Over the past 8 months I have been sewing, saving, budgeting, studying and generally trying to stay motivated for an Outdoor Educator course I signed up for in Wyoming. My goal was to take my guiding abilities to the next level and invest in this as a possible career. Immediately after this experience, I can already see that this course was just the beginning of a huge learning experience about myself.
Living with 15 other people in the woods for a period of time is not easy and things got pretty intimate. There were many lovely moments spent laughing until our guts hurt, and just as many struggling into camp feeling completely destroyed yet still having to go about our evening classes. I spent quite a few hikes quietly crying with defeat, and then staring at the milky way with wonder later that night. For the sake of growth, we pushed our limits physcially and emotionally in ways we could not have imagined.
To start at the beginning, I applied for the course back in December of 2018 & looked forward to this study in Wilderness First Responder training, a Leave No Trace master educatorship, strengthening my leadership skills, and enjoy some extended time backpacking in the Rockies. I had no idea exactly where we were going & the NOLS admissions staff did a great job of helping me get prepared. My admissions gal even spent some time discussing how to deal with being an introvert in a large group for an extended period of time & how to healthily manage anxiety.
I want to note that these courses are NOT cheap, which is a huge barrier in itself to a lot of folks. NOLS does provide scholarships to individuals with financial need & thanks to the encouragement of a few key people I applied back in January & received one. That was very helpful I am so grateful! Afterwards I have been asked to write a thank you to the patrons who make this fund possible, and am happy to extend my thanks for this experience.
Leading up to the trip I spent a lot of time cutting down expenses to pay off tuition, preparing to depart from my then job, saving for post-course life, and physically training. I can confidently say that while these things were very helpful to do in terms of logistics, nothing could have prepared me for the mental training I was about to endure. The altitude was real. Friction between coursemates was real. Blisters were real.
July 17th finally arrived & since this course was based in Wyoming, I travelled to the Rocky Mountain branch of NOLS in Lander. Here we spent a night in the Noble Hotel & prepared to depart for the field. We spent a day packing up our gear, renting anything that was needed, locking up all of our personal items for safe keeping, and preparing our food rations for the trip. This last task was fascinating to me, as I love to nerd out on dehydrating food for meal prep. The Gulch is a large room filled with bulk food bins of whatever you could need. We scooped & measured out many pounds of lentils, pasta, and brownie mix for 21 days worth of meals. Need 13 pounds of cheese? Got it. If it is shelf stable & versatile for cooking in the backcountry, the Gulch has it ready to go.
That afternoon we departed for our first leg of the course, 5 days of WFR training at Three Peaks Ranch, a property is owned/run by NOLS staff. Here a staff of badass cowgirls & guys coordinate rerations for NOLS adventure courses in the nearby Wind River Range. Basically this means packing up a large amount of food on their horses, riding out a day or two into the backcountry to meet hikers, trading food for outgoing trash & mail, and then heading back to the ranch to do it over again. We camped on the property & studied hard at this ranch with our instructors, only really taking breaks to eat, sleep, pet horses, do a little lasso practice, etc. We practiced many emergency scenarios among the sage & enjoyed the bathroom access while we still had it. By the end of this week our brains were bursting with medical information & we were itching to get into the woods.
How to travel with a small village of people + gear
Finally we were on our way to the Absaroka Mountains, a continuation of the Rockies just east of Yellowstone & north of the Wind River Range. We split up the group gear & established the first round of cook groups. This meant we were split into 4-5 person teams & each one carried a cook set, tent, bear rope, trowel, drom, and a large portion of food. Now we were introduced to the new rules of our backcountry lives in grizzly territory:
- ALWAYS. Carry your bear spray.
- Always travel in groups of 4. Need to go somehere? Well, you better find 3 friends. Yes, that includes pooping.
- Make bear calls. A surprised bear is not one you want to encounter. Depending on how wide open or shrouded in willows the terrain was, we yelled calls at different intervals.
- The Leave No Trace outdoor ethics were always kept in mind. I'll cover this experience in another post
- Kitchen, camp, and bear fence (or rope) are 75 feet away from water sources, trails, and each other for LNT. This was tough to find! Especially after a day of hard travel & feeling brain dead.
- Save your sacred socks for your sleeping bag & never ever take them out. My personal favorite life rule, these must stay dry at all times for maximum coziness & a break from the constant river crossings.
With these kept in mind our new life routine went a little something like this:
Wake up. Pack up sleep stuff & tent. Divvy up group gear amongst my people. Eat breakfast. Pack up food & bear fence. Break into groups of 4-5 for daily travel.
Hike all day. Make bear calls every 1-2 minutes. Practice navigation. Do classes during snack breaks. Eat constantly as there will be no lunch. Check on feet.
Locate the day's X. Scout for camp/kitchen/bear fence locations. Remove all smelly things from pack & get dinner going, meanwhile another cook group member sets up tent. Eat dinner. Immediately brush teeth & pack up food. Take all smelly items to bear fence & turn on electrical current. Meet for class & evening meeting. Go to sleep.
The first week was a special kind of painful, as our feet were covering themselves in blisters & our hips were sore from the packs. We slowly began to acclimate to this life, as the snowy Grand Tetons watching us from the west. At this point I was kicking myself for not training harder! I was usually the slowest hiker & while that didn't bother me, I did have to consistenly ask a group to slow down. This was another reminder for me to let the slowest hikers set the pace back home on future group hikes. My major goal at this point was to just make it to day 9, our first re-ration day.
During all of this time we continued learning & discussing leadership styles, working on interpersonal friction, getting & receiving a lot of feedback and teaching our own classes. We foraged edible plants when we could and slowly started learning about the flora around us. There was very little down time & that was usually spent doing laundry in a nearby river, journaling, or learning how to bake with the extensive supplies we had.
Expedition style & behavior
This style of NOLS travel is so different from what I've learned from the people I've grown to backpack with in Tennessee. The internet would have you believe that all backpacking should be "ultralight", yet NOLS practices things differently. By no means am I a minimalist yet we travelled with a lot of stuff, including full spice kits for each team & a library of reference books. The idea behind this being for larger expeditions, you need more gear and do not worry about high miles or low base weights. It almost felt like we were a travelling village, a caravan of smelly hikers carrying many pounds of flour. At times I found this frustrating, being a petite person & having so much stuff to tetris into a backpack I could have climbed into myself. It was tough on my body so as a group we made sure to take advantage of the travelling library, and communicate when the gear weight was too much for us. I also could have ditched some of my own gear and am aware of just how little personal items I really need.
Extra gear aside, learning what Expedition Behavior meant was a really awesome experience. Basically if you have any energy and see a job that needs to be done or a person who needs some love, go do that thing immediately. This means going & waiting with a poop group just because they need a 4th member, or putting up a tent for a group who showed up exhausted at camp as it's getting dark. One day, probably tomorrow, you will be struggling & in need of that help. I tried my best to show EB when I could & was so grateful for others when they showed that kindness back to me. This was also an aspect of the course we were graded on just like leadership, competency, navigation, and having a positive mental attitude.
Time contracted and expanded wildly depending on what tasks I was doing. While hiking it was slow & uncomfortable. While doing camp chores it flew by at an astonishing rate. Often I would just have started to eat dinner when other people were putting up their smellies into the bear fence and prepping for our evening classes. Soon we settled into our routines and suddenly it was the 9th day, our first reration. We made it! This meant we would have a layover day (no travel) which felt luxurious. We met up with another badass cowgirl horsepacker + her caravan and got to work. This day consisted of unpacking new food and splitting up by team, refilling spices, refilling first ait kits, packing up trash, and gathering mail for home. But don't forget our personal reration! It was an awesome feeling to find a bag I had sent to myself full of chocolate and gummy bears. Thank you, past Ash. After all of it was finished we had one glorious hour to bathe in the river or simply sit and watch the clouds.
We made it halfway!
The group was ecstatic to realize that we made it halfway through our course, and with a fresh ration of food we began to be more strategic about what to cook and when. We began learning how to rotate roles in our cook groups for better use of our time. Instead of 4 people helping make food and we all feel exhausted, we began to rotate who cooked or dealt with the tent, so the others could take a little time to journal or simply sit quietly and enjoy a little alone time. While of course still within 15ft of the group.
My take aways from this portion of the course were beginning to take form. Some were reflections on my personality in a group setting, and some were basic self care:
- Have difficult conversations with people as friction happens. Waiting isn't helping anyone and that tension will build.
- Prioritize self care. If I or a coursemate failed to take care of our basic needs it made EVERYTHING more difficult. Take care of yourself before you try and take care of the people around you or make big decisions on your route. Make extra dinner for lunch the next day. Take an extra break for foot care. Don't talk to anyone for an hour so you can keep your mental shit together. Whatever it was, we had to communicate & then do the things.
- Heat exhaustion is sneaky! I got it on day 2 of hiking and it was not fun. Drink 3-4 liters of water daily & eat all of the salty things. Also no one is going to hold it against you for moving at a snail's pace instead of you passing out.
- Speak up more & be louder when you do! Funny enough, this was the biggest feedback I received. I have valuable input, but if I do not offer it confidently no one is going to know or care.
The next day we began hiking again, yet now the miles would become longer, the altitude much higher, and the course instructors would be involved much less. As we were in charge of our own navigation we felt a sense of freedom, and even stronger sense of responsibility if or when things went wrong. I'll cover these experiences in my next post, as group dynamics played a major role in how well we survived out in the Absarokas. This is one of my major takeaways, and I am aware that it is integral for people to work together when leading hikes, facilitating an open learning environment, and especially back home in daily life with our coworkers. For now, thanks for reading and I'll be posting even more photos on Instagram.