Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hiking the Gila

Backpacking in the Gila was incredible. I am definitely a canoer at heart (canoeing obviously being superior to backpacking), but I enjoyed backpacking a lot more than I expected. There is something very peaceful about the simplicity of it: walking all day, being mindful of each step and breath, and everything you need you carry on your back. Hiking gives you a lot of time to just look at the world around you and think.
      This section was 22 days long; the first half in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness and the second in the Gila Wilderness (both are within the Gila National Forest). We had three ration periods of 6-9 days each, stopping at a campground in between each loop to resupply our food. A typical day meant waking up around 7, leaving camp at 9 and hiking until mid-afternoon. We hiked anywhere from 2 to 9 miles per day (our first ration period included lots of short 2-3 mile days because we had to change our route to evacuate a sick group member). Evenings were spent in classes, cooking, and relaxation, and offered a surprising amount of free time. Each loop we had one rest day (which meant even more classes, cooking, and relaxation!)
The view from Reed's Peak in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness
      During the hiking day we traveled in small groups of about 5 students, at first with an instructor and later independently. (NOLS does a great job of teaching you a certain skill and then handing over the responsibility so you actually learn how to do it yourself, without someone breathing down your neck and babysitting you.) Likewise we were divided into 3-4 person “cook groups” with whom we cooked and tented. These groups rotated every ration period (and were the format in which we traded helpful feedback). (A side note: It turns out that sharing a tent and a kitchen with a few teenage boys who have ravenous appetites and are somewhat less than eager to wash dishes (i.e. NOLS) is very different than sharing them with a few girls who love cooking (i.e. Widji). [To clarify, I don't think this is a distinction between genders, but more the difference between those who are lucky enough to get to go to Widji and those who are not.] This is another challenge I'm learning to deal with.)
      In our first days of travel, we were in mostly your typical forested terrain. In our second loop, we suddenly entered an area that felt decidedly more desert-like. One day in particular stands out to me, in which we followed the Gila River for a short while and, in leaving the river to ascend a canyon, we suddenly entered the desert. It was hot and sunny and dry and dusty and sandy; it was ridden with cacti, gorgeous rocky cliffs, and canyon walls—the exact scene you think of when you picture the Southwest. We scrambled and bushwhacked when our route became steep and rocky or narrow and filled with nearly impassable undergrowth. When the canyon dead-ended at a 10-foot pour-off, we had to turn around and find a new way up. We scrambled over loose rocks and up a steep hillside, hiking and climbing and, finally, reaching the top of a mesa. It was a long and arduous day, but it was my favorite of the trip. Reaching the top of the mesa, we were able to see to the horizon in all directions and look back where we'd come from—it was incredible. I'd never before understood why a backpacker chooses the route that goes up a steep mountainside instead of one of the many easier alternatives (or even why a backpacker would be a backpacker at all when they could be a canoer!). But now I saw that sometimes it is worth the hours it takes to get there, just for a single view from the top. We slept outside on top of the mesa that night. There was no light pollution, no sounds, nor any sign of human presence for miles—just Cassiopeia and Vega and Deneb, and stars that stretched to the ends of the earth. This is when I started to love NOLS.

Hiking on the mesa (left), and visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings,
a site where the Mogollon people lived hundreds of years ago.


An example of the obstacles we encountered
in the canyons
One of the canyons we hiked in

The beautiful Gila Wilderness!
Our group at a reration

Thursday, October 28, 2010


When friends and family asked me why I was going to do NOLS or what exactly NOLS was, my response often consisted of vague answers with phrases like “wilderness medicine” and “leadership,” or that the experience would be helpful in hopefully working at my camp as a trip leader in the future. What I didn't say was that I wasn't exactly sure why I wanted to do NOLS except for the fact that I love spending time in the wilderness and even if I didn't learn anything in the process I was sure it would be a good time. The latter is probably a more accurate response, but it's not what parents and uncles and grandparents want to hear, so I stuck to the former. When I arrived over a month ago I didn't know quite what to expect, wasn't sure if I liked backpacking, and in that first crazed and busy day I began to get a little apprehensive about the whole thing. Committing myself to three months of sleeping on the ground, living with the same twenty people, and eating the same dehydrated rations? I love camping more than almost anything else, but even so I felt overwhelmed.
      A month and a half into my semester (how is it halfway done already?) I have learned more, about more, and loved the experience more than I could have anticipated. Then, I didn't really know why I wanted to do NOLS. But now I know why I will be grateful that I've been able to spend my semester here.
The majority of each day in the field is spent doing our activity, be it hiking or rock climbing or whatever the focus of the section is. But it IS a school, which means we have classes and homework, too. Classes focus on basic back country skills, environmental science, leadership, and topics related to the area we are traveling in. “Homework” consists of nature observations and reflections on various topics, but it is not very academic or challenging and seems to be mostly a way for our instructors to gauge how invested we are in the course so they can grade us (yes, we get grades! They grade us in various categories like risk management, expedition behavior, and leadership).
      While a few of the classes have been interesting & informative, I've learned more from interacting with the other students than in the “classroom.” Our group is a diverse and motley crew, hailing from all over the country. We come from very different backgrounds and subsequently have diverse—and often conflicting—beliefs and values. Perhaps the most valuable skill I've learned—that is, I have learned some, and am continuing to learn, though one can always improve upon this skill—is to interact cooperatively with people who I disagree with or from whom I hold fundamentally differing views on the world. The most valuable class we've had taught us how to effectively give & receive feedback. I think the term “Minnesota nice” properly describes my approach to communication & conflict resolution, so this lesson was incredibly helpful to me. We regularly give feedback to members of the group, and from the feedback I've received I've learned a lot about myself and how to work with others. I think the lessons I'm learning here will be helpful if I end up working at Camp Widjiwagan; I am learning wilderness medicine and leadership skills. But the more important and applicable lessons are not advertised in NOLS literature, and you can't get college credit for them. But everyone could benefit from learning how to work with people, how to help others by carrying their weight when your pack is already too heavy, how to do something every day that scares you, how to climb higher and hike farther than you thought you could, how to appreciate the rain that splashes mud all over your sleeping bag, how to cook dinner when your only water source is a spring that produces one liter every four minutes, how to live without Facebook, how to smile when you are lost, how to be happy when everyone you love is halfway across the country, how to keep calm and carry on. And how to appreciate each moment despite what challenges it may hold. NOLS has a simple term for this: tolerance for adversity and uncertainty. This is not a simple skill that is easily acquired, and it is one of the most valuable lessons that NOLS (I won't be so bold as to say “life”... but OK, yeah, maybe life) has to offer.
      Even the worst predicaments don't seem so bad if you can face them with a positive attitude. This may seem obvious, but not until recently have I realized the value of positivity: it seems that my outlook on life dictates how I live my life. Or rather, it dictates how I perceive my life. (But then, is there really a difference between the two?) So I'm trying to work on this “positivity” thing. In giving & receiving feedback, group mates have commented on my positive attitude and expressed appreciation for my calm and uncomplaining demeanor in stressful situations. These are not descriptions I would have used for myself—and neither, I'm sure, would many who know me(Mom and Dad? ;) ). I'm hoping this is a result of some learning or growth on my part; but regardless of the cause of this “positivity,” I do know the result:
      Life is great.