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.


  1. Thanks for sharing Caroline. You are so articulate about your growth and personal experience. It helps me to hear about how you are, and where you are! Huge hugs, and lots of love, Diana

  2. Caroline -- What a wonderful post. These are amazing lessons, and you describe them so well. You are a wise woman.

    We miss you desperately, but I am thrilled to know that you're having such a great experience.



  3. CAROLINE! I've been sitting here for four minutes trying to think of an adequate response but your life is just beyond words. I am so glad you are enjoying (enjoyed? you leave today?) NOLS. You really sell that experience to say the least.

    ...I may have copied and saved what you wrote about appreciating and learning to enjoy what would destroy many people's trips.
    WHY DID YOU TURN OUT SO MUCH COOLER THAN ME?? We've had Exactly the same amount of time..

  4. Thanks so much for reading and for your generous responses.
    Shannon- I can't wait to hear about YOUR adventures! I bet they have been just as amazing and memorable. If you're home for the holidays I would love to hear all about your year so far.
    I don't know about cooler, but I think we decided that I am older? That might explain it... Happy birthday! :)