They learned that it's OK to get wet and dirty, the value of teamwork and perseverance, and the definition of a daunting phrase: "one-mile double portage." They slept under tarps, cooked over a fire and tried to catch fish with blueberries and baby snakes. They covered a lot of ground (and water) physically, and they broke ground metaphorically, making a little history up near Quetico.

Next week, about half of the two dozen graduates of the western hemisphere's first Women's Outward Bound trek will head back to Ely. Amid a few days of age-adjusted outdoors trekking, they will share their experiences then and in the ensuing 47 years.

"I was really curious about what had happened to all those women," said Maxine Davis, who organized the reunion, "who they are now, whether Outward Bound had helped shape them. It really affected my life; I don't know whether it did that for some others."

Long-lasting effects aside, it's a safe bet that spending July of 1965 in the Boundary Waters had at least some impact on teens from Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Colorado. More than 1 million youngsters have completed an Outward Bound course. According to a Minneapolis Tribune article from that time, "Their regimen calls for 12 days of intense instruction in swimming, canoeing and campcraft. The final 16 days are spent in a wilderness canoe trip. For three days the girls, alone or in pairs, will be left alone without food to live off the land and waters of Superior National Forest."

That last stretch provided an indelible memory for Joan Elizabeth Thames, now a retired St. Paul teacher. "I was with Betty [Kilanowski], and we killed a garter snake," Thames said, "and when I cut it open, it had babies inside. We put innards in a jar to prove we had done it. And I wore the snakeskin in my hat and still have it. And we used the babies to try to fish, but didn't catch anything. Maybe that's not what fish like."

Some other campers tried blueberries as bait, said Jean Sanford Replinger, Minnesota Outward Bound's woman director and the program's progenitor. Such unusual endeavors, she added, were not only welcomed but encouraged.

"Girls are different. They don't like to put worms on hooks," said Replinger, of Marshall, Minn., "and they didn't want to be macho, and I didn't want them to. I wanted them to do it their way."

Learning ingenuity

The modifications -- and lessons -- began the first day. "You get off the bus and they ask you to change into things that can get very wet," Davis said. "Then they took us on a long walk, through bogs and rapids, basically places where you get very wet and the footing is bad, so you balance on other girls. So immediately you were dirty, you didn't care how you looked and you were dependent on other girls."

Those other girls included a few avid outdoors types, some city girls seeking a challenge or reacting to a brother's dare and, Replinger said, "one young lady sent by a social service agency." Also among the pioneering pack: Sports Illustrated writer Barbara La Fontaine, who penned a series called "Babes in the Woods."

"For some it was totally new and different and foreign, for others an enriching experience," said Lynn Cox, one of the girls' instructors. "I remember the swamp walks and some of them going 'Eee! Eww! Wee!' I remember some of the glee that the women had, but some people had some real mental, emotional challenges.

"They jelled over the course of the trip. ... They pulled in [at the end] with great joy and personal accomplishment. I remember girls taking leadership responsibilities and grasping the concept of solving problems as a group."

Davis recalled just such an undertaking. "There was a 15-foot wall, and we had to figure out whether the lightest one should go first or just how to go about it," said Davis, of Minneapolis. "We decided I would go first because I had the longest arms so I could reach down and get the girls with shorter arms. You work with the strength of the group when you're working as a team."

A matter of confidence

Davis picked up several more lifelong skills: orienteering, cooking over an open fire ("I can bake a cake that way") and enough canoeing skills to land subsequent summer-camp jobs. Plus something less tangible. "That I could just about approach any problem and figure it out," she said, "not being afraid of trying and not being afraid of failing."

Thames drew similar inspiration from Outward Bound. "I became a stronger person, not physically but mentally," she said. "It helped me believe that I could do almost anything. I'm a single adoptive mom, and I've just come through two brain surgeries, and I've moved far and fast from those."

Thames is hoping her doctor will let her join the dozen women expected for next week's outing, where Replinger and Cox are anxious to see if that month had lasting reverberations for their young charges.

Regardless, these women will always have the summer of '65. And just how long ago was that? "Back then, you didn't purify the water," Cox said. "You just drank it."

Even the girls.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643