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Never Say Never:
NOLS Adult Education
By J.L. Bibb
NOLS courses aren’t just for kids: These students on a 30 and over Yukon Backpacking course traveled in Kluane National Park, a world heritage site, where they hiked the remote Donjek Valley, and saw Dall sheep, mountain goats, caribou, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, wolverine, and over 150 species of birds.
© Chris Hatton

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 indelible images.

“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.
© Chris Hatton

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 exciting prospect.”

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 mountain.

“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 to do.

“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 trip.”

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 skills.

“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 environment.”

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

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