Made for Out Back

Emily Magnus '88
Previously Featured in Fall 2019 Holderness School Today

As Holderness celebrates 50 years of Out Back adventures, there’s only one faculty member who has contributed to its success for four of those decades. Doug Kendall isn’t just a legendary teacher. He’s an Out Back legend. 
Like most graduates of Holderness, I can claim that I survived Out Back. By the winter of 1987, the program was well established, the gear was standardized, and the trips, while not easy, at least felt well designed and well supplied. We bagged countless peaks, learned how to navigate by compass, experienced several nights below zero, and completed Solo in Sandwich Notch near Kiah Pond.

My leader was Latin teacher Doug Kendall. He would wake us early in the morning by bellowing the lyrics to a Monty Python song or some other inappropriate ballad, his voice echoing through the trees and assaulting our eardrums no matter how deeply we had burrowed into our sleeping bags. With moans mixed with laughter, we crawled out from under our tarps and ate oatmeal around the fire he had started while we slept. His knowledge of the woods was deep, and I remember being in awe of his experience and embracing his quirky, light-hearted approach. Surviving in the wilderness was serious business, but it didn’t mean that you couldn’t have fun at the same time. 

While my trip with him took place during the early years of his tenure at Holderness, Doug now holds the distinction of participating in the most Out Back experiences. Since 1984, he has only missed two years of Out Back—once when he was on a chair year and once when he was waiting for his first child to be born. “You could say I was made for OB,” says Doug. Truth.

Doug’s experience in the wilderness began long before Holderness. He grew up in Connecticut but hiked in the White Mountains as a kid and went to summer camp in Vermont. He began college as a music major at Boston University but finished as a Latin major at the University of Montana. For many summers he worked for Challenge Wilderness Camp in Vermont as a counselor, leading multi-day canoe trips throughout New England.

When Doug graduated from college, jobs were still often filled by word of mouth, and in the summer of 1983, Doug received a call from a friend who knew someone who knew someone who was looking for a Latin teacher. In August Doug interviewed at Holderness School, and the rest is history. He has remained at Holderness for 36 years, raising four children with his wife Diane Roberts. In addition to teaching all levels of Latin and leading Out Back, Doug has been an advisor for the yearbook, coached JV2 soccer, led and organized countless Orientation Hikes, accompanied students on his cello in school concerts and chapels, and led numerous trail crews. He has also had the unique privilege of introducing three decades of students to ski jumping. A quiet presence on campus, Doug’s influence on the school’s programming has resulted from hard work and conscientious planning behind the scenes. He has been both a steady voice of reason and a counterpoint of humor when either one was needed.

Doug’s first year on Out Back was under the leadership of Fred Beams, who was finishing up his last year. Doug remembers back then that faculty carried 60-80-pound packs; cast iron skillets, whole frozen chickens, and coal shovels were standard issue. They carried all their food and equipment for the entire trip—groups now resupply at Basecamp after Solo—and all cooking was done over a campfire. Tarps overhead and pine boughs beneath were used for sleeping. 

“It was definitely old school,” says Doug. “There was a lot more bravado and pushing students to the limits. Hiking at night was common, and groups competed for most miles and most peaks bagged.”

One of the strengths of the Out Back program was, and remains, the leadership of the faculty, especially when the leadership comes from faculty like Doug. While the general goals and structure of the program are the same, the faculty can shape their group’s experiences and determine the challenges they face. Doug’s leadership on Out Back trips has evolved with the changes in technology, but many things remain the same. Yes, stoves have been a helpful addition, and the tents and satellite phones have increased the safety of the program significantly, but for him many of the skills he wants students to learn haven’t changed. Learning to build a fire is a life-long skill he still makes sure every student can accomplish—think zombie apocalypse when all your supplies are gone and you are alone in the wilderness. Fire also provides a gathering spot and a place to bond as a group. 

“Among my favorite memories,” says Doug, “is sitting around a blazing fire on a bitterly cold night on the shore of a frozen mountain pond listening to two students, Sam Bass ’94 and Jamie Gibbs ’95, reciting from memory the ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,’ an epic poem about just such a night set somewhere ‘on the marge of Lake Lebarge.’  Neither could remember every word, but trading verses back and forth between the two of them, they put the whole thing together. What were the chances of such an out-of-the-blue performance?" 

Doug also still enjoys bushwhacking with students, teaching them to rely on a compass and a map. Then there’s the group solo experience for which he leaves time during the last three days of the program; he and his co-leaders trail behind the group by 300 yards and leave all the decision-making up to the group. It is a chance for students to test their survival skills, but it is also an opportunity to learn first-hand how to work together toward a common goal when the stakes are higher and quitting isn’t really an option.

During one group solo Doug remembers from the mid-1980s, the students had just summited Mount Tecumseh in Waterville and were headed back down to set up camp; it was getting dark and the group chose the wrong path. Only one student, Chris Cripps ’87, realized the mistake and stood alone in his decision to turn around and return to the summit. By then Doug had joined the group but chose to let the scene play out without interference. After much debate and a long standoff, Chris convinced the rest of the students to retrace their steps. “That was one of the best experiences for the kids,” he recalls, “because I stifled my desire to interfere and shape the experience.”

And that perhaps is the one change to the Out Back program that Doug worries about. The more safety conscious and risk averse the world becomes, the less things are left in the hands of novices to figure out. Failure, discomfort, trial and error, and improvising, while still a part of Out Back, don’t occur as often, and students sometimes come to depend on the adult leaders to tell them what to do. “It’s hard to argue against safety,” says Doug, “but it does change the experience and what students get out of it.”

Whatever the changes and concerns for the future are, however, the school still sees the benefits of Out Back when students return to campus. “Solo and the group experience still get them outside their comfort zone,” says Doug, “and their actions and the decisions they make still follow them. The timing of the leadership voting shortly after spring break sees to that. Some kids rise from obscurity and become really strong leaders their senior year because of Out Back.” Preparing for the zombie apocalypse and learning to lead are both skills that will last a lifetime.

A year ago, I climbed Mount Whiteface with my father. It was the first time I had visited the summit since the winter of 1987 with my Out Back group. The sense of accomplishment and joy were still with me 30 years later; thanks to Doug Kendall, my love of wilderness trails and remote mountain peaks are strong and have led to a lifetime of outdoor adventures. 

For many, including myself, Out Back and Doug Kendall are synonymous; memories of an Out Back campfire blazing at the center of a well-engineered snowpit and surrounded by Holderness students hunched over bowls of oatmeal and sausages always include Doug Kendall weaving tall tales and passing on his wilderness knowledge. His 36th Out Back will most likely be his last, as Doug is planning to retire from Holderness in May of 2020, but his legacy will live on--both in the Monty Python lyrics that still echo in the memories of many Holderness students as well as in the joy of getting lost, and found, in the wilderness.

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