When Katharine Merseth arrived in
the Yukon Territory for a NOLS Yukon Backpacking course,
she was immediately impressed with the terrain: white,
snow-capped mountains, cold, fast rivers, and wildflowers
everywhere. Sitting in her office at Harvard University
two years later, Merseth is still haunted by those
“It was fabulous,” says
Merseth, director of the teacher education program
in the graduate school of education at Harvard. “It
was beautiful. It was a long way to go from Boston,
but it was well worth the trip.”
|NOLS 30 and over students
in the Yukon take in the scenery.
Merseth, 57, was the oldest person on
her two-week course for students age 30 and over.
She is among a significant number of older students
taking NOLS courses every year. According to Bruce
Palmer, admission and marketing director for NOLS,
individuals aged 25 and up comprise more than 20 percent
of all NOLS students. That means at least 600 students
over the age of 25 take outdoor educator, instructor
or student courses yearly.
“The majority of people on those
courses are between 25 and 45 years of age,”
Palmer says. “For many of the folks that we
see on the adult education courses, they’ve
always wanted to get outdoors, and being out there
and trying something that is completely new is an
Palmer explains that most students
on adult education courses have very diverse backgrounds.
“They really come from all walks
of life. There are a good number of folks in education
and business. We also get folks in transition. And
we see quite a few NOLS parents on these courses.
Their sons or daughters have done a course, and they
are intrigued and want to have a similar kind of experience.
Like most NOLS students, they are finding out about
it by word of mouth.”
Julian Gordon, 67, is one of those
people. He took the Yukon Backpacking course for students
30 and over this past summer, seeking a new challenge
after hearing about his son’s NOLS courses.
“I have always excelled at what I do and then
looked for something different to do, so that I don’t
end up resting on some fading laurels,” says
Gordon, who has done scientific research for most
of his life. Gordon was the oldest person on his course,
but he’s also the veteran of 32 marathons.
Bob Spengler, 62, works in the NOLS
development office and chose a 30-and-over Wind River
course last August that featured hiking, rock climbing,
rappelling and fly fishing. The two-week adventure
also included hiking to the summit of a 12,500-foot
“When I look at the course itself,
what I received—and what many of my compatriots
received as well—was the same thing that a 17-year-old
would. We learned a new appreciation for the wilderness
and new skills, including Leave No Trace principles.
And we all faced personal challenges.”
For Spengler, one of those challenges
was rappelling. He says that he had rappelled from
helicopters while serving with the 1st Air Cavalry
in Vietnam but didn’t enjoy rappelling then.
The NOLS course offered him a different experience.
“When we went up it was a beautiful
day,” he remembers. “We had a good course
on the safety features. The instructors took the fear
element out of the process. There was good instruction.
I was the second in line at the beginning and ended
up going back down three more times.”
Spengler says that he and his fellow
students gained fresh perspectives and leadership
ideas from their course.
“We’re never too old to
learn some new techniques and some new skills. Expedition
behavior was something we all learned. When people
end up focusing internally and only on themselves,
they are not able to accomplish the tasks that they
can when everyone is focused on what the group needs
“Even folks at our age came out
(of the course) with very strong feelings that they
had accomplished goals—whether that was to learn
to fish or climb a mountain. They came out with a
renewed sense of accomplishment, feeling that they
could lead their families on an extended backcountry
Gordon agrees. “I did not start
out with any ambition of becoming a great outdoor
leader,” he says, “but just wanted the
experience so that I would gain the confidence to
organize my own backpacking trips with a few friends.
What pleased me most of all, especially as I was the
oldest, was that age as such was never even a subject
of discussion. We were all equals in this group together,
in spite of the wide spread of ages.”
Palmer believes that adult education
courses offer the perfect outdoor environments for
gaining new ideas and abilities, while honing team
“You’re removed from the
status quo, essentially,” he says. “When
you start out your NOLS course, you’re in a
completely new environment. You’re going to
get some more tools when you work in that kind of
For Katharine Merseth and others, adult
education courses provide opportunities for challenge
and growth. Merseth, who often reflects on her Yukon
trip (and even keeps several NOLS pictures as screen
savers on her computer), believes that the NOLS course
afforded her a special experience.
“I guess for me personally, it
was a question of a little bit of a personal challenge:
Am I going to be able to do this?” she explains.
“I had been on three Outward Bound trips before
this, and to be honest, I found them a little tame
and a little ‘touchy feely.’ I wanted
the NOLS skills, and when I ended the course, I did
feel that in many ways I achieved the objectives.
“I had heard about NOLS, and
I knew it was a good organization. I knew if I was
over my head, they would take care of me. One of my
mottoes in my life is: ‘I am surrounded by insurmountable
opportunities.’ That’s how you can look
at a NOLS course, because you’re surrounded
by all these opportunities, and there are good leaders
who make those opportunities surmountable.”
Julian Bibb, a graduate of a 1995
Gila Wilderness course, is a freelance writer, editor
and web designer in Franklin, Tenn. He can be reached
daily at firstname.lastname@example.org.