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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…


Kate Dernocoeur
Expedition Medic

Kate Dernocoeur, a graduate of a NOLS Winter Ski course in 1973 and a Wilderness Horsepacking course in 1974, couldn’t pass up the offer—it was the expedition of a lifetime. In 1999, the National Geographic Society asked her to join the first expedition down the Blue Nile from its headwaters in Ethiopia to the Sudanese border. They would trek 60 kilometers of the river after it left Tississat Falls, 30 kilometers south of Lake Tana in central Ethiopia; forge a path across the highlands above the river (which would be swollen by rainy season volume); and finally drop their three 16-foot inflatable rafts into the water for a 24-day journey down the Blue Nile.

Along for the ride were three world-class, hand-picked oarsmen, two Ethiopian translators, a team of donkey drivers, armed guards, and National Geographic writers and photographers, including award-winning photographer Nevada Wier and author Virginia Morell.

Dernocoeur, a former paramedic, mountain rescuer, expeditioner and traveler in developing nations, was selected as the team’s medic, but she says it’s a final trait—gumption—that probably got her onto the expedition.

“I found that my expedition mates were true explorers—full time,” says Dernocoeur of her co-travelers. “I found myself saying, ‘I’m just a mom with a mortgage!’” But Dernocoeur’s qualifications are much more than that—she’s a field-experienced EMT-P and the author of “Streetsense, Communication Safety and Control” (3rd ed). Her countless columns and articles on emergency medicine go beyond the literature often put out by doctors and nurses who are not on the street to give a clear picture of what it takes to manage an emergency.

Dernocoeur’s role on the expedition, she says, “was to bring everyone out, after 30 days in the remote terrain of backcountry Ethiopia, upright and with an airway.” This last task would be crucial: Of the others who had tried the journey, many had lost their lives, and there were countless obstacles along the way. Only two roads could be accessed along the entire stretch of river, and, says Dernocoeur, there was “precious little back-up if anything went wrong.” In addition, most of the Ethiopians they’d meet along the way would be seeing Westerners for the first time. Atele Asseras, the head of a village near where the expedition started, told the team before they embarked that he had once been poised to shoot a traveler along the river, lowering his gun only when one of them waved. After hearing the story, members of the expedition waved at everyone they passed.

Aside from a few high-stress moments, like a late-night shoot-out between armed guards and donkey bandits, and a questionable encounter with militia who didn’t like the team’s paperwork, the expedition ended without incident, becoming the first to complete the journey.

Besides her medical work, Dernocoeur says there were many times she harked back to the expedition skills she learned at NOLS. For her, it was mostly remembering the lessons she’d learned from Paul Petzoldt about expedition behavior. “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,” she says. “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, Dernocoeur was just glad to have made the journey. “When something comes at you, you’ve got to be willing to take it on, to say ‘I can do this,’ whether it’s participating in a challenging rescue, traveling in a developing country like Ethiopia, or sleeping in a NOLS tent for the first time.”


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