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Get to Know NOLS Amazon

Jon Kempsey, NOLS Amazon program manager, has a long and varied history with NOLS. He recently shared his story, as well as his excitement about running courses in Brazil, with us:

Brad_christensen-20140506-5443If you had one sentence to describe your staff, you would say

Resourceful and self reliant—courses operate hundreds of miles from the support of operations in areas with little infrastructure so at times staff need to be able to operate independently.

How long have you been Branch Director at NOLS Amazon?

Five years.

What is your background with NOLS? How did it all begin for you?

Twenty-three years at NOLS. I have always worked both as an instructor and in administration and support positions. Much of my experience has been in non-English speaking countries—Mexico, Chile, and Brazil—and I have had to become fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish.

I first came into contact with NOLS while hitchhiking in Botswana in 1987 trying to get to the Okovango Delta. There were a couple of NOLS instructors scouting for NOLS Kenya in the vehicle, and we ended up doing a short canoe trip in the Delta together. Eventually I ended up being invited to the USA by one of them. He took me to NOLS Alaska where I ended up doing volunteer work for a summer in 1990. Then in ‘91 I came back to take an instructor course, and have been at NOLS ever since.

What is your favorite aspect of running courses in your part of the world?

Being in such an amazing environment as the Amazon Basin and also the Cerrado region of Brazil—the base is in the intermediate zone between these two areas. 

The independence I have here—I am probably the most isolated of all NOLS employees! I live alone at the base most of time in a rural region dead in the center of South America. Sometimes it is challenging to be so on my own and having to do everything in a second language. I have had to do things I never thought I would be doing at NOLS: buying a property, constructing a house, giving talks in Portuguese to National Park employees, dealing with lawyers, etc.!

What unique or particularly appealing aspect of this branch do you think potential students should know about?

The NOLS course here is absolutely unique. Nobody else offers a full-on expedition in the Amazon region. The courses really are true adventures. Despite the challenges, getting to experience the natural environment here is incredibly rewarding. The cultural opportunities are also a very special aspect of the courses here. 

What would you say most surprises students when they arrive or during their course in that part of the world?

The vastness and remoteness of the forest and how alive it is. The cultural section is life-changing for many of the students: getting to live intimately with families whose lives are so simple and who live off the land and rivers is a real eye opener for young people from prosperous backgrounds. We live with diversity and practice diversity as part of our very existence, and our students get that experience. I don’t think they can really imagine this before they come here.

Anything else you'd like to mention about NOLS Amazon?

 -The high quality of the Brazilian instructors who work at the school, most of whom were sponsored by NOLS Amazon

 - The expertise we have developed in running expeditions in this region

 - The emphasis we put on sustainable living here especially in waste reduction, recycling, and buying locally produced food 

 - The lack of a big support staff means instructors are involved in all aspects of the preparation for a course

 - The community life here is very important whether eating together, making music, or doing volunteer work at the base

 - The great in-town food! 

 - Probably the best library on Amazon natural history and other topics Brazilian that you will find anywhere in the world

 - Being able to see close to a 100 different species of birds on the property as well a great diversity of other animal life (I think we are the only branch to have monkeys!)

 - The many beautiful trees and plants as well and being able to always find something edible on the property at any season of the year!

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Jun 10, 2014 in the following categories: Amazon

NOLS Amazon Personal Experience, Part 2

It goes without saying that NOLS Amazon has an incredible wilderness to run courses.  The Amazon is naturally inspiring, difficult, and rewarding.  What is often overlooked is the cultural element, which starts with the Brazilian NOLS instructors.  They bring a whole element with them to the courses.  One of those instructors is Fabio Raimo Oliveira.  Fabio earned the NOLS Instructor of the Year award for his 16 years and counting of inspiring both students and co-instructors.  He instructs hiking, mountaineering, climbing, sea kayaking, whitewater courses and has instructored at nearly all of the NOLS branches.  

Fabio has played a big role in starting NOLS Amazon and keeping her running.  Below is a short piece he wrote to complete the second part of NOLS Amazon 3 piece series.  

In 2003 I went into the Amazon in an expedition for the first time. And had my socks blown off! Epic scenery, life everywhere, great whitewater and overwhelming nature. 

We were a bunch of NOLS instructors, old timers, and after years talking about how 'the leading source of outdoor education (ie NOLS) needed to go canoeing in the Amazon.  We decided to go scouting with the purpose to start-up NOLS Amazon.Needless to say, the program launched and it is one of the most incredible NOLS programs - beautiful, alive, hard, extremely unique cultural interactions. 


Expeditioning in the Amazon is quite different than in temperate places. One has to stay on task 100% of the time, not only when dealing with the technical aspects of the course, but also because 'the tropics never sleep'.   It is also different because people live far out in the wilderness.  They have a lifestyle that their culture has sustained for centuries and we have the honor to meet and interact with these people, learn from them, and exchange experiences. We learn and experience how touching it is to see how happiness is not associated with possessions (as they have practically none) but with peace and well being.


The NOLS Amazon program is not for everyone - it is for those who welcome harsh living conditions (warm, sun, moist), believe the key to success in wilderness is adapting (as opposed to 'conquering') and are inspired by a occasionally meeting simple people who live of the land in a sustainable and down to earth way. If your idea of wildness is where beauty is static and people never been then it's not for you.

Permalink | Posted by Brooke Retherford on May 21, 2014 in the following categories: Amazon, Leadership

Get to Know NOLS New Zealand

You may remember meeting Mark Jordan, NOLS Australasia director, a few weeks ago. His passion and expertise extend from Australia to New Zealand. Read what he has to say about NOLS New Zealand below.

6a00d83451b4f069e201a5119398a9970cIf you had one sentence to describe your staff, you would say:

Like the staff at every NOLS location: driven, enthusiastic, and skilled. 

What is your favorite aspect of running courses in your part of the world?

New Zealand has some of the most varied and unique ecosystems in the world. The cultural interactions are fantastic as well. 

I firmly believe a NOLS course, at any location, will be a watershed event in a person’s life. Australia and New Zealand are great places to experience NOLS as well as a fascinating part of the world to explore. 

What unique or particularly appealing aspect of this branch do you think potential students should know about?

New Zealand’s forests, called the “bush,” contain ancient remnants of Gondwana Land, the prehistoric continent, so the flora here has developed in isolation from other continents. Here you’ll find unique birds and plants found nowhere else in the world, like the mischievous Kea, the world’s only mountain parrot. Bird life includes tui, bellbird, kaka, parakeets, bush robins, mountain falcons, and morepork owls, whose haunting call can be heard most nights in the bush.

What would you say most surprises students when they arrive or during their course in that part of the world?

In New Zealand students are often surprised how friendly New Zealander’s can be. Kiwis will really go out of their way to help strangers. 

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on May 12, 2014 in the following categories: Amazon, Leadership, New Zealand

NOLS Amazon Students Reflections, Part 1



As Brazil crazily prepares for Carnival starting this Saturday and continues to anticipate further excitment for the World Cup this boreal summer, we are enjoying our last few months of the off-season.  Off-season at NOLS Amazon is filled with delicious peaceful mornings and downpours of rain that are so heavy it is hard to hear yourself think.  The boreal spring is on the cusp and summer is soon to follow, which means things start kicking in gear.  With the excitment of another year with more students, more adventures, and more time in the Amazon we admittedly start to get all giddy inside!  So, until we meet our 2014 NOLS Amazon River Expedition and Semester students, here is the Part 1 of a student-written series about how NOLS Amazon has shaped who they have become.

The first short piece is written by a 2011 NOLS Amazon Semester graduate, Kelsey Kuhn.

Kelsey 8 

At a young age my heart was captured by the mysterious allure and biodiversity that the Amazon Rainforest embodies.  So, when I discovered NOLS offered a semester course in the Amazon I enrolled eagerly. My experience has had such a great impacted my life and gave me the skills and experience to create the path I have always wanted to walk.

This course challenged me physically, emotionally and socially in ways I never expected, and in ways no other place on Earth could have done. The skills I gained in that course set me up for achievement in the outdoor world for life. The month I spent canoeing on the Juruena River taught me skills to excel reading and navigating on the whitewater and flat water. Bushwhacking though the tangles of vines and thickets of the jungle gave me patience and understanding of low impact route fining and the importance of leave no trace.

Hiking in the Serra Ricardo Franco was my playground to become an expert in cross-country hiking. I was able to cultivate my outdoor skills so I could thrive, not just survive in the Amazon. Living in the jungle with people from all different pasts, presents, and futures was one of the toughest experiences, but also one of the most rewarding. The tools I gained from navigating the tricky group dynamics have made resolving conflicts in “real” life much easier. It was also the perfect stage for me to exercise my leadership skills. NOLS has helped me become a truly effective leader rooted in understanding, communication, and safety. The time I spent in Brazil also took my relationship with nature to a new level. The power of a river and true wilderness of the jungle created a deeper respect for our planet in my being.

Kelsey 6

I have always wanted to peruse outdoor related jobs and have done exactly that since I graduated from NOLS Amazon. I was an intern on United States' only Organic Biodynamic Tea farm where I learned to heal and cultivate the Earth. I spent last April-September on a backcountry trail crew, living and working in Kings Canyon National Park. The experience and skills I gained from NOLS made me a prime candidate to be hired by the California Conservation Corps backcountry trails program. This summer I will be a Sea Kayak guide in Alaska, utilizing my leadership and outdoor skills to share the wonders of Earth with the general public. I can’t wait to teach people about the fragile beauty of our planet, and inspire a sense of pride and responsibility to take care of it in their souls.

Kelsey 1

Whenever I look back on every thing I have accomplished in the past few years, and all that I have ahead of me I feel I owe a thank you to my NOLS Amazon course. If I had never gone to the Amazon and not learned and experienced what I did, I would not be the same person I am today, and definitely not living this life I am living at age 22.

Kelsey 4

Kelsey 3

Permalink | Posted by Brooke Retherford on Feb 25, 2014 in the following categories: Amazon, Leadership

Imagine your 2014 summer

Summer is here!

Well, at least the 2014 summer NOLS course catalog is here, and that's even better, because you still have time to plan the perfect summer with NOLS.


We have boxes and boxes and boxes of the summer catalog here at NOLS Headquarters, so request one here. If you'd prefer a paperless version, we've got you covered, too. Download the iPad version of the 2014 summer catalog here.

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Jan 16, 2014 in the following categories: Alaska, Alumni, Amazon, Australia, Curriculum, Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability, India, Instructor News, Leadership, Mexico, New Zealand, Northeast, On The Net, Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, Professional Training, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, Southwest, Teton Valley, Wilderness Medicine Institute, Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus, Yukon

The 12 Days of NOLS

We’ve found the perfect way to get you into the holiday spirit and fight the cold snap with a hearty laugh. Watch NOLS Creative’s newest (and possibly goofiest) release, “The 12 Days of NOLS,” a NOLS variation on the classic tune, to get a taste of the NOLS experience or reminisce about your course! Written with extensive input from the peanut gallery, shot and edited in less than 12 hours, and brought to you with only mild shame, we now ask you to watch the video and sing along.

On the first day of my course Paul Petzoldt gave to me ...


Windpants with a reinforced knee

Two trekking poles

Three Peaks Ranch


Five pounds of cheese

Six dudes belaying

Seven miles a' shwackin’

Eight malt balls missing

Nine quickdraws clipping

Ten backpacks bulging

Eleven toasty hot drinks

Twelve students mapping

 Happy Holidays from NOLS

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Dec 10, 2013 in the following categories: Alaska, Alumni, Amazon, Australia, Books, Curriculum, India, Instructor News, Leadership, Mexico, New Zealand, Northeast, On The Net, Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, Professional Training, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, Southwest, Teton Valley, Wilderness Medicine Institute, Yukon

NOLS' Newest Book is a Perfect Holiday Gift: Canoeing

Canoeing_300Effortlessly gliding through the crystal clear, smooth water, the canoes’ bow pierces the flat surface and sends ripples outward toward the shores. A single-bladed paddle silently dips into the water, propelling the watercraft further onward.

The simple, yet magnificent practicality of a canoe has been around for years. From the earliest cedar-ribbed and birch bark skinned hulls to the wood-and-canvas construction, and on to the modern-day myriad of ABS plastics, foam, and vinyl that are pressed together and known as Royalex. The materials, as well as the people using canoes, have changed drastically over time.

Nowadays canoes can be found splitting through Arctic waters bumping edges with mini icebergs, crossing the vast Pacific Ocean with help of sails and are still found on small lakes and ponds throughout the world. They are vessels for recreation, transportation, and scientific studies, among other things.

The new NOLS book, Canoeing, written by Alexander Martin and published by Stackpole Books, goes in-depth to explore and enhance the overall understanding of every aspect of canoeing—from planning an expedition and describing in detail the parts of a canoe to water science and river maneuvers and travel. Martin, a NOLS instructor since 2008, has a great understanding of a variety of canoe expeditions and was able to use past experiences and knowledge to create this all-encompassing canoeing book.

Nols_owned_image24_xxlRunning a section of whitewater on a river in the Yukon (Photo credit: Pascal Beauvais)

The book is the perfect gift for anyone with a passion for canoeing who would like to learn more regarding expedition canoeing, water travel and techniques, wilderness navigation, as well as advanced skills and other aspects that make up the world of canoeing. This book will serve as a great resource with colorful graphics and pictures to help demonstrate and teach skills and concepts. As everyone settles in for winter in the Northern Hemisphere, Canoeing will be a great companion. While the snow falls and the winds howl, read up on everything canoe related and gain more insight and excitement with each page. Then when winter finally loses its grip on the land and the waterways flow freely, unimpeded by ice, you can set off your own canoe expedition.

For those who wish to gain even more canoe experience and skills, a great avenue is a NOLS course. There are multiple courses with a canoeing component that will allow you to build a foundation and further your canoeing knowledge and experience. NOLS has taught canoe travel for the last four decades. Significant canoe components can be found at multiple NOLS operating locations including the Yukon, the Brazilian Amazon, Australia, American Southwest and Alaska. Any of these courses or locations would be greatly beneficial to anyone wishing to enhance their outdoor skills, leadership development, environmental studies and risk management techniques. 

Permalink | Posted by Mike Casella on Dec 2, 2013 in the following categories: Alaska, Amazon, Australia, Books, Curriculum, In The News, New Zealand, Northeast, Rocky Mountain, Southwest, Yukon

NOLS Amazon Tree Ascension Program

First Ever NOLS Tree Ascension at NOLS Amazon!

by Brooke Retherford

I remember sitting around discussing ideas for NOLS Amazon at the all-staff reunion at the end of the semester in 2006.  NOLS Amazon had just wrapped up a successful first year and we had lots of big ideas and dreams for what would come. Hanging out in the canopy of some really BIG trees was definitely one of the dreams.  After all, it is hard not to imagine yourself sitting on the giant limbs of some of the most magnificent trees that could be somewhere around 2,000 years old.  And the more you spend time under the Amazon rainforest canopy the more you want to actually BE in it or better yet ABOVE it.  

Seven years later we have been able to realize our dream by running the first ever Tree Ascension program at NOLS.  Last year, primarily thanks to Dálio Zippin, Jim Chisholm, and Jon Kempsey we piloted the program on the semester to see what kind of success it would meet.  We found that the pilot program left students wanting more, which subsequently led to developing curriculum and solidifying the risk management procedures. 

Prior to this year’s semester heading into the field NOLS Amazon ran a Tree Ascension Seminar to get a handful of instructors up to par and on the same page with the program.  Here at the NOLS Amazon base, which we endearingly refer to as The Chacára, we have some gigantic trees to climb--one of which is a copaiba (Copaifera reticulata).  On an interesting side note, the copaiba tree releases oil that is a natural anit-inflammatory and antibacterial.  Some of the documented uses and benefits include external and internal inflammation, respiratory infections, skin disorders, urinary tract, bladder and kidnery conditions, bleeding, sore throats, and insect bites.  I have used it religiously on all kinds of cuts since I discovered it.

The goal for this year’s students is to ascend at least three 100-150 foot trees during the 40-day river section.  We sent them off with six tree ascension sets complete with ropes, ascenders, harnesses, helmets, etc., but the coolest toy out there with them is the Big Shot slingshot.  We won’t hear from our group (hopefully because here at NOLS no news is good news) until October 22nd, but we are excited to get the lowdown when they transition from the river section to the cultural section! 

Brooke Retherford -0117
Copaiba Tree at the NOLS Amazon base

Permalink | Posted by Brooke Retherford on Oct 14, 2013 in the following categories: Amazon

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