Taking a STEP in the Right Direction
After years spent working in the field with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Dr. Tracy Baynes made several astute observations about the students who participate in outdoor courses. They gain a tremendous amount from their time in the field. They grow by being pushed outside of their comfort zones. They have life transforming experiences. They are also, as Tracy noted, mostly wealthy and white.
Curiosity duly peaked by her findings, Tracy began to look at education statistics and noticed a huge achievement gap between low-income and high-income students. She also found that programs geared towards struggling, underprivileged youth existed but there were few— if any— programs designed to provide support to disadvantaged students who excel.
Recognizing a need, Tracy created the Student Expedition Program (STEP) in 2002 to “equip low-income, first-generation college-bound Arizona teens with the internal tools to succeed in college. Our overall goal is to help break the chain of generational poverty in the families with which we work by preparing students for success in higher education.”
“The first step to success is belief in oneself. The goal of the NOLS course is to provide students with an experience that helps them to know internally that they have what it takes to achieve whatever they want, especially recognizing that they can be a pioneer to college,” Tracy said.
Since its founding, STEP has seen all of its 112 graduates successfully complete high school, and 81 percent are in college or have graduated from college. Moreover, STEP graduates are attending some of the most well respected academic institutions in the nation including Georgetown University, Bowdoin College, Smith College, University of Notre Dame, U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy, University of Southern California (USC), University of Richmond, Lehigh University, and Pitzer College.
When asked about her long-term vision for STEP, Tracy said she hopes to “reach as many high-achieving, low-income students as possible and eventually turn over the leadership of the program to STEP alum.”
Expedition Denali Launches Kickstarter Campaign for Feature Film
This June, nine mountaineers will attempt to become the first all-African-American expedition to climb Denali (a.k.a. Mount McKinley) in Alaska. This team’s goals go far beyond summiting North America’s highest peak and making history. Their ultimate objective is to inspire people of all colors, young and old, to get more engaged in the great outdoors.
Expedition Denali: Inspiring Diversity in the Outdoors will happen. How many people know about it—how far the team’s inspiration and awareness reaches—is another matter.
Through a Kickstarter campaign launched yesterday, Expedition Denali will raise funds to create a powerful, far-reaching documentary on the team’s journey to the top of North America’s loftiest, most iconic summit. From putting a camera team on the mountain with the expedition to producing, promoting, and distributing the resulting feature-length film, this project will increase awareness of the importance of exploring natural environments and make clear that it’s high time to invite all races, all ethnicities—all people—to inspirational outdoor playgrounds.
Given the powerful, reverberating echo of media—how it can trigger conversation and spark awareness to the furthest corners of our planet—this Kickstarter project and the resulting documentary is for anyone who has tapped into the inspirational, transformative, healing power of our natural environment. More specifically, it will create aspirational role models for African American youth and shine light on our great outdoors and the future they deserve.
Funding through the Kickstarter campaign will run for one month, ending May 10. People interested in making tax-deductible contributions to the production of the film can do so here.
Pledging to the Kickstarter campaign is incentivized by prizes that directly relate to the expedition and the film. Prizes include 30-day, fully transferable Wind River NOLS courses; downloads of the film; climbing equipment used by the athletes on the mountain; summit flags and Skype sessions with the team.
REI joins Expedition Denali
Alaska packrafters return to the Talkeetnas
Our second Alaska Packrafting Course (AKP) of the summer has just begun. The course will travel a long route across the southern Talkeetna Mountains in Southcentral Alaska. Before this summer the rafts were known only by model and serial number. Finally, this year, the students and instructors on our first AKP named them. Some are named for the grandfathers of the sport of packrafting ("Roman"), key skills required of adept packrafters ("Bandersnatch," a backflip maneuver), special dogs of the wild (John Muir's dog "Stickeen") and some other names I'm not sure were ever explained to me ("Smurfzilla," "Gula Gula"). Pictured below is Issue Room staff member Aldo de la Peña, who did the hand-lettering on each of the rafts. "Bailey" is the name of a dog who lives here at the NOLS Alaska Farm.
From our history into the future, together
NOLS’ and Skander Spies’ histories have weaved through one another extensively over the past five years.
In 2007, as a recent engineering graduate of Northwestern University, Spies interviewed for a position estimating energy use for LEED certified buildings. This interview took place shortly before he was to head north for a NOLS Alaska Semester.
Fortunately, the job was waiting for him when he came home three months later. He started his first day equipped with a whole new set of skills.
“The most important thing I brought home from my NOLS course was the rock-solid knowledge that I could work with anybody,” Spies said.
Little did he know that five years into the future it would be NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) he’d be working with.
In the years that followed his course, NOLS resurfaced a number of times in Spies’ life. He attended NOLS reunions only to learn people he already knew were fellow NOLS alumni. He was invited to volunteer with the National Park Service as a volunteer climbing ranger on Denali a few times, and who did he run into last year at 15,000 feet but the NOLS Denali alumni course.
And he has supported NOLS financially for years, citing the role it plays in connecting youth to wilderness, which in turn, inspires a culture of sustainability, Spies’ passion. Last year, he relocated to Missoula, Mont. to work for Energetechs, a comprehensive energy-efficiency contracting company, as project manager.
“From the day we first shake hands with the client to the day we turn on the building systems, I’m responsible to make it happen,” he explained.
Spies enjoys following a project through the entire process, and he reflects back on the values he developed in Alaska in 2007. Accountability, for example.
“Our business lives and dies on being accountable,” Spies said. “And NOLS to me is really big on accountability. Did you cook the dinner? Did you hike the miles? Did you double check the locking carabiner?”
So when the call came in to the office informing Energetechs its bid to provide windows for the Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus had been selected, it all came full circle. Spies didn’t even know the bid had been submitted, but he took the opportunity to share his enthusiasm for NOLS with his coworkers.
And now he’s sharing his expertise with NOLS. He believes strongly in the educational value of sustainable buildings and is excited to be a part of the Wyss campus design. His company’s role is providing high-performance, American-made windows and guidance in installing them. The windows being installed in campus buildings this week.
“The Serious brand windows that NOLS bought for the Wyss campus have a number of key features that are essential to sustainable building design,” Spies said. These include R-value, which defines how much heat passes through the windows that is twice as good as required by code and that offer exceptionally tight air sealing performance.
“By ‘tuning’ the windows using special films to allow radiant heat transfer on the south side of the building, and also employing specially designed shading to prevent overheating in the summer, we were able to reduce the amount of heat needed to keep the buildings warm in the winter,” Spies said of the windows’ solar gain.
All the properties of these windows that will reduce energy use also provide a comfortable learning environment for WMI students. And they will last.
“Sustainability is about designing projects with a long life span,” Spies noted.
And in the lifetime of those windows, they just might come to have a history as intertwined with NOLS as Spies does.
Alaska garden project thrives in summer sunshine
The upper plot includes three beds, a raspberry patch and a greenhouse
The NOLS Alaska garden project began 13 years ago. The fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in the various plots around the branch property feed our staff and students throughout the summer months. The crops consistently include loads of salad greens, raspberries, green onions, potatoes, edible flowers and more. Everything is completely organic and pesticide free. Garden Manager Wendy is helped by volunteer interns plus a constant mix of instructors between contracts and students who are able to find time during their brief in-town stays.
This year Wendy has implemented several changes that will improve the yield and efficiency of the garden. The tubing in the gravity-irrigation system has been fully repaired end to end. The compost system has been reworked to process a larger volume of food waste. New beds have gone in at the upper plot. Chickens have been put to work clearing underbrush in the raspberry bushes to ease harvesting. Nearly all the materials used in the improvements are reclaimed materials from elsewhere around the Farm.
Late season snow was a challenge this year. All the way until mid-May the ground remained frozen and the temperatures too cold to allow planting. Even now several dozen seedlings remain indoors under grow lamps until they can be transplanted outside.
Students remove perrenial weeds from new beds
Video: Pre-expedition excitement
Last week, Erica Wynn posted a video expressing her thoughts the night before her Alaska Backpacking course. Among her sentiments was gratitude to NOLS and Gateway Partner GirlTrek for making this course possible.
Wynn is a GirlTrek Trailblazer Fellow. This program entails “intensive training, community service, targeted advocacy, and an all-expense paid health adventure [like Wynn’s NOLS course].” Trailblazers spend the yearlong fellowship telling their stories and serving as healthy role models in their communities. Wynn has been sharing her thoughts leading up to her NOLS course on the GirlTrek website and YouTube.
In Wynn’s words, “I'm reppin' GirlTrek on a 30-day backpacking trip in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I leave June 13, 2012 and when I return, I'll spend a year telling my story to students in my community.”
But she started telling her NOLS story before she left. In this great video, Wynn tells about how she came to be hours away from a NOLS Alaska Backpacking course and what she feels in the moment.
A Whitehorse Washout?
What a wonderful and fulfilling few weeks NOLS Yukon has had since our first set of instructors arrived 14 days ago! Since June 1st, the branch has welcomed and smoothly sent 33 psyched students and 8 excited instructors on their adventurous way. These numbers make up our 35-day Yukon Instructor Course, our 30-day Yukon Hiking and Canoeing Course, and our most recent departure, the 76-day Yukon Summer Semester, which began this past Sunday.
Although it was “smooth sailing” inside the branch, there was going to be some actual sailing necessary in order to get out of Whitehorse. On June 7th, towns surrounding Whitehorse—such as Teslin, Carcross, Watson Lake, and Upper Liard, BC (close to one of our key paddling sections on the MacNeil River)—were receiving flood warnings. Due to a high snowpack and heavy rainfall of 30mm overnight, the South Canol Road, the South Klondike, the Rancheria Highway (Alaska to Whitehorse), and the Robert Campbell Highway were all washed out and closed for travel!
The washouts not only affected our Yukon Hiking and Canoeing Course trip starting location: it affected our ration supply and the rest of Whitehorse’s food stock, and the city had to arrange for groceries to be flown in. Grocery stores and gas stations were not empty but they were operating sparingly.
Thankfully, just in time for our Instructor Course to return to the branch to switch their equipment over for their River Rescue section, roads began to reopen. All said and done, our courses have been going out to make their own adventures and filling them with fun learning and great spirit!
To stick your hands into the river is to feel the cords that bind the earth together in one piece – Barry Lopez
Powerful Impact of Positivity
Stephanie Calderon’s first two days in Alaska were not at all what she expected. A week prior, Calderon was laying on a beach in Mexico, enjoying the sun and reminiscing about her recent graduation from high school. Now she was standing in the cold rain, far from her cell phone and computer, trying to tie knots in a wet rope. Earlier in the year, when she signed up for the STEP Student Expedition with NOLS Professional Training, Alaska sounded like fun. Now she was miserable.
But there was no other option—the tent had to be set up—so Stephanie kept working.
Later, while sitting around a fire, the students on Calderon’s course talked about the difficulty of completing tasks in inclement weather. One student explained that, although she was challenged by the weather, Calderon’s positive demeanor prevented her from complaining.
“This set the attitude for me. [I realized] the importance of remaining positive, no matter how bad things are, because it impacts other people’s actions,” explained Calderon, who quickly fell in love with NOLS.
When she returned and started college at the University of Arizona, the lessons learned on the expedition served Calderon well.
“Having experience living in close quarters [on course] made it a lot easier to live in a dorm. NOLS taught me the necessity of communicating about things that aren’t working,” said Calderon. “On course, you couldn’t run away to your room—you had to deal with it there.”
The following summer, Calderon returned to STEP as an intern, where she was surprised to find herself acting as a role model to the students. This rewarding experience, combined with continued correspondence with NOLS instructor Lynn Petzold, inspired Calderon to pursue further work with NOLS.
“If I could be as amazing an instructor as Lynn and have a powerful impact on other lives … that would be great!” Calderon said.
Check your map for Earth Day events
The mission of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has always been to be the source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment. On Earth Day, NOLS locations will bring these backcountry practices to the frontcountry by taking part in events in their respective communities.
The staff of NOLS Alaska will be hitting the road this Earth Day, literally. The crew is planning to tackle their annual cleanup of Farm Loop road—a three-mile stretch of road that leads up to the Palmer headquarters.
The cleanup, which is a part of the annual staff orientation day, happens each spring once the snowmelt has progressed enough to allow for it. This year, the orientation day has been scheduled to coordinate with Earth Day.
“After our long winters, the receding snows offer any number of roadside ‘treasures,’” said Don Ford, NOLS Alaska director. “It is a great time to show our new staff what is able to be recycled at the Valley Recycling Center, to show our neighbors that we care, and to have a good time. The most unusual find of the day always gets a laugh!”
The NOLS Southwest staff will also be supporting Earth Day by getting involved in Let’s G.O! (Get Outside) on Saturday, April 21. Supported by other organizations such as 4-H, Sierra Club, and Parks in Focus, the event will have different outdoor activity stations (play-stations), for children and adults that focus on getting active in the outdoors and creating healthy communities.
The entire NOLS Southwest staff will participate in the event and will host several play-stations, including include learning to make bracelets and key chains using old webbing and cordelette and an orienteering/treasure hunt station, as well as assisting with set-up and breakdown of the event and serving lunch.
“NOLS Southwest is excited to be working with the other sponsors of this event to provide an opportunity for kids and families to get outside and celebrate Earth Day,” wrote Nick Cross, assistant director at NOLS Southwest. “We as a branch have been making an effort to get more involved in the Tucson community, finding ways to volunteer and make positive contributions to events/organizations that we identify with.”
NOLS Headquarters and NOLS Rocky Mountain, both located in Lander, Wyo., are teaming up and joining a number of invaluable community partners to make two projects happen over the weekend. NOLS is co-sponsoring a riverbank stabilization project in Red Canyon on April 20 and a community garden build at two locations on the Wind River Reservation on April 27. At both events, volunteers will be working with students from local schools in an effort to educate attendees about the environment while building stronger community ties.
On April 20 in Red Canyon, students and organizers will plant willow cuttings along the banks of the little Popo Agie with a group of students from Lander Middle School. Working with the Popo Agie Anglers, Trout Unlimited, Wyoming Game and Fish and the Popo Agie Conservation District the group not only be preventing erosion but also teaching a Red Canyon place-based curriculum. For more on this event, check out our recent blog post about the first step.
After students harvested willows early this month and soaked them for a few weeks, they are now ready to be planted along Wyoming river banks. Lindsay D'Addato photo.
On April 27, Lander NOLS folks and partners are fully psyched to get their hands dirty alongside students from the Fort Washakie Charter School to build raised beds and fencing for two new community gardens in Ft. Washakie. The project is the brainchild of Fred Groenke, an avid farmer, teacher, and director of the Wind River Native Science Field Center. The project was designed to create public awareness of the importance of preserving our natural environment and developing and maintaining sustainable growing practices that promote healthy lifestyles and connect us with the natural world. We at NOLS are providing volunteer support and organizing a nutritious lunch for volunteers. And on that note, we should give thanks where they are due to BOCES Green Construction, and the Wind River Diabetes Program for their support as well as Apple Valley Market and Mr. D’s Grocery for answering the food donation call.
So come on out to one of these amazing events in celebration and support of your local NOLS community and the larger, global community that you are a part of!