Copyright 2005 by Judi Brown
It’s 6:30 a.m. A full moon guides Gillian across the coarse Baja beach to the water’s edge. She lifts the stern of her kayak and walks it into the unseasonably cold water of Coyote Bay. Goose bumps cover her body. She tiptoes deeper into the dark water clinging to the bobbing kayak. A wind-driven wave slaps her thighs soaking her black paddle shorts and rendering her breathless.
Waist high in the rough water, Gillian places her hands on opposite sides of the kayak's cockpit to distribute her weight and balance the kayak. Facing the bow, she tucks her hip against the starboard side, pushes off the ocean floor with her feet and lifts with her arms. Twisting her torso and bending her waist, she drops her butt into the seat. In one swift movement, she swivels her hips, scoots back in the seat, pulls her knees up and drops her feet into the cockpit. Sliding her feet forward into the bow, she feels for the foot and knee braces while grabbing her paddle from the tie-down bungee atop the kayak and immediately with strong, propelling forward strokes, begins paddling against the waves that want to carry her back to shore.
Safely beyond the raucous surf, the kayak floats in rhythmic cadence with the ocean swells. Gillian takes a minute to attach her spray skirt to the cockpit coaming, then paddles over to join Leslie, a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor and seasoned kayaker.
Over the past 40 years, National Outdoor Leadership School has become world-renowned for its wilderness education, outdoor skills and leadership training courses primarily for young people 18 to 35 years old. They aren’t content, however, to rest by the fire in their camp chairs for long. This year NOLS started offering custom courses under their Professional Training umbrella for older adults and alums who want more course options. Missy White, PT Program Coordinator, said it is a massive coordination effort to develop and implement a new course. Custom courses add the extra challenge of molding the course to the client so they get the best of NOLS while building on what they already do well. Missy, a 1985 NOLS graduate, started working for NOLS in 1987 and said, “I love my job. Most of our staff are NOLS graduates and I love working with people who are exceptional leaders and team players who know how to communicate with one another to get the job done. It makes my job so much easier.”
Gillian Roy, who frequently travels with her husband, Peter, a NOLS Board member, was disappointed last year when the NOLS annual meeting wasn’t held at the Baja, Mexico branch as planned. So she invited some of her women friends to join her for a NOLS custom kayaking course in Baja. Although most of the women had never before been in a kayak, all were excited about the proposed adventure. On February 23, 2005 the seven women flew in from different parts of the United States and converged at the NOLS Mexican branch to begin their week-long custom kayaking course with veteran NOLS instructors Leslie Appling and Kimi Harrison.
The backbone of every NOLS course is an extended wilderness expedition with hands-on experience. Students learn skills and then practice them over and over again. Leslie and Kimi modeled leadership and worked as a team while introducing the women to kayaking. Basics included kayak packing, teamwork and communication to carry loaded double and single kayaks to and from the shoreline, paddling techniques, and safety skills such as wet-water exits from a capsized kayak and rough-water shore landings. Leave-No-Trace camping skills included basic knot tying, erecting and securing tarp shelters to withstand high winds or unexpected storm conditions, proper use of camp stoves, garbage containment and personal hygiene without toilets or toilet paper. “When the time is right, we back out of the picture and let the students practice what we teach. That’s when the lessons start to sink in,” Kimi explained.
Since theirs was a custom course, the women decided to change the normal course format so they wouldn’t have to pack up the camp and move to a new location every day. They decided they wanted more time to focus on their kayaking skills. Carolyn Rohlen, 62, a retired mother of five adult children and a world traveler from Watersmeet, Michigan said “having that flexibility created a wonderful learning experience.” She spent several hours one afternoon outfitted in a wetsuit and under Leslie’s tutelage perfected her kayak bracing techniques – a process that resulted in Carolyn’s kayak rolling upside down and dunking her under water several times. Carolyn said she admired both instructor’s ability “to know when to step in to encourage, challenge or educate us, and when to step out to let us discover our limits and our potential.”
Paul Petzoldt, a comrade in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II and a legendary mountaineer, founded the National Outdoor Leadership School in 1965. After working as chief instructor at the Colorado Outward Bound School, Paul recognized a need for well-trained instructors. He started his leadership school in a log cabin in Sinks Canyon on the outskirts of Lander, Wyoming. U.S. Army surplus gear and clothing was “issued” to incoming students and “de-issued” when they graduated. The same issuing system continues today but the gear is high tech and lightweight. The first summer offered three wilderness courses. Close to one hundred male students climbed aboard trucks normally used for hauling livestock and were dropped off in the Wind River Range to spend the next 30 days learning how to survive. NOLS opened its courses to women the following summer.
Carl Brown, a 1967 graduate of NOLS, now 56, travels the world organizing international gatherings and world-peace celebrations. He clearly recalls the month he spent with NOLS in the Wind River Range. “I was very fortunate to go when Paul Petzoldt was active in NOLS. Leave-No-Trace was a big issue. After camp was taken down we would spread out and carefully go over the site (all of us in a line) to make sure there was not a trace of us having been there. That strengthened my capacity to insist that we LNT whenever I’m in a wilderness setting today. Paul was a strong individual in many aspects and his examples of being prepared, safety conscious, working together with a positive, brave, caring and concerned attitude were very inspiring to me as a young person. The course helped give us the confidence that, yes, we could be leaders and that we could assist in keeping the wilderness a healthy place.”
The school labored along during its first several years. In December 1969, NOLS got the break it needed when “Life” magazine ran a feature on Paul Petzoldt and his career as a “Mountain Man.” One month later, a TV program called “The Alcoa Hour” ran an hour-long spotlight on NOLS called “30 Days to Survival.” As a result of these two events, NOLS’s 1970 course enrollment tripled to more than 750 students, and recognition of NOLS as a leader in the field of outdoor education grew. Today, NOLS is the largest backcountry permit holder in the United States, operates branch offices in seven different countries on four continents, and its graduates number more than 75,000.
When asked what she thought of her NOLS instructors, Jane Brown, 54, a University of North Carolina journalism professor who’s been teaching graduate students for more than 27 years, said: ”They are the best instructors I’ve ever met. Their team-teaching skills make learning interesting, challenging and possible. It’s obvious that they know kayaking and so much more inside and out. They teach you about your whole environment.” Jane relished a hike she took into the desert one afternoon. “I’ve always wanted to do that -- just stand in the middle of the desert with an uninterrupted 360-degree view. It was awesome. The whole trip was a fantastic experience.”
Gillian said: “By the end of the course I felt really strong and confident, fully engaged and alive. I’m used to vacationing for pleasure and relaxation. I was aware during this course that I was there to learn and do, learn and do, over and over. It was dynamic and exhausting in a good way. The volume for soaking up what I wanted to learn was turned way up.”
Ann Alexander, 52, a mother of two adolescents and a retired health-food industry entrepreneur, felt empowered by the experience. “I’m adventurous with a cautious undertone. The paddling skills I learned in rough waters were invaluable. I loved sleeping out under the stars. And learning how to read the wind, the water, and topographical maps really bolstered my confidence.”
Reflecting on the addictive laughter that often echoed into the night from the group, Carolyn said, “We had so much fun.” At one point during a birding expedition into a mangrove swamp, everyone was stuck knee-deep in shoe-sucking mud. We were laughing so hard we couldn’t move to get ourselves unstuck. After we’d all safely emerged from the mangroves and were back on the beach holding our aching laugh muscles, Leslie, our fearless leader, quipped: “Hey, if you can’t get six-pack abs from kayaking, you might as well get them from laughing.”
I am a fledgling writer who has never been published. I live on a farm which has been in our family for more than 183 years in Cecil County, Maryland. My travels have been extensive and my passion is writing and being outdoors.
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