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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…


Annie Aggens


While training for an expedition to the North Pole, former NOLS instructor and explorer Annie Aggens had each of her team members jump through a hole cut into a frozen lake, climb out, and change into dry clothing before hypothermia set in. The drill, which mimicked the real risk of falling into an open lead (a hole in the ice) while on the expedition, was designed to see if they were ready for life in the arctic extremes.

In the end, only two of the people vying for a spot on the expedition were prepared for the real thing. They joined Aggens, another leader and a team of Italians in April, 2000 for a 14-day trek to the North Pole. The group flew from Siberia to Camp Borneo Research Station at 89 degrees North. From there, they skied the final 60 nautical miles to the pole. Considering the drift of the ice pack, detours around open leads (which she likened to river crossings in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains), and roundabouts around pressure ridges, the route was closer to 100 nautical miles.

Aggens, who describes the route as “incredible, beautiful, ever-changing, windy and cold,” was in charge of keeping the group going in temperatures that hovered around minus 40 degrees F. Frostbite, she says, was an ever-present danger. “The environment provided many new challenges with little room for error,” says Aggens. “One has to adapt quickly.”

Navigation was another constant challenge. Pack ice drift often moved the expedition 4-5 miles overnight, so Aggens experimented with a sextant and celestial navigation along with the teams’ Global Positioning System (GPS). It was an ordeal, says Aggens, that gave her a feeling for what some of the first explorers to the North Pole encountered. Aggens and her team reached the pole, unfrozen and unfettered, in 14 days.

For Aggens, who credits NOLS with giving her the confidence to lead in such extreme conditions, pushing herself to the edge of extreme limits is a way of life. Most of her expeditions are focused on her love for traveling unfrozen waterways in a canoe. Some of her most noteworthy expeditions include a 40-day, 550-mile trip down Canada’s Kazan River to the geographic center of Canada, a 45-day, 550-mile expedition on the Elk River in Canada, and a journey of 400 miles down the Thelon River, also in Canada. Most recently, Aggens followed a whim and decided to paddle the Mississippi River, from Chicago to New Orleans. The 1,500-mile trip took two months, and although not as remote as the North Pole, Aggens and her partner braved icy winter storms and the obstacles of modern-day rivers, including dams, barges, locks and ocean-going vessels. Rather than arctic villages, the duo passed places like St. Louis, where they found front country travel to have some benefits. “People were very friendly,” says Aggens. “We were invited for some of the best barbecue ever in Lousiana!”

When asked why she explores, Aggens says she believes people learn more about themselves through adventurous expeditions. She is currently co-authoring the book “Outdoor and Wilderness Skills,” an a-to-z encyclopedia to living in the wilderness.

Aggens says that, while at NOLS, she discovered that being a leader on an expedition is probably the most rewarding experience of all. “Teaching and leading help me remember the sense of discovery. You can have it over and over again. Teaching extends adventure.”


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