Ryan Hughes, a parks management major at the University of Maine, believes he found the wildest place on Earth during his 1999 summer semester in Alaska.
"People talk about wild areas all the time," he says, "but Alaska has a wildness and beauty unlike anywhere else. It was humbling, in fact, to be in the midst of such gigantic mountains. It puts your whole life in perspective."
Ryan grew up in southern Maine, where he worked as a summer park ranger and pursued various outdoor activities. Alaska, however, was always looming in the back of his mind as a destination he had to reach someday.
Indeed, Ryan reached some high places during his semester in Alaska, including Castner Glacier, his favorite destination on the entire course. "We did a route that other NOLS students never finished because of inclement weather. When our group finally made it, we just went wild. I'll never forget that feeling of being on a mountain where hardly anyone else has ever been."
While the semester was a very personal experience, Ryan will always remember his group and the amazing tasks they could accomplish working together. "Our group got along great. We all just really clicked. At first, it felt like I was heading off on an expedition with twelve strangers. By the end of the trip, I was on a journey with friends.
Some of the trip's most challenging moments--being stuck in a tent with the--same people for three days were also great experiences. "Being in a group taught me a lot," says Ryan. "I'd never seen myself as a leader. I learned that it doesn't mean being the center of attention; what it really means is that people respect you and listen to your opinion."
Ryan hopes to take a NOLS instructor's course in the coming years and possibly pursue a career in wilderness medicine. In the meantime, he loves to tell others about his semester in Alaska. "Go for it," he tells friends. "It's going to be one of the best times of your life. At the end we could hardly believe what we'd accomplished."