By Kate Dernocouer
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2000, Vol. 16, No. 3, NOLS 35th Anniversary Insert
My history with NOLS goes so far back that I don't recall the names of most of my fellow students or instructors. I don't even remember how I heard about the school. But I had so much fun on the two-week Wind River winter course in December, 1973 that I came back for more. The following summer, after a three-week horsepacking course in the Winds, I headed immediately for Alaska for a sea kayaking course on Prince William Sound. I was a college kid with time on my hands and a passion for the outdoors feeding my frenzy.
But only a couple of days into the course in Prince William Sound, I knew something was terribly wrong. The world went topsy-turvy, and although I couldn't really explain it, I knew I had to get out of there. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of urgency to get back to Anchorage. The course leader was clearly disgusted, and it took some convincing, but within a few hours, I was paddling back to safety. We'd had a young woman opt off the winter course a few months earlier, also for vague reasons, and I knew what scornful things we'd all said about her. My course leader clearly thought I was just being a wimp and was afraid to be there. Part of me knew that he was wrong, but all these years, I have nonetheless carried a whisper in my soul that wondered if he was right. At the time, I didn't feel my departure was optional. I also knew that if we waited a day to see if my weird symptoms cleared up, the only other course going out would leave, making evacuation a much larger task, and stripping our 30-day course of one of its leaders.
At the Emergency Department in Anchorage, I felt somewhat exonerated by the tentative diagnosis of possible encephalitis. But it wasn't severe, and nothing really came of it except I slept a whole lot for about a month. Over the years, I thought I had let go of the shame. I moved on to other interests, and mostly forgot the whole regrettable incident, except when the NOLS Leader would arrive. All these years, I've felt a nagging sense of being unworthy to mention my NOLS connection to other people. There was something incomplete; I felt somehow inadequate. Reports from others of wonderful NOLS experiences always made me feel a tad jealous, and wishful that I could go back and fix my painful memories.
In June last year, I had a chance to join an expedition to the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Bruce Paton MD and member of the Wilderness Medical Society, called me, out of the blue, I was (of course!) instantly intrigued. My calendar was miraculously and uncharacteristically free. I consulted my family, my finances, and my gumption--and said yes, I'd be the trip medic. In fact, life has generally been so good to me that the whole haunting piece about the course in Prince William Sound never came to mind during those busy weeks of preparation. Only later did I realize it was there, swirling quietly in the eddies of my mind, waiting.
Our trip would involve trekking the first 60 kilometers of the river after it left Tississat Falls, 30 kilometers south of Lake Tana in central Ethiopia. We'd forge a path across the highlands above the nearby river, which would be swollen by end-of-rainy-season volume. After six days, we'd put our three 16-foot inflatable rafts into the river and stream relentlessly for 24 more days on the hot-chocolate brown Blue Nile waters to the Sudan border. If we were successful, we'd be the first expedition to make it from beginning to end in one consecutive trip. Of the handful of others who had tried, there had often been losses of life, and other distinct hardships. Most of the Ethiopians living along our route would be seeing white people for the first time. There were only a couple of roads out along the 910 kilometers of river, and precious little back-up if anything went wrong. Our journey was sponsored, in part, by the National Geographic Society, with a writer, photographer, and videographer as expedition members. In addition, there were three world-class, hand-picked oarsmen, two Ethiopian translators, a team of donkey drivers and kitchen help during the trek, an in-town logistician and resupply maestro, and occasional armed guards. And me. The medic. My job was to bring everyone out, after 30 days in the remote terrain of backcountry Ethiopia, upright and with an airway.
What I wanted for myself from this trip was to carry my head high at the end, to do my job well.
Some of the lessons from NOLS thus came home. Paul Petzoldt was still around on a day-to-day basis when I went to NOLS. Thelma sewed my wool pants, and the NOLS patch on my wool shirt, there in the original Lumberyard (the one that burned down while we were on our winter course, with my stuff stored in the attic...). Petzoldt's emphasis on expedition behavior was a new concept then. He wrote about it in his book, and my NOLS instructors were clear about the relevance and importance of it. I bought into it wholeheartedly. We'd need a lot of appropriate expedition behavior in the wilds of Ethiopia, with our 30 days of high-risk living. I wondered again whether I'd be able to play my part, and do it in a way where my head could stay high, where I could feel proud, at last, of myself in such circumstances.
Having a successful trip in Ethiopia included the usual tasks of personal care, watching out for each other, doing my part to manage health care of the group and the native people who asked for help, and pitching in to help others succeed with their goals. On the river, this meant listening to the river guides and practicing water safety. In camp, for me, it meant pitching way more than my fair share of tents, to enable the journalists to visit villages in the best light of the day. It meant noticing that the fire needed tending, or not walking across a photogenic stretch of beach until after the photographer was done. At take-out, it meant looking for ways to help, and on the drive home, it meant tolerating the bumpier seat so the person with the sore back could have a smoother ride. Anyone who has done a course with NOLS knows the gig. It's all wrapped up in that big, huge concept called "EB," expedition behavior.
In the end, we brought the story home. No one was seriously injured, and all of the illnesses were manageable. The story will appear in the November issue of National Geographic. The others, all professional adventurers, have moved along to the next thing. I came home and resumed my rather ordinary life of dealing with the mortgage, the household, the family. Yet I'm changed. Never in the five weeks in Ethiopia did a moment happen when I felt unable to rise to the occasion. The expedition team had its moments, to be sure. There were occasionally interesting interpersonal dynamics among this group of powerfully individual, independent souls. There were high-stress moments, like the night our donkey drivers were shooting at a bandit, and the time in the pouring rain when the militia was questioning our paperwork. But the bottom line for me was to manage each moment with grace and competence. When problems arose, I hoped to work things through, and depart as friends. For me, that happened. After 25 years, my doubts about myself and whether I could do something like this were erased. What a gorgeous, humbling feeling!
The trip home, as always when coming off a long wilderness trip, was like emerging from a cocoon. It was time, again, to use money, hold a telephone, listen to elevator music, pick up the palm organizer and zoom into the world as we more typically tolerate it. But one afternoon, when the jet lag had ended and I'd stopped wondering what time it was in Ethiopia, I came across a "NOLS Alumni" bumper sticker. For more than 25 years, I'd cringed a little inside when NOLS came to mind, not for the school and what it has grown into, but for my sour memories from Prince William Sound. But the day I found the bumper sticker, I realized my internal voice had changed its tune. Unbeknownst to me, I had found redemption in Ethiopia. I nearly cried with the sense of relief. Then I laughed out loud with the sense of pride, as I pulled off the backing, and put that bumper sticker on my car. Only then did I realize the ghosts were gone. I am proud of myself, and of my association with NOLS, in a way that only the lessons of 25 years, in combination with a trip last fall, could give. Thank you.
More about the Blue Nile expedition