This World and That (Part Three)
By Jason BreMiller, Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educators Course ‘03
A shortened version of this piece was published in the Summer, 2014, issue of The Leader, in mailboxes now! This is the third and final of three parts in this series.
After a particularly long and arduous cross-mesa slog on the hottest day of the course, a slog during which morale hovered at a course low, we rolled into camp where the kids dropped their packs and slumped in an exhausted heap. Kai, Andy, and I departed to scout the surrounding vista, but when we returned we discovered a lively scene of unexpected and raucous laughter. In his solo journal, Luis describes this moment:
Mr. Bre, Andy, and Kai looked over at us like the desert had driven us crazy! At one point, Janet even had to take out her inhaler because she was laughing so hard. I don’t even remember what we were laughing about, but we recognized the situation we were in. We were all alone in the middle of nowhere, no technology, and the only thing we had was each other.
In the canyons, these students became alive to each other in ways often impeded by the drive of frontcountry competition. The canyons help untangle the morass of grades and academic prizes and college admission and return it to a simpler foundation of human connection.
The night Tom photographed the Milky Way, he’d recruited a cohort to accompany him on a midnight foray where they spread their bags out on a slickrock bench and triple-set their alarms, prying themselves up and into the frigid canyon air at 3am to erect the tripod for an extended-lapse shot. They’d never seen the Milky Way before and in the morning when they woke, they draped their arms around each other, laughing with cantaloupe smiles and carrying spring lamb-bounce in their steps.
Rachel, an 11th grader, wrote a sequence of poems on the trip that gets at this capacity for wonder. Here is an excerpt:
We are either homesick or home
No way out but further in
There are petroglyphs etched
Onto your ribcage and spine
The wild thing put them there
For wild-you to remember
So when you breathe, you know the
Wind is breathing back to you
So when you falter, you know the
Canyon can be your rigid spine.
Veins crackle and sputter like firewood
And awaken a new way of treading ground
And illuminate the thought upon waking:
“This is the day to shape the next upon.”
The Canyons are words on a page
A language the river swept away
Silver scaled and glinting
Jumping like fish
They remain on the backs of our eyelids
A bluish blob stained onto nothingness
That we see, now
Every time we blink.
Tom and his buddies reveling at their first sight of the Milky Way reminded me that the capacity for wonder is alive and well, Rachel’s words that sometimes emblem is all we have.
As students begin to sense their own agency, as they fit this agency within the framework of their emerging community, as they attenuate themselves to their own capacity for wonder, something shifts inside them, a realization that can be transcendent. 11th grader Sage explores this emerging sense of self in his solo journal:
I gather some dead sage and fix my lighter underneath. I pull my fingers across the flint wheel, the only unnatural thing around me, and watch it engulf my namesake. I hold the plant upside-down, allowing the flames to climb. It vanishes in my hand with a blinding fireball and a choking cloud of smoke. It warms my bare chest, reminding me of the imminent chill, and I am reborn, a new person. The sun rests atop a red stone mesa, visibly shrinking its crescent on the horizon. The sun fades into tonight and tomorrow, and I fade into someone new, someone else.
These kids are not the same who left less than two weeks ago. It is clear that have been changed irrevocably.
When I think about Tom’s words I’m so bored by all of this and how I might be able to help my students shift worlds, it occurs to me that I want them to see that it’s not about this world and that at all—that it’s not all over when they leave the canyons as they fear may be the case. I hope they see how they can enact what they learned in the desert right here on campus every day just as they witnessed Harkness in the desert. It’s the synergy between worlds that I most hope my kids will recognize and that there are ways to preserve the magic.
For me, what helps is recognizing that sometimes memory and metaphor suffice. Tom’s starcloud suggests that sometimes we see better in the dark, and our maps tell us that when we’re lost, there are ways to become found if we only take the time to orient ourselves by recognizable features. “Using our smarts” is just good practice, and sometimes laughter heals a day’s ills[j4] . In this way, our backcountry days can echo for us now in this eddy of time even more loudly than in the silence that echoed for us then.
Our final evening. We huddle in a circle around a modest pit fire, feeding the flames with small lengths of juniper. The mood is electric and I think I know why. We’ll be gone tomorrow, our expansive views contracted to the boxy confines of the van, our pellucid soulscapes clouded by the abrasion of our iPhones: email, phone calls, espn.com, Facebook. They’re ready to go back but don’t yet want to relinquish their hold on this place. For comfort, I turn to “Cactus Ed” Abbey, that desert bard who faced his own departure from the desert. I read across the firelight:
I, too, must leave the canyon country, if only for a season, and rejoin for the winter that miscegenated mesalliance of human and rodent called the rat race (Rattus urbanus)...Balance. That’s the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds. Unlike Thoreau who insisted on one world at a time, I am attempting to make the best of two.
Our final morning. With the sun at our backs, we look west and see the glint of the truck windshield on a bench two miles away. We break a quick camp and funnel away downcanyon, bending to scoop chunks of petrified wood for the last time before returning them to their sandy beds. We walk in silence for the final mile, unconsciously slowing our pace, extending our time. When we turn a bend in the canyon where it sweeps up close against the road cut, we’re confronted by an aperture in the rock, a concrete eye tunneling the breadth of road. After nine days in the field, the abruptness of its emergence is jarring. The kids hesitate at the threshold, their packs bumping together like jammed logs. We hold the silence for a few seconds longer, looking back over our shoulders into the depths of the canyon where flood-scarred cottonwoods twist in the sun and our tracks stretch backward in the sand. And there it is: bootslap on pavement, the easy roll of industrial traction. When we emerge on the other side 100 feet later and greet our truck, I’m smiling with the knowledge that we’ll be knocking dust from our boots for years to come.
REI and the WRMC
As we busily prepare for this year’s Wilderness Risk Management Conference (WRMC), we thought we’d take some time to reflect on our awesome community and those who help make it that way. We want to highlight some of the organizations that continually come the WRMC and find out why they attend and how the WRMC has influenced their risk management practices.
In our continuing WRMC Blog series, we caught up with Rebecca Bear, Outdoor Programs & Outreach manager at REI, in Kent, Washington and asked her some questions. Perhaps you will see similarities to your own program and discover how the WRMC community can help you.
Bear: We primarily serve REI members and customers who are looking to learn new outdoor activities or deepen their skills in a particular outdoor sport. There are 5 million active REI members of all races, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, ages, genders, etc. It is a large [and] diverse group of outdoor enthusiasts.
WRMC: What do your participants gain from wilderness or remote settings?
Bear: Actually most of our Outdoor School participants are not in remote settings. We help our customers connect to the great, iconic, local destinations close to urban areas, like Climbing at Carderock [near] D.C. or learning to stand up paddle under the Statue of Liberty.
WRMC: Why does your organization send employees to the WRMC?
Bear: I send my field managers to the conference because I think they benefit from the cross-pollination of ideas and some of the foundational risk management concepts discussed in the workshops.
WRMC: How has attending the WRMC helped you provide a better experience for your participants?
Bear: Our managers appreciate the time we have to discuss concepts and how they apply to REI’s risk management. Many of them leave with tangible ideas and concepts they take back immediately to their work.
WRMC: How has attending the WRMC changed the way you manage your program?
Bear: Our program is relatively young (10 years old) in comparison to Outward Bound, NOLS and SCA, etc. As a result, we have benefitted from the knowledge, resources, and tools from the WRMC as we have built our risk management structure. Our training program includes articles from the WRMC library and concepts that are foundational to outdoor programs risk management (like subjective v. objective risk). We’ve also been able to innovate off of these concepts and design them for the unique circumstances of our urban day programming.
We would like to extend a big thank you to REI’s Outdoor and Outreach Program for their contributions to the WRMC. We look forward to having them share their knowledge and experiences again this year. Bear and her colleague, Jeremy Oyen, will present a workshop offering solutions and techniques for training part-time and seasonal field staff. If your program faces challenges with how to incorporate seasonal staffing with the risk management needs of your organization, especially in an urban setting, come take advantage of the opportunity to network with the great folks at REI and other similar organizations. Join us at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, Georgia, October 1-3, 2014.
Click on the image below to learn more about the WRMC or to register online.
NOLS Monitors Washington Fires
NOLS Pacific Northwest is actively monitoring the current fire conditions throughout Washington. We are in regular communication with the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest regarding current conditions, closures, and recommendations. We've made some precautionary adjustments to one course route. No courses are at risk from the current fire activity. The large Carlton Complex fire is in lower elevation forest and grassland and is not currently burning within any NOLS course area.
A Thorn In My Side for 39 Years (Part Two)
This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of The Leader
"PUTTING HIS NOLS EDUCATION TO WORK" -- When asked how the course impacted his life, Jay responded, “It made me realize how great the wilderness is and that it needs to be protected for other people to enjoy. [I came to understand] the importance of … taking other young people out in the woods so they learn to love it and appreciate it.”
After his NOLS course, Jay became a teacher in Lime, N.H.
“I taught the fourth grade,” he said. “We took three hikes in the fall. We worked on map reading, using the compass, staying together. We learned about the different trees and the leaves. I tried to mix in elementary school science with our hikes.”
"A RETURN TO THE GRAND TETON AND LANDER" -- I followed in my father’s footsteps and took a Summer Semester in the Rockies in 2003. I started as an instructor for NOLS in the summer of 2010. I found endless entertainment in my father’s memories about NOLS, especially after becoming an instructor. I could also tell that he wasn’t totally satisfied with his 1974 attempt on the Grand Teton.
It was time for another try.
In 2011, Jay, my brother David (Rock Climbing ‘06), my sister Jessica, and I climbed the Old Man’s Route (5.2) and the Old Ladies’ Route (5.2) on Seneca Rocks in our home state of West Virginia. This served as a perfect training climb. Jay had no problems with the climbing, and his legs never shook once.
On Aug. 31, 2013, Jay flew to Riverton. After seeing the Noble Hotel again, he said, “The restoration was fantastic. Thank goodness there was no longer a bar and a Chinese restaurant. The moose head was still there.”
The weather forecast was for 50-percent chance of thunderstorms all week, so he, my girlfriend and fellow NOLS instructor Angie Bates, and I spent another day hiking at low elevation, hoping the forecast would improve. It didn’t, but we hiked up to the Lower Saddle anyway. At 5 a.m. the next morning, the sky was clear, so we decided to go for it. At around 7:30 a.m., light rain began to fall.
The storm appeared to be passing us to the north, so we continued with a watchful eye on the weather. We reached the Belly Roll just before 9 a.m. This time, Jay said he “just had to do it and wasn’t going down.” He climbed across without a problem. The obstacles after the Belly Roll fell away easily and Jay, Angie, and I reached the summit at 10:20 a.m.
“This has been a thorn in my side for 39 years!” he said, elated to be standing on top of the peak that had eluded him in 1974.
“When I came out [to Wyoming], I didn’t want to say anything to anybody about climbing the Grand because I didn’t know if I would make it,” Jay conceded. “After I climbed it, I was anxious to reconnect with people [from my course].”
After the climb, Jay met with Peter Simer, former executive director of NOLS and the course leader for Jay’s winter section. Peter instantly remembered Jay and his course. Two hours passed quickly as they reminisced on the porch of Peter’s house in Lander.
“[NOLS] was one of the highlights of my 65 years,” Jay said afterward. “I learned a lot and had a lot of fun. I will always have that love for the school and the great people who have been instructors and students there. I am thrilled that the school has grown.”
Regarding the failed attempt in 1974, Jay remarked, “I have to apologize to the people I kept from making it to the top. I hope they have had another chance and if they haven’t they should really try. The Belly Roll was really a piece of cake.”
He went on to quote Yogi Berra: “90 percent of it is half mental.’”
“[My son Jim] became a NOLS climbing instructor. He is the son of a dad with sewing machine leg. I guess that shows that evolution must be occurring.”
Planning the climb on the Grand inspired Jay to reach out to his former coursemates.
“I connected again with Jim Acee, my tent mate. I had not spoken to him in 39 years. I called him [twice and talked] about the instructors and students on our course. He was a long-time NOLS instructor. [It] seems like we haven't missed a beat. [We shared] very fond memories.”
In the spirit of rekindling friendships and sharing stories, Jay would love to hear from his coursemates and former instructors. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
By Jim Margolis, NOLS Field Instructor and Rocky Mountain Program Supervisor
This World and That (Part Two)
By Jason BreMiller, Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educators Course ‘03
A shortened version of this piece was published in the Summer, 2014, issue of The Leader, in mailboxes now! This is the second of three parts in this series.
Click here to read Part One, the beginning of the series.
Browsing pictures before our gathering, I stumble across a short GoPro clip shot by Luis, a 10th grader from Chicago. He shoots from an elevated alcove, looking downward through a narrow shaft of canyon slot framed by a prominent chockstone. Below, Claire, another 10th grader, can be heard approaching from around a bend. Her telltale blue beanie wobbles into view as she assumes a perch high enough on the wall for her to peek through the opening and assess her next passage. She grunts with exertion, using opposing pressure to hold her place while she gropes blindly above for purchase. It’s a tricky move to be sure: to progress from her stance, she’ll have to mantle onto the pinched bite of stone where the walls thin and duck under the chockstone. Doable, but in need of some rumination. She hesitates, unsure, looking back down to where Andy waits out of sight, then back up into Luis’ lens.
Claire’s voice is barely audible, but if you can make out her, “Uh...what do I do?”
And from the recesses, unseen, Andy’s words return hollow as if the canyon itself were speaking: “Use your smarts!”
In the canyons, the kids come to see themselves differently—as doers rather than thinkers only, as people capable of agency. They learn to trust themselves and the skills they’ve developed to do real work. “Where are we?” they ask over and over and over again during the opening days of the course, to which their instructors patiently reply, “take out your maps.” By the end of the trip, they understand how to plot a course and follow it, that meals don’t cook themselves, and that if you haven’t planned far enough ahead to pack your raincoat accessibly, then your teammates might sigh loudly and look at you with deep reproach while you explode your pack to find it.
In the canyons, students’ horizons are confined to the daily living tasks of eating and drinking and travelling. Near the end of the trip, each student elected to participate in an overnight solo, during which they were encouraged to reflect on and write about their experiences thus far. Andrew, an 11th grader, identified this narrowing of purpose as one of the most formative aspects of his trip:
I was immersed in a primitive lifestyle and through it I regained sight of the world and the people around me—the sight that I lost at Exeter while thinking and thinking, toiling away about projects and college and my general future, because those things have always been the ends for which I work. In the canyons, the goal was to find water, to explore, to see things, and to strive only toward immediate goals. In the canyons for those nine days, I have never felt more conscious of what was around me. Without the distractions of civilization, I noticed the little things: the soft hum of air in my ears, the color of red mesa, the rock lines that flow like water, the texture of the sand.
In the canyons, the kids’ focus is distilled to an immediate and tangible purpose, to something more concrete than the amorphous securing of a “successful future” or getting into a “good” college. Here, they need to find reliable water and cook a meal that will fuel their minds and bodies as they hump their packs over rigorous terrain.
Stay tuned for Part Three, the conclusion of the series, coming soon!
Yukon Course Updates
Over the past week, we’ve welcomed back our first three courses from the field, including our first hiking/canoeing combo course, and both US Naval Academy Canoeing Expeditions, who were canoeing for 4 weeks in the central Yukon.
In addition to these three courses, we still have 4 in the field - I thought I’d go over some of their current locations.
Yukon Hiking and Canoeing (YHC)
Our second YHC course left 16 days ago. They’ve just transferred from the Coast Mountains southwest of Whitehorse to the Hyland River, where they’ll canoe until the 31st of July.
Yukon Summer Semester (YSS)
This course has been hiking for the past 28 days, also in the Coast Mountains. They’ve had two re-rations by now and left the mountains today to gather their equipment, shower and leave for the Hyland River and their paddling section.
Yukon Wilderness Hiking (CWY)
Two of these courses are in the field, both in the Coast Mountain range – one’s been out for 16 days, and one for 11 days.
For more photos of each course, see the NOLS Yukon Facebook page. Stay tuned for updates!
Australian combo course hikers about to get salty
Trailing pindan dust behind them, our NOLS Australia combo course students said goodbye to the King Leopold Ranges and began their transition to sea kayaking. Conducting the ‘switch’ in Broome, the students arrived back at the NOLS Australia base where they met their new instructor team and shared a lunch full of fresh food goodness.
A busy afternoon at the NOLS Australia base of cleaning, repairing, eating, briefing, eating, packing and some more eating and the sea kayak team were off to the local campground to get a good sleep before a long drive the next day.
So our hikers are on their way to learn a new skill and experience a new environment. They are heading almost 900km (over 500miles) from Broome to the sea kayaking location in the Dampier Archipelago- an area rich in aboriginal history, marine fauna and spectacular scenery.
Students will not have access to outside communication on their sea kayaking leg and will return to Broome for their Graduation on the 2nd August. If you would like students to receive any mail it should be sent as soon as possible for it to arrive in time for the students graduation.
Cowboy Tough Race: Team Wind River Country is On the Course!
Early this morning the Wind River Country team boarded a bus in Casper and traveled to the start of the Cowboy Tough race. Team members Casey Adams, Marina Fleming, Shad Hamilton and Karla Wagner are representing Wind River Country in this three and a half day adventure race.
After a three-hour bus ride from Casper, the team was ready to race in South Pass City, a former mining town. The first gold rush in South Pass City was in 1868; miners and merchants flocked to the area. As the gold rush ended, residents left the town. In 1968, the town was donated to the State of Wyoming. This wild and remote area was the setting for the race start.
At 9 a.m. this morning, the race began! Teams searched for checkpoints and completed challenges around South Pass City. These included: navigating a mill to find a mine core then exchanging the mine core at the general store for race supplies. Racers searched for a gold nugget on the tails. Teams also went to a checkpoint at Flood & Handle Mining Trail next to the Old Stamp Mill.
From South Pass City, teams took off on their bikes for the next challenges awaiting them in Atlantic City. Following the checkpoints at Atlantic City, teams headed towards Shoshone National Forest, riding towards Wild Iris climbing area.
Stay tuned as we follow the Wind River Country team on the Race Course this week!
Permalink | Posted by Kim Freitas on Jul 17, 2014
This World and That (Part One)
By Jason BreMiller, Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educators Course ‘03
BreMiller lives in New Hampshire where he teaches English, coaches hockey, and leads outdoor trips at Phillips Exeter Academy. He recently reactivated his Field Instructor status and hopes to spend more time outdoors watching his students fall in love with wild places.
A shortened version of this piece was published in the Summer, 2014, issue of The Leader, in mailboxes now! This is the first of three parts in this series.
It’s a Tuesday night in Peabody Hall, the dorm at Phillips Exeter Academy where I reside and teach, our second day back at school after a 10-day Utah backcountry trip with my students. I can hear the hum of easy banter as they congregate outside my door for our first post-trip reunion, peeling off their shoes—or, I should say their boots—because, as one of them puts it, “we’ve been wearing our boots every day still!” “Yeah,” another confesses, “it makes me feel like we’re still there!”
In a corner of the living room they pile their packs high, still stained red with smears of Utah dust, the telltale badges of any backcountry trip to the canyons: the grit that works itself into your boots, your clothes, your dishes, your water, and your teeth, but that catches in your soul in the lazy backwash hours of your return. My wife Molly has found a collection of stick-on moustaches for the kids to don for fun, which they adhere with characteristic abandon. “We love moustaches, too!” I’ve set up our tv so we can browse the many pictures that have emerged from the trip, and as I click away, the crescendo of background commentary heightens.
“Ah! It’s Sage eating 64 marshmallows!”
“Liana, how many times did you get to say Mr. Bre’s least favorite word ‘yam?’”
“Andrew, your hair looks like a greasesponge!”
“Has anyone seen Quappleton carrying the poop trowel around campus yet?”
It’s the language of familiarity, the language of love, as if by invoking their lived stories they cement the reality of what they did out there in the desert together. Of how they moved. That it was real. And that despite their present distance from rimrock and sage, they’re still carrying canyonfire in their hearts.
The slideshow proceeds: the slop of a debut meal; a steep slickrock rappel; an awning roof pictograph; a rim to rim post-squall rainbow; the snow-clad Henry Mountains. We pause at a picture of the Milky Way: shades of violet and chalk, starclouds and space. They stare at the picture and grow quiet, their minds going back, their gazes turning wistful and faraway, full of remembrance.
“It’s funny,” Tom, the 10th grader who took the picture, breaks the reverie, “there are so many things to DO here now,” he pauses, his voice teetering, struggling to splice worlds, “but I find that I’m so bored by all this, you know?” His armswing encompasses the entire non-canyon world. The others nod in agreement, and the silence stretches.
So I’ve been thinking about Tom’s words all week, between classes, at night after the kids have checked into the dorm, during the few still moments of the day when the background thrum quiets long enough for me to hear inside. I’m so bored by all of this.
I understand Tom’s sentiment because I feel it, too, even after more than a decade of returning from the field, gazing backward over my shoulder every time. But navigating this world and that is endemic to getting outside, and I can’t help but wonder how I can help my students span the gap.
Our first evening in the field: the inevitable chaos of camp setup, poop school, and bombproofing. Kai, one half of our husband/wife instructor team, has cooked burritos, and once the “where did I put my headlamp; oh no, I forgot it; oh, there-it-is” dust has settled, her husband Andy leads us in a “one thing to take with you from Exeter and one thing to leave behind” reflection exercise.
“I’d like to be able to be myself here,” one student admits, “and not who everyone expects me to be.”
“I hope our schedule can be chill,” another offers, “without something to get done every second.” It is clear they have come seeking a different world than the one they left.
So what world did they leave? Founded in 1781, Exeter is now a school of roughly 1,100 students from, in Exeter-speak, “every quarter” of the world; it’s a place whose mission it is to help students explore the confluence of “goodness and knowledge.” We employ a pedagogical approach founded by the school in 1931 called Harkness: a system of learning in which the students work together around an oval table, teaching themselves through active conversation and collaboration. They study literature by reading texts and discussing them amongst themselves around the table; they unravel math problems by working together at the board. At Exeter, the teacher is a co-learner who helps reflect to students their own learning, but who almost always holds back, letting silences linger, creating space for the students to find their way.
But Exeter is also complicit in the world of uber-competitive private education, where the strains of academic pressures and college admission often weigh heavily on our students despite our best efforts to defuse them. It’s no wonder, then, that they open to the canyons like desert bloom.
And once open, it’s remarkable to see what fills that space.
Stay tuned for Part Two and Three coming soon!
Rocky Mountain Power Foundation Supports NOLS Scholarships
NOLS is delighted to receive a $3,500 grant from the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation to provide scholarships to students from Wyoming and Utah. The funds will support underserved youth living in Wyoming and Utah as they embark on the educational adventure of a lifetime this summer.
Each year, NOLS offers $1.5 million in scholarships, enabling students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to benefit from the school’s unrivaled experiential outdoor skills and leadership training. The Rocky Mountain Power Foundation’s contribution to this initiative is of great importance to NOLS’ mission.
Rocky Mountain Power's Craig Nelson and NOLS' Pip Coe commemorate the grant in front of NOLS' solar panels, another project made possible by Rocky Mountain Power.
“The Rocky Mountain Power Foundation is pleased to support this worthy organization and its efforts to teach students valuable lessons in communication, decision-making and teamwork,” said Craig Nelson, Rocky Mountain Power customer and community manager.
“We believe positive, ethical leaders change the world,” said Pip Coe, NOLS Alumni and Development Director. “The Rocky Mountain Power Foundation demonstrates the impact of ethical community leaders while also supporting the development of future leaders by helping them take NOLS courses.”
Students interested in applying for a NOLS scholarship should submit the standard NOLS scholarship application. Find the form and learn more about scholarships at NOLS at http://www.nols.edu/financialaid/nols_scholarship.shtml.