NOLS Semester Part 1: A Whole New World

In the summer of 2013, I left my suburban home in Illinois to embark on what would be the journey of a lifetime.  My destination was Alaska, where I would be joining an expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School. I elected to take the mega semester, which had three sections: sea kayaking, backpacking and mountaineering. Our group, of 12 students and 3 instructors, would spent 75 days in some of the most remote wildernesses left in the world.  Learning essential back-country and leadership skills while travelling by kayak, foot and ski.  Our trip took us high and low, from sea to the top of mountain peaks, across miles of land untouched by man.  I have documented my journey and this post marks the first of seventeen installments that cover the whole trip.  I hope you enjoy my writings.

After scampering down the hill to the bus’s location at The Anchorage Train Depot, I nervously stepped on.  I had arrived in Anchorage the day before, spending my time marveling at the beauty of the mountains surrounding the city.  The few students who were already there greeted me and we exchanged names as well as a basic background about ourselves. I had no idea what kind of people to expect on this trip, since it was so far out of my own element.  I had never been on any serious outdoor trip, not even backpacking.  Yet, here I was about to embark on a trip with these strangers where we would travel into one of the most intense and wild environments left in the United States today.

The conversation became much louder as the other students began to file on and fill up the remaining seats of the bus.  At some point I realized that I would be spending every moment of the next 75 days in close quarters with these complete strangers.  As an introvert, I have never been great at making a connection with others right off the bat so I was somewhat anxious and unsure during these initial discussions.   How skilled were the others?  Would I be able to make any friends?  Time would sure tell.  We continued to learn a little bit about each other as Veronica, the bus driver, pulled away from the station, after everyone had finally arrived and become situated.  My Alaska adventure had officially begun.

The bus dropped us off at the school’s branch in Palmer, about an hour north of Anchorage where we were met with hugs from our instructors to be.   Our day was filled with activities at the branch in Palmer to prepare us for the upcoming twenty three days kayaking in Prince William Sound.  We learned basic camping knots, how to set up a tent, proper bear protocol and organized all of our gear.  I lay out my foam pad on the concrete under one of the outbuildings preparing for bed.  The minute I laid down in my sleeping bag, I was introduced to Alaska’s unofficial state bird.  I heard the buzzing of mosquitoes as they attempted to find the best place to obtain their nightly snack.  Later in the night, I awoke to find a full moon over the mountains.

Prince William Sound, located on the coast of south central Alaska, is a bay containing numerous islands, coastal mountains (including the towering Chugach Mountains), bays, tidewater glaciers, and fjords.  These natural features provide habitats for the numerous terrestrial and marine wildlife found in the region.  The area is often most notably known for the disastrous Exxon-Valdez oil spill, which leaked somewhere between 250,000-750,000 barrels of oil into the bay, damaging the environment and killing thousands and thousands of wild species in the process. While catastrophic, this incident brought about a heightened level of awareness and need for conservation to the area, as it allowed others to examine its pureness and beauty for the first time.  The Chugach National Forest bounds much of the area, ensuring some level of conservation for the future.

The following day, we piled into the bus once again to make the two hour trek east from Palmer to the town of Whittier.  Whittier is a small one building fishing town, located in the northwestern corner of Prince William Sound. Literally. Everything is in one building. This would be the place where we would set off on the first section of our trip.  After passing through the mountains that encompassed the town by means of a 2.5 mile tunnel, the second largest in North America, we arrived in Whittier.  Moving past a number of fishing boats and equipment, we made our way over to a loading ramp, where we unloaded our gear and kayaks from the bus as we waited for the boat taxi that would shuttle us and our gear to our first campsite.  Whittier itself is located in a picturesque location with mountains springing up directly behind and opposite the small town. The other side is bordered by Passage Canal, a water passageway leading to the rest of Prince William Sound.  The weather had cooperated so far with slightly overcast skies and occasional drizzles.  It didn’t seem as if we would find out why the unofficial slogan in Whittier is, “Everything is shittier in Whittier,” on that day.  The boat came soon after our arrival as the rain began to fall once again.  We loaded every possible empty space with our gear before hopping on ourselves, backing out of the loading dock and making our way to our first camp.  I sat in awe, inside of the boat, as I stared out the window at endless snow-covered mountains in every direction.  It was easy to see and appreciate the beauty of this country even with the overcast and rain falling from overhead.   I still had a sense of nervousness around my new classmates, unsure of what to expect, both from them and myself.   About 45 minutes later, we pulled into our selected camp for the night at Point Cochrane, after finding the beach area at Surprise Cove, our original destination, already occupied by a camping party.  We moved our gear from the boat onto the rocky shores of the beach and waved goodbye as the boat moved back into open waters.  We were all alone now.  Well, that is until the boat came back a few minutes later to drop off a forgotten fuel canister.

The rest of the day was filled with setting up camp and more classes that taught a number of necessary skills for the coming weeks.  For one of the classes, our instructors took us back into the rainforest behind the beach.  After finding a naturally secluded spot, April, one of our instructors, dug a square hole and taught us how to poop in the wild.  There was no actual demonstration, but the lesson was entertaining nevertheless.  Returning to camp, we settled down under the large circus tarp to cook dinner.  My tent group and I had a lot of trouble setting up our tent for the first time.  It was frustrating working as a group, trying to find places where we could tie our tent down.  We didn’t know how to communicate with each other, or how to use the natural materials around us.  The instructors maintained hands-off observation as we struggled through this first task as a team.  I quickly learned how important patience and open-mindedness towards others would be in this type of environment.

After we had eaten under the circus tarp, I took to exploring the area behind the beach with a couple of the other students, Lucas and Parker.  There was some complaining about the classes and the various work around camp we had to do, which bothered me but I decided to let it slide.  It was a school after all and I came in thinking we would be challenged with physical and mental obstacles.  After the frustrations of setting up the tent, I had vowed to keep an open mind with regards to my new classmates.  It was not the place to hold grudges or struggle with others, as we would all be sharing close quarters for the next two and a half months.  My new expedition mates and I post holed through the lingering deep snow to a rocky cliff overlooking the vast expanse of Cochrane Bay.  Admiring the still ocean surrounded by coastal mountains,   we had our first sight of a whale.  The tail of a humpback briefly breached the surface, before disappearing back into the dark blue water.

A foggy overcast greeted us again the following morning for our first day on the water.  Initially, we split up into our pre-assigned boat assignments, paddling around near shore with our instructors.  I have to be honest:  I was pretty bad at that point.  Like I have discovered in many other sports from my youth, I am not one for natural ability.  My partner, Steph, and I had little to no control of the kayak and to top it off we were frustratingly slow.  Andrew, another instructor, challenged us and Lucas, who was in a single kayak, to a race.  Let’s just say that by the time they reached the finish line, our boat was barely halfway there, even with the power of two people.  Needless to say, there was a lot of room to improve.

The afternoon arrived and with it the activity that I had been dreading for the past 24 hours.  We would be practicing wet exits in the water, first with a partner then solo in a single kayak.  Wet exits occur when your boat flips over and you push yourself out of the cockpit, in order to swim back to the surface.  This is vital knowledge before doing any serious kayaking (or any kayaking really) because without proper knowledge of how to exit the kayak, you’ll drown.   Simple as that.  My exit partner, Nomi, and I watched a couple of others go first before we decided to go in order to observe and potentially create a strategy.  Sitting on the smooth rocks of the shore, the practice didn’t seem difficult as we observed others test multiple techniques.   I soon found myself on the water, seconds away from action.  Before I knew it, we had flipped our kayak and I was now upside down under water.  It was the coldest water you could imagine and after I pushed out of the cockpit, I came up gasping for air as the freezing water made it difficult to breathe and think.  My muscles were becoming slightly numb as my partner and I struggled to communicate with each other.  I had taken cold showers for a few months prior to the trip to prepare for something like this but I guess I should’ve known that water from a pipe in Illinois is not really similar to water in Alaska that comes from snow-melt or a glacier, not to mention the frigid winters.  With our first attempt, we struggled to balance the boat on re-entry and plunged back into the water.  If it was difficult the first time, it would be much more difficult now.  I became colder with each failed attempt, as a result of more exposure to the water.  By this point, I had already started shivering in the water making matters even more frustratingly difficult.  After five or six failed attempts, we were finally able to get back in the boat, pump out the water flooding our cockpits and paddle the short distance to shore.  However, it wasn’t over yet.  Still shivering, I prepared now to do the same exact thing again on my own.  The cold had already drastically affected my ability to move and I fell back into the water twice, just as I was attempting to get in the boat in the shallow water near shore.  Another member of the group helped me out and I paddled out to meet my maker once again.  Just as before, I struggled to balance the boat as I attempted to re-enter.  After a couple failed attempts, leading to more time in the icy water, another student helped balance my boat so I could get in.  I quickly went back to shore, shedding my freezing personal floatation device (PFD).  I stood, only in my boxers, in the meager rays of the sun to warm up.   It was not helping as my body was still very much shaking from the cold.  After a few minutes, Andrew came up to offer some assistance.  With snacks and movement, he was able to finally get me out of hypothermia, thirty minutes later. My fear had come to fruition, but I didn’t let it discourage me and I looked forward to begin travelling the next day.

Sunset at Point Cochrane
Sunset at Point Cochrane
Sunset at Point Cochrane
Sunset at Point Cochrane

Our first day of travel would take us 7 miles east from Point Cochrane to a tucked in beach located on the west side of Culross Passage.  Unfortunately for us, the initial part of our travel required a crossing of 2 miles across Cochrane Bay.  For inexperienced kayakers, this was a nightmare as we lacked control of our boats, zigzagging back and forth in each direction, narrowly missing t-bone (right angle) collisions and crashing into each other frequently.  A tight formation of our boats was essential on the water as it provided us an easy way to communicate.  Our ideal formation of kayaks as a compact pod was two single kayaks in front, three doubles in the middle and two doubles in the rear but today was anything besides that.  It took us quite a while, but eventually we made it across and into Culross Passage to our campsite.

I couldn’t be happier with how the trip had gone so far.  Not counting the poor control skills on the water, the day turned out to be quite the adventure.  On a beach break after the crossing we discovered a sea otter skeleton lying on the shore of the beach.  It led me to wonder how the animal had met his demise.  While paddling, we also happened to spot two more whales.  The land that we were travelling through was absolutely stunning, with outstanding views of coastline and mountains around us and every bend.  For a suburbanite from the highly developed and commercialized flatlands of the Midwest, everything was pristine.

Paddling near Point Cochrane
Paddling near Point Cochrane

The majestic scenery didn’t make setting up camp life any easier though because it took our group close to two hours to set up our tent at what was a difficult spot on the rocks.  With no place to stake out the tent or tie off the guy lines, we would have to build dead man anchors.  This meant that we would have to get an anchor, such as a stick, and bury it in a hole under a mountain of rocks.  Talk about aggravating! We had to learn to work with each other and problem solve right from the get go with a limited skill set as the instructors weren’t doing any work for us.  Over the past few days, I had learned that while we each had brought varying levels of skill to this course, the environment, travelling and our tasks still provided all of us with our own respective challenges.  Before heading to bed, I took advantage of our location and sat down on the smooth rocks of the beach, watching the sunset.  The sea otters randomly popped up off shore, from time to time.  They sure are curious little fellas.  Although, I guess I would be too if a stranger was moving about near my home.

The clear sky made for a cold night in our tents, especially with the breeze that came off the still remaining snow pack behind camp. I was still surprised to find myself waking up there every day.  It hadn’t hit me yet that I was actually in Alaska.  Living out my dream.

As every other morning on the trip so far, we arose bright and early for our daily conditions check at 6 am.  The conditions check happened every morning to monitor the status of the weather, the terrain along our route that day, the sea state and the human factor.  With these subjective and objective measures, we were able to evaluate whether or not we should travel that day or if we should proceed with caution, i.e., stay on shore.  Steve, an instructor, provided some wise words that helped us learn the importance of this practice, “I’d rather be on shore (here), wishing I was out there. Than out there, wishing I was here (on shore).”

First Day of Paddlin'
First Day of Paddlin’

We traveled a little further that day, moving 9 miles through Culross Passage and making camp at Applegate Island.  I took control of the stern (rear) today and we travelled much straighter than before.  I felt a lot more efficient and powerful with my stroke due to some late night lessons from Steve the previous night.    On the other hand, one of my knees had started bothering me and it was painful being somewhat trapped in the cockpit.  Also, to my considerable annoyance my partner wasn’t paddling at least half the time, so I was forced to exert more energy than I had planned.  By the end of the 9 miles my shoulders and triceps were fried, from my inefficient arm powered stroke.   I quickly learned once again that there would be a lot of times to practice patience on this expedition.

Just moving along
Just moving along
Beach Break
Beach Break

After setting up camp and eating some delicious lentil soup, we each set about to enjoy the nature around us.  Lucas and I went on a small hike to judge conditions for tomorrow’s route before returning to watch a bald eagle, perched on a tree high above camp.  One can easily get used to life filled with natural beauty.

Hello Mr. Eagle (Top-center)
Hello Mr. Eagle (Top-center)

We were met with another beautiful day upon awakening as we made our conditions assessment.  Laughter filled the air, as everyone took their time going about their morning routine.  Yet by the time we had finished breakfast, clouds had swept in with a strong breeze causing whitecaps out in the open water.  The decision was made to paddle a little less than half a mile to a nearby point, in the opposite direction of our intended travel, hoping to get a better view of the weather conditions and the potential storm.  We walked around on shore, attempting to analyze the sky and water in the distance.  Over the next few hours, things gradually calmed down and the instructors brought us out into the water, a few boats at a time, to practice in rougher conditions.  The white caps died down soon after and we decided that it would be safe enough for us to travel.  After sprinting and yelling down the beach a couple times to warm up, we piled into our kayaks, eager to continue our day.  Past Culross Passage, a little over a mile since we had left, we pulled into a nearby cove and faced a decision.   It was already 1 pm, pretty late for a travel day.  Did we want to push on 14 more miles, the longest yet of our trip, to our next destination near Nellijuan Glacier? Or should we just make camp where we were, for the night? We (the students) debated amongst each other about the decision with perspectives from each side.  I made the statement that this is the type of challenge and hardship where great memories were made.  Others thought it would be too long and that we were already exhausted.  A few minutes later, the instructors asked us to cover our eyes and put our thumbs up or down if we wanted to go. Moments later, we opened our eyes to find everyone’s thumb sticking up in the air.  We would push on.

NOLS Semester Part 2: And Then There were 11



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