Last blogs from NOLS

Today was my first day being leader of the day. Leader of the day consists of getting prepped about the hiking day the day before everybody else and then write a detailed travel plan about it and present it to your hiking group. Over the course of the hike, the leader of the day may initiate breaks, map reading and other things to help the group get to their destination. My group of three took off and I was excited to lead, but as the day progressed I found that it was harder than I expected. It was the toughest terrain that we have done so far, my ankle was bothering me and it rained so I couldn’t keep up with the group. There was a moment I thought I wasn’t going to make it to camp and realized that if I pushed though I knew I could do it. The feeling of finally making it to camp, was unlike anything I have felt before. I had pushed through the day and I felt so accomplished. It made me realize that no matter how hard something will seem at the time, if you push through, it can be really rewarding.

During today’s 5 mile hike, we almost got lost early on, but I made sure we checked the maps a lot and thankfully prevented it. We had a pretty cool campsite, but we had to walk a while to find water. Everybody is going to sleep early because we are exhausted. Tomorrow is another 5 mile day so it will be nice to get some good sleep.

Layover days are a rare occasion and sleeping in is even more rare. I got up at 8:15am to cook hash browns and make hot drinks on this frosty morning. They were so good! With a 1:00 presentation time and a few touch up, everyone is feeling a sense of nervousness. The clock slowly ticks away and the time finally comes. Volunteers are asked to go and only the sound of crickets fill the air, literally! A few seconds pass and I decide to break the ice and share my research project with our small group. It started off a little difficult but go easier as I began to talk. Right as I finished the next hand flies up and the ball keeps rolling as the rest of the group finishes up. The final moment is here, turn in time. Papers in, pens and pencils down. We’re done with our first college project!

Today we made it to Emerald Lake! We hiked 6 miles uphill today to make it to the mountain lake that will serve as our home for the next 2 days. It was absolutely worth it! The lake is appropriately named and is a gorgeous green color. It was the perfect scene to greet us after an exhausting day. Our trail criss-crossed up the mountain to a meadow and lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The elevation gain also meant a pick up in wind speed which we learned the hard way after having to chase a sleeping pad that was blown into the lake. Good thing it was shallow. We were all happy that we got a layover day the next day so we had more time to enjoy the view and rest.

Today we hiked 5 miles in what used to be a forest. In the last year, it had burned to the ground. at one point, we walked through a field covered in ash. It was pitch black and it got all over everything. My lips are black from it so are my hands and forearms. It’s sad because the forest fires in the region are a product of global warming. Because of the warm winters, the pine beetles have flourished, leaving their larvae inside pine trees and killing them. This leaves a massive amount of dead trees, making a hot spot for forest fires to start and spread  easily.

Today was a challenge. After meeting up with the group and spending a layover day together, we went our separate again to climb over a rocky pass and continue on. My group was the first to reach our campsite – usually a moment of relief but today was different. At first we welcomed the rain – refreshing during a long hike – then, as the clouds covered the sun and we stopped to scout for camp spots, we wished it would pass. It didn’t and flat ground was not easy to find. Hope kept me going though: hot drinks and warm sleeping bags would be in our future. This future would have to be delayed though as the zipper to our tent had broken by the wind in the morning. There was a moment of cheer – snow – a few small flakes at first, then heavier clumps. As I ran around to get warm, my mind was filled with the refrains of Christmas songs, which made me feel warm as I remembered the coziness of the season. Then I was cold. I couldn’t zip my rain coat or put my mittens on so I had to ask a friend to do it for me. Eventually, there was relief. In the tent of our camp mates, my cook group and I took refuge. We shed wet layers and recovered that hope we had so firmly held on to earlier. Dexterity returned and with it came smiles and jokes and the familiar comfort of sharing each others company. Our tent was repaired, we ate couscous and pumpkin seeds, laid out sleeping bags and settled in. We’re capable of a lot. Good Night Wyoming.

We had just strolled in from our 5 mile hike, unpacked our gear, and set up our tent. Everyone was tired and hungry, our stomachs growling for food. I vigorously flipped through the NOLS cookbook searching for something to make. Pasta: no, potatoes: no, sausage: no. I didn’t want the same dinner we had been having. Finally it hit me: we should have pancakes. I started the pancake mix. I mixed white and wheat flour, powdered milk and baking powder in a plastic bag and began to add purified water. In addition to a little spice, we added a pinch of cinnamon and clumps of brown sugar. after the mix was ready, we realized we had accidentally doubled the powdered milk and baking powder. No turning back now though. We were hungry and ready to dig in. We fired up the fry bake ad threw some butter on top. We turned the bag of batter upside down, slowly letting the batter ooze onto the pan. It sizzled and formed into a golden circle. Anxiously awaiting the outcome of the dinner, we all stared, mouths watering. We flipped the pancake and dropped the first one into my food bowl. I sprinkled some brown sugar on top and took a bite. I was in heaven. This was the best pancake I had ever eaten. No lie. It was warm, overwhelming my mouth with such a rich filling taste. After a long day, this had been my most rewarding meal yet. I couldn’t wait to make more pancakes!

“Who wants to trade for some gummy bears?” Those words sounded so weird,. Gummy bears?Even the thought of a treat like that sounded weird. My group of 4 was hiking and we came across 3 backpackers coming the opposite way on the trail. It was just exciting to see other people on the trail and they had gummy bears, my favorite! We all looked at each other, realizing we didn’t have much to trade with. All we really had was the remnants of 13 blocks of cheese that we were given at re-ration. When we told them what we had, they got so excited, and we were just as excited to get rid of it. So I took off my pack and gave them an entire block, 1 pounds worth. They were surprised to see how much cheese we were giving them, they decided to give us more than just gummy bears. They gave us chocolate, oreos and gatorade packets too. With both groups content, we parted ways and wished them luck. At the first break after the trade, we ate the chocolate and the oreos. I don’t remember oreos tasting so good, and I was so happy. It was an experience I will never forget.

Today was one of our most challenging days of the expedition so far. Even though it was the toughest hike, it was without a doubt the most beautiful. We hiked about 8.3 miles at the highest elevation yet, 11,600 feet above sea level. Our goal was to traverse along a plateau and this is where the beautiful part came in. When we reached the top, we could see literally every mountain range for miles. We had the opportunity to hike 4 miles along this plateau at the highest elevation experiencing all of these beautiful sights. No pictures or writing can do justice to the images we saw. For many of us, this will be a huge motivator for the rest of the expedition.

Two morning ago I was hating life. It had rained the night before so when I woke up, everything was frozen and so bitterly cold that I just wanted to sit on the ground and not move ( which I didn’t do).  Along with that, I felt like I had strained my back which started to hurt after 5 minutes with the pack on (which soon went away). I also popped my knee again, thinking I may have re-torn my meniscus (which I didn’t) On top of all of that I was leader of the day for our longest day yet, 9 miles. The day started off good and bad because we took the trail on the wrong side of the creek. There were logs and overgrown plants throughout the game trail and I was having a great time hopping over them. The rest of my group, not so much. I started to worry if we would make it to camp that night because we were moving so slowly as other members were dealing with their own sore and strained muscles. After hiking many miles, we started to ascend  a peak, even though the group was weary. When we got to the top, all of our moods changed. We were on top of the world and had a 360 view for miles! It was amazing and even though we still had some miles to go, we powered through it and made it to camp. from there, everything started to get better and I put that experience in my bank account to save for another time. I was really proud of everyone and their effort was something to be noted.

We stumbled into camp just before sundown, beaten, bloody, dirty, tired.My group had finished a 10-miler that turned into a 13-miler after we got lost and spent several extra hours bush-whacking up the side of a mountain. We weren’t the only group to get lost either. They went 4 miles out of their way and then bush-whacked their way over a mountain too. The instructors were glad to see that we navigated our way back and how we dealt with uncertainty and adversity. As we learn this skill, it gives us the ability to rise above our circumstances and so what needs to be done.

Today was one of the most adrenaline filled days for everybody. It was the last full day of being in the mountains and we are all getting picked up early the next morning. Everyone leaves the campsite singing their favorite songs that they want to listen to when we get back to our ipods. It was roughly a four hour hike to get to the pick up spot. It was the fastest four hours, now that my body has adjusted to the mileage. The worst part about leaving is that I have finally got into the groove of  hiking and living in the mountains. It was an awesome day, seeing a bunch of roaming cows and hearing coyotes at night. The most exciting part about being finished, aside from talking to my family, is goig back and telling everyone about the amazing and difficult experience I just accomplished: living in the wilderness for 3 weeks.

Today was the official end to our three week adventure, we got prepped the day before about waking up early and being ready for the bus to pick us up. I was the first person in camp to get up, boiling water for coffee. It was a cold morning, colder than I thought it would be for lower elevation than we were used to.The tent and the ground had frost all over them but it was a beautiful morning. As I walked the 300 yards to the kitchen with my packed bag, my headlamp shined on the frost and gave the impression of twinkling stars on a calm lake. When I got to the kitchen, I started up the stove and put on water I had preset the night before. All that was left was the waiting. Waiting for the water to boil, for the rest of camp to wake, and for the bus to arrive and take us back. It was slow at first, then morning seemed to explode with the first ray of light. The waiter boiled, the bus arrived and the people rushed over; and within 20 minutes we had all eaten, packed the bus and left the Absarokas. What we learned in those mountains though, will stay within us all forever.

It’s another batch of NOLS blog entries!

As the students begin travelling across the country to participate in various community service projects, we thought you might enjoy reading another batch of journal entries from the NOLS segment of the Gap Semester Program.  Each paragraph is written from a different student’s perspective.  It is incredibly inspiring to read about their experiences!  We will continue to update our Flickr stream and Facebook page with photos as they arrive – check back in often, and please share the blog with your family and friends!

After a few minutes of mourning the loss of technology on our 3 hour long bus ride to the Absorca’s, our anxiety began to wear off. People were spinning around in their seats, telling stories and playing games. Somewhere in the midst of all the chatter, I forgot to keep missing my family and friends, iPhone, internet and Macbook. This is just the beginning of a whole new way of life, living unplugged.

Today was one of the most enlightening and cleansing experiences that I have ever had. It was a lay-over day and we started the day with learning how to make cinnamon rolls. That was really fun and they ended up being very tasty. I started to think about how I hardly ever had experiences like this with my friends back home. I know it’s only day five or so, but I feel incredibly close to everyone here. It was very powerful.

Our day normally started off at 7 am with everyone cooking breakfast in the tent groups. While the food was cooking, the L.O.D.’s planned the hiking course for the day, which was the hardest day so far.  Going 1,500 ft of elevation was very difficult for some, but was worth every second when we reached the peak. The 30-50mph winds were tough going up, but the nearly indescribable view was worth every ache along the way.  The realization that as long as you keep pushing through something difficult you will eventually persevere and accomplish the goal.  This was about a week into our trip and each group is now into a certain groove with setting up tents, cooking food, hiking, etc. With each new day everyone is becoming more self sufficient and learning to enjoy the little things. Overall, today was a great day of hiking and personally my favorite day of the trip thus far.

Today we didn’t hike, instead we stayed in camp and were able to have a day of rest and relaxation. Although it was a less strenuous day physically, our minds still got a work out with the several different classes we attended. However the coolest part of the day, to me at least, was during our free time.  The day before, some friends and I went exploring for a place where we could completely submerge into the freezing river water. Needless to say we found it, but the huge discovery was the 40ft. water fall just around the corner from our little pool. So today we decided to go back. The waterfall was beautiful, but I decided I wanted more than just a sight, I wanted an experience! So I stripped down to my boots and underwear and went for a shower. The water was freezing but totally worth it. I’ll always remember taking my shower in the waterfall.

Each day at NOLS presents 3 types of challenges; physical challenges, spiritual challenges, and emotional challenges. This weakness and “smallness” really forces one to confront and challenge one’s spirituality. In a culture where our focus is so self-centered and focused on building up ego. Where does the over-powering perfection and strength of nature come in? When you look at our short and small lives in comparison to the wisdom and power of the mountains, our worries seem sort of childish. Through this confrontation of previously held ideals and the realization of the greatness of the world around us spirituality is found and strengthened. Which is one of the most intense emotional challenges in itself.

Today is re-ration day. We get to go grocery shopping for all new goodies. I am very excited to get different types of new food we can make awesome meals. We have some master chefs in all the groups. Different groups have made fantastic pizza, awesome hashbrowns, and delicious brownies. Today we also got to do our first feedback with our tent groups.  For each person we made one positive and one constructive for three different aspects; leadership, technical skills, and expedition behavior. I thought this was really cool because you cannot do something like this anywhere else. It definitely helps you grow as a person.

Before I get into my first fall, I must explain who I am. I am the type of person who will fall walking up stairs (and down), who will fall tripping over their own feet, and who fall on completely flat ground. Gravity is not my friend. On our first day of hiking I was really excited to get started, but that was before I realized the terrain we were walking on. When I think of backpacking I think of happy people walking on grass going on trails up and down hills and mountains. We ended up spending about 50% of the time walking on big rocks, where a stream used to be. We crossed streams that were slippery, (somehow I stayed balanced) and we walked on jagged, big, randomly placed rocks. With adding about 40-50 pounds on my back that I am not used to, I was certain I was going to fall. We were about 45 mins to an hour into the hike and I was feeling good; I stepped over this big tree branch and one foot made it over, but the other did not. I ended up going face first onto these jagged, big, and randomly placed rocks. Normally this is not a big deal to me, but when you have 40-50 pounds on your back, it is quite a bit harder to get up. So I rolled onto my side, and squirmed around trying to get up, but could not. Now, I just met the people I was hiking with 2 days earlier, so seeing me fall was new to them; they didn’t know how to react. I started laughing and explained I was okay, and one of my tent mates helped me up. I ended up with my first 2 bruises; one on each knee. Now every time I fall I just say, “Just another bruise to add to my collection.”

Hot off the press – first student blog entries!

The students have successfully completed the first portion of the Gap Semester Program!  After receiving their handwritten blog posts, the Gap program committee spent time transcribing several entries to get us started.  The stories below reflect the first 6 days on the trail, as told from 8 different student perspectives.  We hope you enjoy them as much as we did!

A New Adventure:

Day 1 of hiking

A few minutes after 7:00am, our group met with a wonderful NOLS instructor named Sydney.  She taught us how to configure and use the small burners that would allow us to cook our breakfasts and dinners for the next 18 days. We made hot drinks first, and learned how comforting they are on a chilly, early morning before the sun shows her brilliant rays. Beginning to learn the ways of outdoor life is awe-inspiring, and finally our fortunate reality.

8/25/12

Today’s hike was an introduction into the perseverance and need for a positive attitude that this adventure will require. Our hike was around 5 miles on and off trails. We learned to search for the paths of least resistance, whether they were established paths or not. The day was exhausting and fulfilling and I definitely learned the importance of staying well fed, well hydrated, and fully sun-screened. Today was also our first introduction to the motto of “the real work begins when you get to camp.” As much as we would have loved to lie down on a couch and order pizza after our long day: where’s the fun in that? Coming together to set up our “home” for the night and cook our meal (that would have tasted amazing no matter what was in it) bonded our groups and definitely proved to me that pushing yourself when you least want to can yield great results. We all made awesome dinners and got to talk with our cook group about the different experiences that we all had on the trail that day. We all went to bed feeling not just exhausted but rather extremely accomplished.

8/25/12

We did our first major hike today. I think it was around 5 miles. We traveled up in the mountains and on the rocks along the river. I think I prefer mountain hiking – at least at the moment. The river rocks are tricky footing and crossing water frequently takes time. Our leader today taught the group an awesome step for going up steep hills with heavy packs on. It’s called the rest step. Learning that trick kind of opened my eyes to the possibilities of tweaking some of the little things that I do on this trip to be more efficient. Overall- awesome day, challenging, but oh so worth it!

8/26/12

Today was a much shorter hike. Even though it was still 3 miles or so, it was very enjoyable. The landscape here is beautiful. Everywhere you look seems like a picture rather then real. The lack of humidity is still strange to me, since I am from North Carolina I’m used to a constant heat throughout the day with only a slight temperature change at night. Here it gets hot during the day and then there is a dramatic drop in temperature as soon as the sun drops behind a mountain. It’s just very different from what I’m used to. It’s strange to think we’ve only been out here for 4 days. It feels much shorter. I guess it’s because there is always work to be done and everybody is busy. I’ve cooked every meal, which has been fun. I’m learning how to make a variety of foods and it’s really interesting. Tomorrow is a layover day, so we will get to relax and go to some classes. Even though environmental science is not my favorite subject, being around the topic that we’re studying, makes it much more interesting. Just being able to relax our muscles and regain some strength should be great. Hopefully the classes will be interesting and I’ll be able to learn a lot.

8/26/12

This morning, one of our instructors gave us an inspirational quote about seeing the best in every situation. At certain times, positivity can seem tiresome. One thing that I am learning and the quote helped me is that cheerfulness is a choice, and we should always try to “look on the bright side of life.” And just like the leadership skills we are learning, I am going to try to apply this in all areas of my life.

8/27/12

Today was the first day since we started hiking that we had a layover day. That meant that we had a whole day to regain our strength in our bodies without hiking for a day. The best part about the layover day was not the rest that we got, but it was the opportunity to connect on a deeper level with four of my classmates under a waterfall. It was such a serene moment with the bright moon glowing about the flowing falls.

8/28/12

Today was a great day. We woke up early and we did something totally different – yoga. Our instructor set up a yoga class. After, everyone felt so relieved and refreshed.  After yoga, we split up into hiking groups.  It was nice to hike with these people because it was our first time on the trail together. This group was great. We all worked as a team and the 2.5 mile hike flew by.  Our instructor introduced us to a new type of berry, known as red currants. After being in the wilderness for 6 days and eating so much dry food it is literally impossible to explain how amazing these berries tasted. We stayed at a spot for about 45 minutes just stuffing these red currants into our mouths.  I am so glad I am here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Today overall the phrase “living in the moment” was really emphasized. I am excited to share more days out in the wilderness with such great people. I am learning numerous qualities from leadership skills to outdoor ethics and I can honestly say I feel I am growing as a person.

Update from the Trail

It’s hard to believe that our 15 students are just ONE day away from completing the NOLS portion of the Gap Semester Program!  The students have been on the trail for 19 days, learning about environmental ethics, wilderness skills, and leadership, and we are anxiously waiting to hear how things went.  We will have a full NOLS update once the students return from the trail, so check in with us often to read what they have to share!  In the meantime, we have posted new photos to the Gap Semester Program Facebook page and Flickr stream (click the links on the right-hand side of the page to check them out).

How did we get photos from the group if they are out on the trail??  We want you to know that the students participating in the program have zero access to technology at NOLS, except for a few digital cameras.  About half-way through their three-week venture, a NOLS guide met the group on horseback for a re-ration.  This is where the group handed over the first batch of photos to be sent back to Elon and posted for everyone to enjoy – what an experience!

We couldn’t be more excited to follow the students as the semester progresses, and look forward to hearing about the remainder of their time at NOLS.  The students return from the trail on September 12, before beginning the drive to Pine Ridge, South Dakota for their first week of community service with the organization, RE-MEMBER.