Youth organizations like National Outdoor Leadership School and the Boy Scouts take kids outdoors to teach them life skills, and there’s a good reason they choose river trips. Boaters learn everything from group dynamics and leadership skills to Leave No Trace ethics and river ecology.

Los Angeles high schooler Stephanie Guerrero stepped off a plane in Alaska in June of 2016 for her first river trip. There was one problem.

“I didn’t know how to swim,” she says.

She had gotten a scholarship for a NOLS trip, and pack rafting had caught her eye. Her instructor, Evan Horn, says when he first met her that she was extremely shy.

Horn has been guiding kids down rivers for the past eight years, and he says students often come to him standoffish or anxious. Teenagers are especially slow to warm up to the group, and most of them arrive with some level of fear or reservation.

But that’s the whole point. According to the National Wildlife Federation, spending time outdoors reduces stress, can help prevent anxiety and depression disorders from developing and facilitate social interactions. Environmental education programs can also increase kids’ attention spans, help them score higher on standardized tests and improve critical thinking skills.

NOLS takes advantage of these benefits to advance its mission: teaching interpersonal skills, leadership capabilities and environmental stewardship to students from all walks of life. Horn says rafting is a particularly effective arena for that kind of learning.

“Rowing is a subtle movement, but if you learn to communicate, listen and plan ahead, you’re able to move something that weights 2,000 pounds down a river corridor. That’s empowering.”

But, you’ve got to start somewhere. For Guerrera, that somewhere was a shell-shocked first day.
“Just being on that boat was extremely terrifying,” she says. “And we hadn’t even gotten to any rapids yet.”

Day four of her travel journal started with the sentence, “I’m terrified.” She later wrote, “I wish managing my fear could work the same way exercise does,” hoping that doing enough of it would make it easier.

She says the tactic worked. Learning the ins and outs of the safety equipment, getting paddling tips from Horn and spending time on the river instilled in Guerrera a new self-assurance.

Day 11 of her journal starts, “I cannot wait to wake up in the morning and go down some rapids.”

“Our bigger-picture goal is to take a group where they’re at and bring them into a space of higher competence and confidence,” Horn says. Another goal: helping kids establish relationships with their peers and finding common ground with strangers.

By the end of Guerrera’s trip, the word “shy” no longer applied.

“I felt like I didn’t have a lot in common with [the other students] when I first got there, but by the end I was extremely close with them,” Guerrera says. “Nature makes everybody equal. Nobody is higher than anybody. Age disappears. Experience disappears. It allows you to be yourself, and you bring people closer to you.”

A boat forms a tight community that has to work together to succeed, and the confined quarters mean an expert is never more than an arm’s length away to offer instruction, guide group communication or point out features of the surrounding environment.