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Alumni Explorers
By Kerry Brophy

This issue’s Trailblazer Series proves that once you’re a NOLS grad, the fun is just beginning…

This regular column highlights what some of the nearly 75,000 grads around the world are doing with their NOLS education. From writing books, to climbing mountains, to making change, these folks are taking NOLS lessons in leadership, wilderness ethics and more out of the wilderness and into their communities.


Polk Deters
Whitewater Kayaker

© Jenning Steger

In the rough and tumble world of whitewater boating, a first descent is like the holy grail of paddling—it’s the rush of adrenaline that comes with twisting and turning down a stretch of river no human has ever tackled. First descents are what NOLS Instructor Polk Deters lives for, and he’s had the honor of being one of the first people down some of the world’s toughest rivers.

Take, for example, his recent expedition down the Stikine River in Northern British Columbia. Once called the “Everest of Rivers,” the Stikine is ‘very solid’ class V, which in the paddling world means that it’s about as furious and fast as a river can get. Polk joined an intrepid group of boaters on the Stikine’s Grand Canyon, becoming among the first 20 people to have ever paddled that stretch of whitewater. When the group took off, the river was flowing at an average of 8,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Before they made their way to the end-point three days later, the river’s water level had more than doubled to 20,000 cfs. That’s a lot of whitewater.

“It was a pretty intense experience going to bed and putting a marker on the river and then waking up to see it 2 1/2 feet underwater, and not having any idea what’s downstream,” says Deters.

With a growing total of 25 first descents, Deters has made a name for himself in the whitewater community. He’s been featured in countless kayaking movies and articles and has also excelled in the racing scene, where he was ranked 4th in the world in 1999 in an open class race in New Zealand.

For Deters, the feeling of winding around a corner and not knowing what’s next is unmatched. “Doing new rivers is a big thing for me,” he says. “First and foremost is to do a river that no one else has done, going around a corner and having no idea what’s ahead.”

Surprisingly, one of Deters most memorable recent expeditions wasn’t at all about big water: It was about big conservation. In December he joined the Nature Conservancy to map and scout three rivers in the Yunnan Province in southwest China. While the group tackled some big water, and paddled in areas that had never been explored, Deters was most excited about his role in trying to protect one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world.

“Rivers take you to places that a lot of people don’t get to see,” says Deters. “A lot of these are remote places where the only way in is by river craft. That’s a pretty cool feeling.”


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