After graduating from high school, current sophomore Olivia Schouten was cleaning out her bedroom when she found a brochure for National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). It was a packet she had forgotten about completely.
Two years before, Schouten had received the brochure from a friend’s brother. He had raved about his time in a NOLS program—a month-long backpacking excursion to learn survival tactics and leadership skills. As she sat flipping through the brochure, she remembered how badly she had wanted to go.
And she knew where, too. Growing up in a family that liked camping and taking family vacations to Colorado, Schouten had developed a love for the outdoors. NOLS had 15 options on six continents, but the choice was easy for her. “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska, so this was the perfect opportunity. I didn’t really consider any other places,” says Schouten.
Her mind was set, and she would spend the next year saving money. Schouten signed up for the NOLS Alaska program at the end of her freshmen year. After a flight to Anchorage and a bus ride to the nearby city of Palmer, she met the ten other students and the three instructors who would lead them.
The first day was spent packing their gear; they would carry everything they needed for the month in their packs, though they would re-ration their food periodically. Next, the guides tried to give them some inkling of what they were about to get themselves into, just enough to slightly overwhelm them, says Schouten. After the first day, they were off to Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and into the Alaskan backcountry.
“We were all clueless the first two weeks. The whole time the guides were pretty much holding our hands,” Schouten admits. After their first night of camping, it took her a full hour to repack her 50-pound rucksack.
The course started off light with a two-mile hike. But they quickly added to the mileage, eventually averaging eight hours of hiking per day. “You get in shape pretty fast up there,” Schouten jokes.
Many of their non-hiking hours were filled with leadership courses and classes on other topics—weather patterns, plate tectonics and first aid. Schouten laughs as she remembers the white trash bag the instructors stretched over rocks to use as a stand-in white board during their lessons.
The guides also taught them how to cook over the camp stove. Using the oats, cheese, dough mixes, grits and other foods they were carrying, the group prepared all of their own meals. Schouten’s favorite was pizza.
The weeks of instruction led to the excursion’s final exam: an unassisted two-and-a-half day hike during which the student group was responsible for planning their own route. The guides gave them two choices for destinations, let them create the route and description plan—so the guides would know where they were in case of emergency—and let them set out alone.
“We went 13 miles on that first day,” says Schouten. They had planned on going 13½, but after hiking for more than 13 hours, they decided they had made it far enough.
During the course of the independent hike, the navigation skills Schouten had learned from her NOLS instructors were put to the test. Because of the lack of distinguishable landmarks on the plateau, it became difficult to tell where exactly they were. “When you’re looking at a map, sometimes it can be hard to translate that to what the real world looks like,” Schouten says.
Luckily, their newfound skills served them well, and the group made it to their destination safely and on time. Schouten says she was overwhelmed by how much more competent she became in one month. “That was the highlight of my trip,” she explains, “comparing where we were at the beginning and knowing we’d come that far in such a short time.”