which gets returned to you on completion in the form of further training, plus all food and accommodation is provided for the duration), it was "the focus on developing your personal leadership practice and what that looks like as a woman in the industry” that was the main draw. Widening experience of working in the outdoors industry whilst also giving space and time to gain log-book days, the course offers a unique and invaluable opportunity to reflect and make future plans, something that’s hard to do during full-time work.

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For some, it being a women’s only course was a specific benefit. Muireann had experienced being a participant on a shorter women’s-led course before and felt she’d like more of that. Lærke had also worked on women’s-only courses before, but wanted to be on the other side, saying:

“I think the experience of working that was like, wow, this can be really quite transformative, even over a short period of time. So, I just wanted the experience of being on the other side of that, and being a participant again. It's nice sometimes just to let someone else lead.”

For others, it was an unexpected bonus. Lucy hadn’t worked with many other women in the industry before, nor had spent much time in her personal adventures with other outdoorsy women, and loves the community that’s developed. Every day of the course they’ve gone for a dip in the Loch, rain or shine, whatever the temperature, and they all agreed that that’s because of the camaraderie between them all.

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As Verity said:

“I don't think you really know how meaningful and important that kind of network is, until you've experienced it.”

In the next instalment, Sarah explores the potential for competition between the women and discovers the role models that have shaped their interest in leadership and the outdoors.

Apply to join the next Women's Outdoor Instructor Development Programme (previously known as WOLC) and help shape the future of female leadership at Outward Bound. Applications are now open!

Further Reading