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Share Your NOLS Leadership Story

We want to hear your stories! Tell us about how your experience at NOLS has impacted your life.

NOLS Stories

I attended NOLS in the summer of 2003 at the Idaho Teton Valley location for extreme backpacking courses! When I first arrived in Idaho I was overwhelmed by the bug population and I was discouraged because it was not normal for me. Im from Newark, NJ so I had to adapt to the bug annoyance! Once I was adapted I was able to focus on team work and acquiring knowledge of the Idaho region. I studied 16 days with only 1 shower. That wasnt a big adjustment because I had been on numerous camping trips. The backpacking itself was a burden but I grew used to the extra pounds 50+ that is. The weather was severely hot during the day and the temperature dropped at night about 40 degrees. The wildlife experience was surreal1 Im a fan of NatGeo, Animal Planet, and Smithsonian specials on wildlife! I experienced events that you would normally see on t.v. For example I saw a snake eat a frog that was just hopping along the leaves where my campsite was. I observed a snake drinking water from a nearby stream! The experience felt up close and personal and gave me a greater appreciation for the food chain and ecology of Idaho! I had some frightening and alarming experiences as well as far a mosquito clans sworming over me at night and waking up to a Moose by my tent 10ft. away! Listening and observing precautions that my profound instructors taught helped me through any and every situation to be able to make it back home healthy and full of more knowledge and priceless wildlife experiences. If you are a wildlife and nature fan this trip will bring your fantasies and t.v. observation into reality! I will never forget this experience I treasure it and still tak about i to people today and I want my daughter Kelsie who will be born in January 2013 to take on the same characteristics as me to want to discover and observe wildlife and be able to survive in extreme conditions1

Posted by: Kyle Williams | Nov 30, 2012 6:09:38 PM

FRS-1 1985

I was fortunate enough to grow up with a father that has a great appreciation for the outdoors so going to NOLS seemed like a natural thing to do. My NOLS experience gave me the skills and confidence organize my own expeditions. Over the last 26 years I have paddled several thousand miles on wilderness rives in Manitoba, Ontario, and Alaska. I have had the opportunity to take family and friends backpacking and climbing all over north america and the caribbean. I have been on caving trip and mapped new passages. These outdoor experiences have been more instrumental in shaping the person I have become than any college class or job that I have held. I truly feel that my life would not be nearly as fullfilling had it not been for NOLS and I am grateful.

Posted by: Eric Zierke | Sep 2, 2011 8:57:09 AM

Six NYC Alumni clean and paint to help out a non-profit program started by one of our own. Read more about it at

Posted by: John Edward Harris | Feb 24, 2010 8:50:13 AM

On 17th day of my Outdoor Educator course at NOLS,i was the LOD. One wrong turn took the entire team to the opposite direction of our destination. The longest day so far in our course (approx. 10 miles) with a wrong move thwarted my team's trust on me. I went to the lowest level of self-esteem in my life. By the day end, during debrief by our instructors, situation changed. I admitted my fault as a leader, the team regretted for standoffish behavior and we ended the day with tears and laughters. This happened because of the magical approach of conflict resolution by our instructors.

I am contented today because I wrote a case on this entire episode and i use it in conflict resolution modules of my team building programs in Pakistan now.

NOLS thanks

Posted by: Abdul Samad Khan | Feb 12, 2010 9:02:29 AM

Pakistan is a country where outdoor education is a less-known phenomenon. The country is struggling for peace, prosperity and harmony. I am honored to be first ever Pakistani to be graduated from NOLS in 2007 while doing Outdoor Educator course in Rocky Mountains. I came back to my country to serve as an Outdoor Educator. This has opened a new dimension in my life. I had taken business executives and youth to wilderness and helped them discover their potential. I had an impact on the lives of hundreds of adults in this country who have been transformed into more responsible and self aware humans. The wilderness encounters urged them to explore their purpose of life and set an objective to make a difference. My contribution to this developing country comes from the most precious days of my life that i spend at NOLS. Thank you NOLS for making my life more purposeful.

Posted by: Abdul Samad Khan | Feb 12, 2010 8:51:46 AM

Semester in Alaska--1984: An amazing experience that challenged me both physically and emotionally. Although the trip took place 25 years ago, it still holds a special place in my personal history and I know that I am lucky to have experienced the Alaskan wilderness before the Valdez oil spill and before the Kahiltna was a feature on a reality show. Understanding that “getting there” is as much of the experience as being there and being part of any activity. The experience molded my life long approach to be being a respectful guest while visiting any wilderness area, including the land that I now live on in rural Mendocino County, California. The people were also an important element to the experience. The incredible teachers that included Peter Chance, Margaret Creel, and John Trainer and several others, who challenged us and helped us mature as independent responsible adventurers. The students who matured so nicely throughout the trip and became the people we relied on and life long friendship I developed with my one of my dearest friends. Few experiences compare to my Semester in Alaska.

Posted by: Carole Watkings Press | May 31, 2009 11:05:53 AM

After graduating from college I was unsure of the best way to use my business management degree to purse a career in outdoor industry. I decided that working a NOLS Internship would be a good way for me to continue growing my professional career as well as offering me the opportunity to further refine my leadership and outdoor skills. Working everyday in an environment filled with highly competent NOLS Instructors has taught me more than I would have imagined about the leadership skills that NOLS teaches in the field. After working at NOLS for over a year I can now say that simply by interacting with these great leaders my personal leadership skills have been improved.

I was able to use the skills I picked up in the office on my NOLS Baja Coastal Sailing Course where I learned a tremendous amount about the art of sailing. However, more than that I learned even more about my own leadership style and the way I work on a team during an expedition. For better or for worse I will always remember how each student added to my experience. This type of contribution is what, in my eyes, the NOLS experience is all about. I learned how to lead my fellow students and effectively collaborate with them to attain the goals of the expedition.

I am certain that I will use the skills learned with NOLS in-town and in the field to help me continue to be an effective leader in whatever role I find myself.

Posted by: Dan | May 28, 2009 12:40:00 PM

I took the Brooks Range Course in 2004. It was an outstanding experience and gave me the confidnece to come back and lead Backcountry Training Treks for the Boy Scouts of America at their National Training Center in Philmont, NM. I learned a lot of neat tricks to compliment my outdoor skils, especially the Fry Bake. That has brought rave reviews from my Scout unit and the participants on the training treks at Philmont.

My son is just heading out for a Mountaineering Course in the NW after finishing up is first four years of college. He has been a Ranger are Philmont the last several years and is really looking forward to his time with NOLS.

I also have a young lady in my BSA Venture Crew who is taking a 10 day leadership course in Utah this summer through the Navy Family Care Program and is completely stoked after talking to me about it.

I love passing this on and can't wait to see these young folks when they get back!!



Posted by: Eric Randall | May 26, 2009 3:33:50 PM

NOLS changed my life and altered it's trajectory in ways that words fail to explain. After living so simply, so happily, and so closely with a group of people I had never met, reentering modern society has been a great challenge. Still, nearly 6 years after the experience, and with all that has transpired in that time, I still find myself yearning to connect with people on a level that I'm not sure is possible unless you spend 80 days in the wilderness with them. This has been disconcerting, but also enlightening. NOLS showed me a side of life that I never would have known existed had I not taken a course. Life is simple, computers are superfluous, people are so distracted in the "real world" (is it real though?) that it's really hard to accept once you see how people can be. Once I saw what the truth is inside of people, and what level of compassion, humility, and honesty is possible between people who have barely met, coming back to this reality has been a challenge. I'm not sure I've made it back yet. I'm still trying to figure out how to incorporate what I learned on NOLS in the context of cars, computers, electricity, fast food, and entertainment. It's not easy, but one thing I did learn on NOLS is that perseverance is everything.
"Hard Saying, not knowing" was a popular slogan used by my Proctor Shaun (to my consternation at the time),and this has been a lesson I have taken with me from NOLS: Life is too full of variables to know everything, it's best to accept the ambivalence and move on, trusting your gut reaction with informed decisions. Learning to live with ambiguity and accept life as such is not something I learned in public school before NOLS, it's not something that is very popular in this day and age of wikipedia and quick answers to everything. But it's what is true, and I am grateful for this knowledge.
Like I said, I'm still working on integrating what I learned into my life, but I am a much fuller person now, in spite of the difficulties I have had. I am now 25, a year out of college, and struggling to find meaningful employment. I tend to take the broader view and look at my whole life like an expedition, these are just a few lay-over days due to poor weather or an evacuation, and soon we'll be packed up and moving on again, and in the end this will just make the whole experience richer.
Thank you for the opportunity to once again reflect on my NOLS experience, it's funny just the other day I was reminiscing about one of my instructors spearing a fish early on in the course, and the students all wondered if it was the 8th week we were eating deep fried rock-fish with gusto and asking for seconds! What a time! I miss my NOLS family and I cherish the experience that I had.
Thank you NOLS and "Viva Los Banditos Mojados!"


Grayson Lookner
SSB4 2003

Posted by: Grayson Lookner | May 22, 2009 12:36:51 PM

Two things: Dawn fly fishing for cutthroat trout in the Winds regularly reminds me of how less is more, and rock climbing with Brame and my WRW 7/6/87 course mates taught me how what might look impossible is often very possible.

Posted by: Joseph Rinkevich | May 21, 2009 8:13:22 PM

My first NOLS course was a small-scale disaster. I wasn't sure why I'd signed up for it: I had no wilderness experience, no interest in sports, and negligible social skills, didn't like groups and couldn't have led myself out of a paper bag to light and air. All of this became abundantly clear in my month in the Wind Rivers in 1987. Somehow, two years later, I did it again, signing up for a semester in Alaska, with the internal landscape much unchanged. It was a weird SAK, as bad weather kept us stranded in our tents for the better part of two of the three months--kayaking and mountaineering turned to Hearts and chewing tobacco, coffee and beachcombing, and really, really advanced baking. I'm not sure what happened in those two months, but somehow everything shifted, in terms of expedition behavior, certainly, but also general outlook. A year later I was back climbing McKinley with NOLS, and from there slid into an in-town job in Alaska and ultimately an IC and a handful of AKWs as an instructor.

So, what did I learn? Basic curiosity about and decency toward others; humility; judicious communication; the value of experiential learning; a deep knowledge that leadership skills are somewhere in all of us, and only need the right combination of nurturing and attention to emerge; and a love of slow, respectful travel in the backcountry that remains with me to this day. As a college prof, I once won a teaching prize by writing an essay about what I learned as an outdoor ed instructor that I still use everyday in lecture halls full of a couple of hundred stationary undergraduates. I would never have become a teacher if my NOLS instructors had not lovingly and patiently shown me the way. I think of them and thank them more often than they could possibly imagine, here, more than 20 years later.

My NOLS experience didn't change my life (what life?!); it quite literally opened it and made its unfolding possible. Thank you for bearing with the misfits and slow learners, the city kids and shy ones, as well as the students who come to NOLS "ready" in more obvious ways.

Posted by: Jody Greene | May 21, 2009 1:28:39 PM

From the International Space Station:

This space mission to the Hubble was by far the most complex and difficult of my expeditions to space. We spent over 3 years planning, preparing and training to make the repairs and upgrades to the telescope. The success of our mission can only be attributed to this preparation, and training, and more training. Everyone knew their role and strived for excellence. We knew we'd make mistakes, and planned for it. After all we're all human. The goal was to trap the mistakes early, resolve the issue and then to move on.

The satisfaction we have of leaving Hubble with more capability for science and exploration than it's ever had is huge. My entire crew is NOLS trained--starting with my WRW in '74, when Paul Petzoldt was in the lumberyard, to our Hubble Crew training by NOLS Pro, the NASA Sea Kayaking Leadership Expedition in Alaska in 2007.

John Grunsfeld

Posted by: John Grunsfeld | May 21, 2009 8:08:58 AM

I was on the first NOLS kayak class in Prince William Sound in the early 70's. That was my second NOLS course, the previous year was my first in Wyoming, through the Wind River Range. NOLS gave me the reason I needed to get to Alaska, where I ended up living for the next 11 years in a cabin in the interior. NOLS stoked that kernel of adventure in me that continued with independent trips and expeditions throughout the North, including trips down the Yukon River and through the Northwest Territories Barren Grounds among others. It was those skills that I learned on my NOLS courses that made those other trips possible.

Posted by: Leonard Smith | May 20, 2009 4:20:53 PM

As an educator, NOLS sparked a complete paradigm shift in how I view education. The Alaska Outdoor Educator course taught me more about education than six years of college. The best way I can capture my experience is through my favorite quote from my journal in the field.

"There is something about sitting in a circle, on our mats, sipping a hot drink, with the wilderness as our classroom that really resonates with me. Education is so real, effective and pure out here. I find myself constantly thinking about how this experience shifts how I approach a classroom."

Posted by: Marshall Baker | May 19, 2009 6:36:42 PM

Two months spent backpacking, one in Wyoming, one in Alaska, changed my life permanently. NOLS has taught me skills that I will use in all aspects of life: leadership, survival, first aid, cooking, etc. As I head to college next year at West Point, I am sure the leadership skills learned during the entire two months, and especially during the independent student expedition where I led a team of 5 in Alaska will help me lead men in the Army, where the fate of their lives will depend on decisions that I make. Thank you NOLS for the outstanding opportunities.

Posted by: Albert Antweiler | May 19, 2009 5:23:07 PM

After particpating in the Outdoor Educator course in Alaska, I decided I was always going to push myself to my limits, and be in charge of my life to its full potential. So I transferred to Prescott College, where I am continuing my study Adventure Education with an emphysis on sea kayaking and minoring in marine studies. At this school I can be pushed in ways I never thought. I feel that becoming a leader for NOLS in the future is fathumable. Also becuase of my course I have the confidence to apply for jobs that I didnt think I could do. I am leading kayaking expeditions in lake superiour this summer. I am so excited! Thank you

Posted by: Michaela Precourt | May 19, 2009 5:04:06 PM

NOLS taught me how to cook fresh fish. I know it doesn't sound like much, but I have always received compliments whenever I have served fish ever since.

Posted by: Matt Post | May 19, 2009 12:08:44 PM

I'd have to say that NOLS definitely turned my life in a whole new direction that would not have been possible without the experience of a NOLS course. I did a semester course in Baja (SSB95) when I was 20 (I had my 21st B-day in the field). Like many people my age I was lacking self confidence and headed in the wrong direction. NOLS taught me to work in a group and by doing so achieve a goal. While on my course I decided that I wanted to take the ideals of NOLS a little further. I ended up attending and graduating from Prescott College with a degree in Wilderness Leadership and Visual Arts. The possibility of this type of degree would never have entered my mind without the NOLS experience. Education is a journey not a destination! Thanks NOLS!

Posted by: Rob Holt | May 19, 2009 7:41:48 AM

My NOLS course was quite amazing. I went to Mexico thinking I would be sad without technology and those comforts i'd gotten used to. How naive I was! Who needs technology when you can experience a wilderness that few ever have. I remember waking up every morning at 4 to do weather check. And every day we would hike up a nearby cliff to watch the waves crash down the coast; and that unforgettable searing gold and pink sunrise. My NOLS course really changed my life, just with little moments like that. I learned I could be happy anywhere, with anyone; but most importantly I learned I could always depend on my knowledge and skills to get out of trouble; to be a leader. I don't NEED people, things, or a soft bed to make me content. A cup or coffee, good pack and some good friends around a campfire is all you need :)

Posted by: Maggie Nichols | May 19, 2009 4:36:48 AM


My dad made me go. He said it would be “character building”. As my plane began to pull out of logan airport I could not help but feel as if I was being banished. Banished away to mexico on a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) semester for 78 days. Words to describe me prior to the trip would be: indecisive and unconcerned with life. NOLS is a leadership school whose goal is to build decisive, responsible individuals. It was NOLS that opened my eyes to the person I really am, essentially changing my life.

I used to watch people and wonder to myself how they could be so sure of themselves. I was never sure, I just acted like it. I could not make decisions, big or small. From where I should go to school to how to spend my saturday nights; I left things like that up to others. Floating through life, I was unconcerned about the future. I never cared about school or my grades. Just coasting by did not bother me at all. But, coasting by is definitely not acceptable at NOLS.

I didn’t really know what to expect, although i was anticipating having a miserable time. The course was split into three sections, sea kayaking, longboat sailing, and keelboat sailing. I can recall being horrified at the idea of not bringing any soap, shampoo, conditioner or even deodorant. One of my instructors, Sara, said that we would be “ocean fresh” and i thought, “yeah, i guess if ocean fresh smells like B.O.” Nevertheless like anyone has to do in a new environment, I adapted. After getting over my initial shock of the outdoor life I warmed up to it pretty quickly. I mean, I was not particularly good at kayaking, I couldn’t even get into a single without someone stabilizing it so that I didn’t tip over. But i was more open minded. I worked at improving my paddle stroke while also improving myself.

NOLS gave us opportunities like “leader of the day” to help us become responsible. We would plan the next days passage which included finding its’ distance, choosing the time of departure, estimated time of arrival, and planning the time and location of breaks during the day. We were completely in charge. The instructors would only step in if there was a safety issue. I was doing a variety things that I had never done before. Now all of the sudden I could cook, I could prepare meals that people actually enjoyed eating. I could navigate successfully, sea kayak and sail well. I was able to notice crucial weather patterns and foresee specific changes in it. I even learned to clean up after myself, something I had never really done before. I was happy. I would wake up in the morning, emerge from my sleeping bag and be completely captivated by the sunrise. I could not think of a place more perfect, or anywhere that I would rather be. I was completely content with where I was, what I was doing and even who I was for the very first time in my life.

I found myself dreading the idea of going home. The irony was quite amusing actually. I even had my father change my flight so i could stay longer. It was in mexico that I found myself, i feared that i would lose the new, empowered me upon my return to the states. That I would revert to my old ways immediately. But, I realized that all I had to do was apply the skills that I had learned in the wilderness to my everyday life at home. We were trained to be able to lead our own expeditions. Although I have many expedition plans for the future, the one I am most focused on now is me. NOLS made me the person I am today. Because of them I have grown into what I have always wanted to be, happy and complete.

Posted by: Devon Doheny | May 18, 2009 9:48:59 PM

I think my experience at NOLS was amazing, it has effected my life in small and big ways all over the place. Small things like i always have a nalgene with me where ever i go, but for big things are "no trace left behind". I always recylce and i usually pick up trash when i see it around. Also i have a new look on the beauty of nature. Other people i have found do not understand what i am talking about when i say backpacking is fun! they just look at me like i'm crazy, but they will never know. Also when i was in Wyoming we looked at some news talking about paving a road though the places we hiked because of "possible oil". Because of this i have also spent some of my time to become a part of nature restoration/ conservation groups. I think NOLS was one of the best things that i have done so far, i hope to go on another soon!

Posted by: Will Koznarek | May 18, 2009 8:21:49 PM

NOLS Yukon COE was the most incredible experience of my life. Hands down. During that month I was scared, cold, hungry, injured, and frustrated...but I grew more out in that environment than I ever have. Now I am fearless in my profession and courageous in my life; even though I now work a "professional" upper management job (but would be more comfortable in the woods than in a suit and heels), I have carried my NOLS lessons into my every day life.

I am so thankful for my NOLS experience and recommend it to all I know.

Posted by: Kayla Scrivner | May 18, 2009 7:51:10 PM

After law school, I was looking for a job in Charleston, South Carolina -- a very competive market for young lawyers. To this day, my senior partner tells me that the foremost reason he hired me over all of the other candidates for the job was NOLS -- If I was tough enough to sea kayak in SE Alaska with NOLS, I was tough enough for the job with him.

(And I honestly think that my husband, a fellow NOLS grad, married me only because his favorite instructor, Pip Gowan, had already taught me how to fish!)
In essence, chosing NOLS over a semester in Europe literally defined my entire life. Now my 8 year old son is counting the days before we can take our first family NOLS course and he proudly carries my NOLS day pack to school each day. Nothing could please us more.

Posted by: Kirsten | May 18, 2009 7:21:58 PM

During my NOLS Winter Outdoor Educator I remember looking at my instructors and thinking: that is a sweet job! That was the moment I decided I wanted to work in outdoor education. I never looked back ;-)

Posted by: Brian Fabel | May 18, 2009 4:37:52 PM

I'm certain that my NOLS experience is not that unique from many other NOLS experiences. It is enough to say that it was life-changing. During my month mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest, I was able to gain important skills ranging from the self-arrest to crevasse rescue. None of which I would have been able to pick up on my own.

In addition to these incredible skills which I have been waiting with baited breath to put to good use, I gained an incredible amount of confidence in my organizational and leadership skills. Before NOLS, I had never been able to work effectively with my peers to plan a trip anywhere. Since NOLS, I have worked better and more successfully with several friends to plan trips. From a week long backpacking trip in Arkansas to a multi-day car trip throughout the South-west.

I now have the confidence and skills to be an active individual and better team mate.

Thanks again NOLS!

Posted by: Matthew Morriss | May 18, 2009 3:23:16 PM

NOLS has impacted my life in many ways. I gained technical abilities like proficiency in caving, map & compass, and rope systems. I also gained a lot of self confidence. I feel comfortable and confident in leadership roles now, knowing that I can make mistakes, and seek help while a designated leader. I only need to be proficient enough to know my weaknesses in order to succeed.

I overcame a fear of cooking for other people, which is something I would have never thought I would benefit from at NOLS. Who knew that hungry people in the backcountry would eat your mashed potatoes and grape nuts and have a fun time too (dehydrated mashed potatoes looks a lot like powdered milk).

Most importantly, being a NOLS alumni has opened professional doors for me. NOLS comes up during interviews and simply talking about concepts like leadership types and active followership fascinates the interviewer. Also the jobs network offered to NOLS Alumni has lead me to two jobs already.

Posted by: William Roth | May 18, 2009 1:58:21 PM

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