(Original post date: 9/4/2015)
For this post, I’ll be taking a break from the “adventures of Mack and Theresa” theme of this blog to reflect on my own personal outdoor adventure: a 9-day backpacking course with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School).
The idea to do this course came to me after completing a NOLS Wilderness First Aid class through REI’s Outdoor School. Prior to the WFA class, I’d never even heard of NOLS. Out of curiosity, I read descriptions about several of their course offers. I was immediately intrigued and, after finding out about their Pacific Northwest base and the short (i.e. perfect for my work schedule) TLS course in the Pasayten Wilderness, submitted an application.
In the days leading up to the course, I became more and more nervous. Physically, I felt more than ready for it. I’d already completed two backpacking trips (with fairly high mileage days), a couple of half marathons, and I was still running every week. But the idea of spending nine days in the wilderness with complete strangers terrified me. Ironically enough, this aspect of the course turned out to be the best part. Although I’m not sure how/if the course will affect my professional life (the TLS was a career course), I’m grateful for the amazing learning experience and the incredible group of people that shared it with me.
Day 1: NOLS Pacific Northwest base
After a long, sleepless night on the road, I arrived at the NOLS base in Conway, WA, anxious to meet the people with whom I would be spending the next nine days. In addition to the TLS group, another expedition was preparing for a 30-day course in British Columbia. We all received a tour of the base before breaking off into our designated teams. The rest of the morning was spent getting to know each other, meeting with our seminar leaders/instructors—Dálio Zippin Neto (from Brazil) and Erica Quam (from Washington)—and discussing our itinerary and course goals for the next several days.
Our entire group (including the instructors) was comprised of 12 people (5 women, 7 men). Dálio and Erica divided us into tent groups/cook groups (i.e. the people we would be eating, sleeping, and managing group gear with for the entirety of the course). On longer courses, these groups would usually change from week to week. This doesn’t work as well on short courses. Although most groups were comprised of three people, my group had four (apparently to take advantage of the fact that I don’t take up much space in a tent). Ellie and Jack were both college sophomores (though I would’ve guessed they were older if they hadn’t told me). Guy was on the other end of the spectrum, being the oldest and having the most outdoor experience of all of us. It was a good balance.
Following lunch, we got to packing. Unlike my own trips with Mack when it’s pretty easy to pack light, we were required to carry several items that I usually wouldn’t take. The heaviest of these items was all the cook gear (fry pan, pot, lid, stove, and fuel). In addition, since our trip was also a class, we had to include a variety of NOLS handbooks and manuals in our gear. Prior to the course, the heaviest my pack had ever been (including food and water) was 31 or 32 lbs. After packing group gear and food rations, my pack weighed in at a whopping—at least for me—42 lbs! I actually reached the max recommended weight for someone of my size. And I could definitely feel it (although actually carrying the pack was much easier than getting it off and on).
After all the weigh-ins and final sweeps were completed, we finally hit the road. All 12 of us piled into a single van (ugh…). Our gear was packed into an attached trailer. The drive to the Billy Goat Trailhead would take about 3 hours. About an hour and a half or so into the drive, after passing the North Cascades Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount, we began to see billows of smoke in the distance. Wildfire? As if on cue, we were stopped by a state trooper and told to turn around. We would not be doing our trip in the Pasayten Wilderness afterall. The fire was at zero containment and nearby towns (including Winthrop, which we were supposed to pass through on the way to our campground) were already being evacuated. Back at the NOLS base, we found out that three or four firefighters had already lost their lives that afternoon. We were instructed to call our loved ones to let them know we were safe and that our trip was being adjusted to avoid the fire.
Remaining daylight hours were spent learning how to set up our Black Diamond pyramid tent (easiest set-up EVER; it only uses a single pole!) and getting to know each other a little better over a cold dinner (with the exception of the experimental quiche concocted by a few of the guys). I’ll admit the first night in the tent was definitely a little strange and lonely, but this subsided once we were finally out in the wilderness.
Day 2: Sloan Creek Campground to Mackinaw Shelter (5.5 miles; 2 hours 18 minutes)
We awoke early for some morning lessons, which included kitchen setup—we carried an MSR WhisperLite International—and cleanup, as well as efficient packing. Dálio said the end result should be a “sexy pack”. I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of pride following the packing class because it confirmed how I’d already been packing my pack in the past! And, despite the immense weight of my pack, it felt a lot better after I got to reorganize everything. One particular trick I appreciated was stuffing flat, condensed foods (i.e. tortillas, salmon and tuna packs) into the fry pan to help alleviate bulk from the rations bag (which had been difficult to pack nicely the day before because of the amount of food inside). After a brief chat about our new destination, Glacier Peak Wilderness, we hit the road.
The drive to Sloan Creek Campground was much more comfortable then our drive the day before. Since our trip wasn’t going to end at Sloan Creek, we needed a second vehicle for shuttling. This meant that we didn’t need to cram into a single van on the way there! We arrived in the early afternoon. Dálio and Erica led another class to go over bear safety (including how to use bear spray), foot care, orienting our maps, and one final gear check. Then we were off!
Our hike was short and sweet on easy terrain. It was spent entirely in the forest, so we were shaded from the hot afternoon sun. I felt completely at home since I spend much of my outdoor time in Pacific Northwest forests, but it was fun to hear non-PNW natives—several members of our expedition were from the East Coast—comment on the scenery.
We made camp at Mackinaw Shelter, right next to the North Fork Sauk River (at least I think it was North Fork Sauk…). After setting up the tent, Jack, Ellie, Guy, and I cooked our first dinner together (pasta with melted white cheddar). Now, cooking has never been (nor will it ever be) my forte, so I contributed more in the setup and cleanup department. Following our delicious meal, we storm proofed our kitchen (covered the stove with the pot and fry pan, then laid the dromedary over it), placed all of our “smellables” (i.e. food and scented toiletries) within the bear fence, and gathered with the rest of our group for one final class before turning in for the night. The majority of this class was dedicated to pooping in the woods. Dálio gave quite the demonstration (pants on the entire time of course). NOLS takes Leave No Trace principles very seriously, so they don’t provide their students with toilet paper out in the field. Instead, we were instructed to rinse “the area” with water, then scrub it (using our hand!) with Dr. Bronner’s soap. Naturally, everyone was a bit taken aback. However, over the course of the trip, I never heard any complaints about it! (Sidenote: I brought my own system, which uses wet wipes and scented doggy bags to carry out the used wipes) We concluded the debrief with a discussion about group behavior and attitude goals, then returned to our tents.
Day 3: Mackinaw Shelter to an unidentified lake/body of water (5 miles, 4 hours)
Our second day in the field began with a briefing on our route (including estimated mileage, elevation gain, terrain, potential meet-up areas, and intended destination). Additionally, we would be hiking in two separate groups, as opposed to a single 12-person party, for the remainder of the trip. This system provides the opportunity to get to know people outside of your tent/cook group—the groups change from day to day—, it helps minimize impact on the trail, and it gives each person the opportunity to try out a specific role within the group. The roles include the leader (person at the front); the sweeper (person in the back); the navigator; the timekeeper; and the “self care” person (someone who periodically checks in with the group about hydration, bio breaks, foot care, morale, etc.). Each group must be self-sustaining (i.e. we need to collectively have a shelter, first aid kit, cook set, food, water purification, and maps/compass). Today, my hiking group included Guy, Tessa, Jack, Megan, and Dálio.
Although the hike to Mackinaw Shelter had been a breeze, the North Fork Sauk Trail begins to climb almost immediately after this point. The estimated total gain for the day was 3,000 ft, and most of that was within the first two miles. Since it was only our second day out in the field, our packs were still pretty heavy, making the climb a bit more strenuous than it probably was in actuality. Guy ended up feeling it the most since he was carrying the heaviest pack (which included a 5 lb bear fence). We all ended up lending a helping hand by relieving him of some of the weight early on in the hike. After the initial climb, we made it out of the woods and were finally rewarded with our first glimpse of the surrounding mountains. I remembered why I loved growing up in Washington. We continued along, enjoying the black huckleberries that higher elevation provides, and occasionally leapfrogging with the other hiking group. Most exciting of all—at least for me—was seeing (and hearing) marmots for the first time! They were talking up a storm as we neared White Pass.
At White Pass/junction with Foam Creek Trail, we stopped to wait for the second group and discuss the final segment of our hike. The views here were incredible. On another trip I would definitely make an effort to camp at White Pass. While we waited, I explored the campground and even got to experience a backcountry latrine for the first time (no walls, but at least you don’t have to dig a cathole!). We continued our trek on Foam Creek Trail, hiking just below a ridge until we came to a faint bootpath leading up to the first saddle. After hiking up, Dálio led us down a steep, sketchy slope comprised of very loose rock. The wind was picking up at this point as well. (My deep appreciation for trekking poles grows stronger on every trip I take.) Following this descent, we climbed up to another saddle, wind continuing to blast us, and made our way through a granite boulder field, heading towards the body of water we could see in the distance.
We made camp in a grassy area a little ways from the water. I immediately threw on all of my layers and even resorted to running back and forth between the “lake” and camp just to stay warm. The second group didn’t arrive for nearly an hour; we’d only anticipated a 15 to 20 minute wait, so they definitely had us a little concerned. Apparently, they ended up taking a different bootpath up to another saddle and had to backtrack. At this point, we were all freezing and exhausted, so Erica thought it would be fun to make calzones for dinner. Now, I am not—and never will be—a skilled cook, so I have almost no recollection of how we made them. I do remember that the process was tedious, messy, and difficult to clean up. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure it was one of the best calzones I’d ever eaten.
Day 4: Exploration Day! (Mileage unknown, 3 hours 9 minutes)
The smell of smoke was so strong the night before that it seeped into my dreams; I dreamt that I was desperately trying to put out a raging fire in someone’s backyard. I awoke several times and, in order to reassure myself and calm my nerves, peered out of the tent to confirm that our site wasn’t up in flames. In the morning, the air was intoxicating and we could see smoke behind the ridge we were camped below. Fortunately, the remainder of our route went in the opposite direction. By late morning, the smoke had cleared for the most part.
Since we planned to stay at the current site for a second night, we spent the morning catching up on class time (i.e. lectures led by Dálio and Erica). Subjects included:
- Group development stages: forming, storming, norming, performing, mourning)
- Risk management: objective/environmental hazards, subjective/human-related hazards, program/policy-procedure hazards, decision making based on likelihood-consequence relationship
- Decision making styles: delegate, consensus, voting, directive, consultative
- “Leader of the day” responsibilities: planning, communication and facilitation, motivation and morale, and briefing/debriefing
- A.D. (Route And Description) planning
I found the R.A.D. planning process/checklist described by Erica to be incredibly helpful, so I’ve laid out the details below:
- Map area
- Group members–include the role of each person, as well as the gear being carried
- Origin and destination–include three surrounding features for each; be very specific about their proximity to the chosen features
- Route description–include cardinal directions, handrails, landmarks, terrain, water sources, junctions, etc.
- Time and distance calculations–estimated time of departure and arrival (factoring in elevation gain and breaks); 2 miles, heavy packs, flat terrain = 1 hour; 1 mile, heavy packs, off trail = 1 hour; add an hour for every 1,000 ft of elevation gain
- Contingency plan–alternative route and/or destination, meet-up/check-in points, obstacles and hazards
Following the marathon lecturing and a short lunch, we spent the afternoon exploring the area around our site. We managed to bag a small, nearby peak (elevation 6,500-6,700 ft), practice descending a sketchy moraine at Dálio’s insistence (probably trying to get people out of their comfort zone), and traverse a glacier. All in all, it was a very eventful and educational day. As an added bonus, I didn’t have to lug around my giant pack since we had a base camp set up.
Day 5: Unidentified lake to campsite along the PCT (5.5 – 6 miles, 3 hours 34 minutes)
We descended out of the mountains and back into the forest today. Aside from the boulder field we had to navigate through at the beginning, the hike ended up being very relaxing and non-strenuous. Much of our time was spent on the PCT, and our campsite ended up being right off of the trail. We set up camp next to a drainage, so I finally got the opportunity to clean off a little bit. The water was far too shallow to actually submerge myself, but I did get to wash my hair and feet. We finished our hike pretty early in the day, which meant more time for classes (“Teaching Map and Compass to Beginners” with Dálio, as well as a personality continuum exercise with Erica) and a debrief session that we were actually able to hold while the sun was still up! Today was also the first day that we had Leaders of the Day (Megan, Travis, and Guy). To conclude the debrief, they decided to hold a trail naming ceremony. It was a very democratic procedure. One person would suggest a name for somebody else, the rest of the group would either ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ it, and, once a consensus was reached, the person receiving the name would be “knighted” by Guy. Names are as follows:
- Erica = Mama Bear
- Dálio = Shocker
- Guy = Captain Shakespeare
- Ellie = Ninja
- Jack = Smooth Friction
- Travis = High Score
- Megan = Yogi
- Hank = Bear Bell
- Jay = Mad Scientist
- Jared = Sticky Buns
- Tessa = Huckleberry
- Me = Giddy Up
This was by far the most entertaining and fun debrief of our entire time out in the field. It was incredible to see how much everyone had bonded over the last few days. The trail names themselves are evidence that we were getting to know each other pretty well at this point.
Day 6: Campsite along the PCT to Camp Lake (6 miles, 4 hours 11 minutes)
Today was one of the more challenging—but still fun!—days of the trip. The morning started off fairly easy. Although the trail up to the White Chuck River was a little overrun by deadfall and downed trees, we were headed downhill, so it wasn’t too strenuous. However, upon arriving at the White Chuck River, we couldn’t see a trail on the other side. Our LODs (Tessa, Jay, and Hank) decided that we would send some scouts across the river to check out the area and see if a trail appeared somewhere along the shore. I volunteered to scout—mostly because I wanted to move around rather than sit and wait—and continued on with Jay and Travis. Crossing the river was easy since there was an enormous downed tree that stretched across it just a few yards away from where everybody was waiting. We thought we were in luck when we saw a few cairns leading us over the shore to a small opening in the trees, but when we followed the path up, it led us to a muddy, swamp area—we were pretty close to some hot springs—surrounded by more deadfall and downed trees. We spent a few more minutes scouting around the area and found nothing resembling a trail. Not wanting to exceed our time limit and worry the rest of our expedition, we headed back.
After getting everyone across the river, we went back to the same spot. After scouting it out for a minute or two, Erica said there might actually be a trail up there. However, feeling a bit pressured to keep moving (I think), Tessa and Jay decided we should keep moving upriver because we saw boot prints leading up that way. Unfortunately, the tracks eventually took us off trail and up a steep hill where we had to bushwhack through devil’s club while sinking in mud. At a relatively flat clearing, we stopped again to do more scouting. Dálio eventually found the trail near the area that Jay, Travis, and I had originally scouted. I felt a little embarrassed. Nonetheless, it was a good group learning experience, and everyone was being patient and supportive of one another.
The remainder of the hike was easy to navigate, but much more strenuous since it was almost entirely uphill (until our final descent into Camp Lake). After making it out of the forest, we got some amazing views of Glacier Peak. Prior to reaching Camp Lake, we came upon magical Byrne Lake. I was reminded of the lakes that Mack and I saw when we backpacked in the Wallowas. The water was so pristine. When Camp Lake was finally in sight, Tessa and I basically abandoned our group (which included Erica, Jay, Jack, and Guy) and sprinted downhill toward the water. I immediately threw down my gear, stripped off my outer wear, and ran into the water. After five days out in the field, it felt great to finally submerge my entire body in cold, clear water. Our campsite at Camp Lake was probably my favorite spot of the entire trip. We had an incredible view of the water in front of us and, behind us, a view of the mountains. That night, Guy and I cooked delicious huckleberry gingerbread pancakes as a reward for all our hard work earlier in the day.
Day 7: Camp Lake to Round Lake (5.5 miles, 3 hours 38 minutes)
Although not as flat as our LODs (Jack, Ellie, and Jared) had anticipated, we ended up with an easier hike compared to the day before. There were no serious navigating issues since we stayed on the Lost Creek Ridge Trail—our return trail!—the entire time. I did get another opportunity to scout when we needed to find the side trail leading to Round Lake, our destination for the night. The trail I ended up spotting led to our alternate destination instead of the intended one, but it still felt nice to find A trail after yesterday’s fiasco, which I was still feeling a little ashamed. The next side trail we reached climbed a short while uphill to the top of a saddle. Below us lay Round Lake, another stunning body water. After the second group arrived, we descended together and made camp near the shore. I went for another short swim then spent the remainder of the afternoon/early evening planning tomorrow’s route with Jay and Jared, my fellow LODs. Since they had both been LODs already, they allowed me to do most of the planning. I’ll admit that being the last member of the expedition to act as LOD was a bit intimidating at first. However, as the planning went on, I continued to gain more confidence. In fact, it felt pretty similar to all the trip planning I did for the Wallowas, except that it was much less tedious. All in all, I ultimately enjoyed mapping out our route, measuring mileages with a blade of grass, identifying surrounding features, and estimating our travel time. I think my penchant for meticulousness really paid off in this situation.
Day 8: Round Lake to Lost Creek Ridge Trailhead (4.05 miles, 2 hours 27 minutes)
It was strange to wake up in the morning and know that it was going to be our last day out in the field. I missed being home of course, and I was especially sad that I hadn’t been able to share the past few days with Mack, but I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I’ve never been ready for it to be over. The Columbia River Gorge. The Wallowas. Although my immediate sentiments following those trips were pride and relief,—not to mention a serious craving for mozzarella sticks and French fries—the most prevalent feeling was longing. Longing to be back on the trail. It would linger for days, sometimes weeks, following my time out in the wilderness. I was resistant to easing back into the schedules and routines that comprise my day-to-day life. Even right now, a part of me is still trying to resist.
After packing up camp, having a brief class on U.S. Land Management (led by Erica), and going over the R.A.D. plan for the day (led by me), we began our hike out. It was a nice day to be an L.O.D. Our entire route was on the Lost Creek Ridge Trail, so there was really no chance of us getting lost or turned around. Nonetheless, I took my role very seriously. I consistently checked in with my group (Megan, Travis, Guy, Jared, and Dálio), looked at the map and confirmed our location at each break point, and was vocal about any obstacles or hazards that I encountered on the trail. I consider myself to be fairly shy and reserved. Being a “leader” felt like I was acting out a part, but at the same time, it felt natural. I never felt like I was at odds with my personality despite being put in a role that seems quite the opposite.
Within three hours we reached the Lost Creek Ridge Trailhead. Once the second group arrived, we all piled into the van (packs included!) and drove about 20 minutes to Sloan Creek Campground, where the second vehicle was parked. With heavy hearts—at least I felt this way—we set up our final camp. Instead of separating into our designated tent/cook groups, we decided to make the most of our time together and prepare a potluck with our combined rations. We ended up with macaroni/ramen noodles and cheese, rice and lentils, plain rice, and a ridiculously huge pot of refried beans. Tessa and Jay also cooked pancakes for the next morning. It was nice to finally have a meal where we all sat down together (instructors included) and enjoyed each other’s company. Hilarity ensued when Hank adamantly suggested that there was no way we could finish all the food. Naturally, we consumed every last bit of that meal just to spite him. The refried beans were the most difficult to finish (not that I touched them at all; I detest refried beans). Watching Jay polish off several bowls of it was absolutely disgusting. Dinner ended up being an enjoyable spectacle.
Later that evening we met for our final debrief before heading back to the NOLS base. I received lots of positive feedback regarding my leadership that day (yay!), then we spent a good portion of the meeting learning a bit more about each other through a “get to you know” guessing game. After one final leadership class—ironically enough about ‘debriefing’—led by Dálio, we concluded our time together with the help of Edward Abbey:
One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.
Day 9: Evaluation/Graduation Day!
At the outset of our trip, Dálio and Erica informed us that we were going to be evaluated on our backcountry skills, leadership skills, and expedition behavior. Although I wasn’t particularly keen on being graded, it was nice to receive an incredibly detailed and thoughtfully written evaluation from Erica. Over the course of the entire trip, I’d only been in her hiking group once, so it was nice to sit down with her and chat about my evaluation and what I hoped to use my newfound skills for in the future.
After everyone had the opportunity to review their evaluations with Dálio or Erica, we packed up the two vehicles and headed back to the NOLS base. Once at the base, we checked in all of our rental gear, cleaned out the cookware and tents, and finally got to enjoy a hot shower. Since I only rented a sleeping bag and stuff sack with my gear deposit, I used the remaining amount to purchase the NOLS Wilderness Educator Notebook. By mid-afternoon, everyone was packed up and ready to leave. We gathered on the lawn just like we had on our first day. Not surprisingly, we weren’t given our diplomas in a traditional, ceremonial manner. Each person received a slip of paper with someone else’s name on it. In order for someone to receive their diploma, the person holding their name had to “portray” them and the rest of us had to guess who it was. On the surface, the game of charades was a silly, lighthearted way of approaching something as boring as graduation. But on a deeper level, it truly showed how close our group had become. At this point, the finality of the course was sinking in quickly. While we were still seated in a circle, Dálio unpacked his travel guitar and we literally ended the course on a high note, singing through the hiking mantra/boy scouts song (We’re On The Upward Trail) that Jay had taught us earlier that week, as well as John Denver’sTake Me Home, Country Roads, which we had all sung together before hiking out the day before. It was a heartfelt, kumbaya moment that actually had me holding back tears. And it only made saying ‘good-bye’ more difficult.
I had a lot of time to reflect on my five-hour drive back to Portland. I was experiencing a lot of emotions, as is the case anytime I come out of the wilderness and make my way back to “normal” life. There was the usual tug-of-war between relief/pride and heartache/longing, but the most prominent one this time around was gratitude. I felt grateful towards Mack, who encouraged me to sign up for the course when I was having doubts about it. I felt grateful for my music teaching job because it supplied me with the income I needed to afford the course and allowed me to easily take time off to do the course. I felt grateful towards my beautiful home, the Pacific Northwest, for providing me with so many incredible spaces to explore and appreciate. I felt grateful for the many wonderful friendships developed over the past week. Lastly, I felt grateful towards myself for making the decision to leave my comfort zone and allow myself to take a step into the unknown.