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Behind the Scenes at NOLS
By Susanna Helm
Willy Cunningham, NOLS Rocky Mountain Expedition Planner, maps a route for every course using a schematic of areas in the Wind River and Absaroka Ranges.
© Susanna Helm

On your NOLS course, you probably traveled through various land districts requiring permits, or possibly you had a food allergy that needed to be planned for, or maybe you showed up without much gear and needed to be outfitted with just about everything. Did you ever think about exactly how many people were behind the scenes of your course, making sure that each detail, every little thing that you needed to ensure success, was taken care of and prepared for?

Every NOLS course is equipped with a small army of people — some will never even meet students — but all of them work diligently to ensure each NOLS course is a great experience. They go by many titles — program supervisor, rations manager, curriculum manager, admission officer, transportation manager, outfitting coordinator — but their titles never grasp the extent of all they do.

Every course, from Alaska to the Himalayas, begins at NOLS Admissions, where admission officers (A.O.’s) sift through the applications, medical forms and college credit requests required to enroll courses around the world. On any given day, an A.O. may talk to twenty or more potential students, not to mention responding to the countless e-mails they receive each day. “We take a lot of calls from people with concerns about their course, anything from which boots to bring, to what the weather will be like,” says veteran A.O. Katie Price.

Another element that must be refined before a student enrolls is the NOLS curriculum, which is tried and perfected constantly — from Leave No Trace wilderness ethics, to how to properly pack a backpack, and the variation and efficacy of different leadership styles. There is a wealth of information in the NOLS curriculum, allowing instructors to formulate exactly what they will teach in the wilderness classroom. These materials are in a constant state of evolution, ensuring that the school stays on the cutting edge of outdoor ethics, skills and procedure. “I started in 1981 and a lot has changed since then,” says Curriculum Manager John Gookin. “Now everything that’s taught is focused around the core curriculum, and now all hours can count toward college credit.”

Maybe one of the most important “behind the scenes” factors at NOLS is the actual route of travel a course will take through wilderness areas. In the U.S. alone, NOLS courses need permits for National Forest Land, Bureau of Land Management areas, National Parks, nationally designated wilderness areas, and privately owned land. “Just in the Rocky Mountain region, we are permitted on 35 to 40 different land districts and our private access permissions are upwards of 50,” says Expedition Planner Willy Cunningham.

“Each course will need to carry between one and four permits for the land areas that they will travel in,” Cunningham continues. At international NOLS locations, the permitting and land-use policies can be even more complicated than they are in the U.S. — Australia, for example, has multiple-rights policies for wilderness areas where Aboriginals have equal rights to the land and require NOLS to have permission to travel.

When students finally arrive, they will usually interact with several key individuals, including the outfitting coordinator and rations manager, who help to make each student’s backcountry experience comfortable.

During peak seasons at different NOLS locations, as many as 15 courses will go through outfitting rooms in one week. “We need to make sure every student is properly prepared for their expedition,” says Outfitting Coordinator Chris Wisniewski. “We try to stay up-to-date on current trends in the outdoor markets, but we also stick to our tried-and-true, trusted favorites.” When students aren’t around, the outfitting staff and coordinator stay busy with gear repairs and maintenance.

Britton Keeshan

Most of the inexact science of food rations occurs behind the scenes as well. Ration managers need to plan diets that are nutritionally balanced. They also need to know precisely how much food, per person, per day will be needed on each course. These factors are influenced by course type, weather, terrain and elevation. “Every course is different. I need to figure out who’s doing the re-rations, what food allergies are present and the number of cook groups,” says NOLS Cookery author and NOLS Rocky Mountain Rations Manager Claudia Pearson. “If people are well fed they are happy.”

When NOLS courses go into the wilderness, there is a team back in town, supporting each course. “I will typically be one of the first people who will receive a call or message from the field, from a sick student who needs to see a doctor, to the inability of an entire course to cross a flooded river to get to their re-ration,” says Patagonia Program Supervisor Bruce Smithhammer. “Every situation is unique, and while courses maintain a high-degree of self-sufficiency while in the field, we’re always here to make sure that if they need outside assistance, they get it.”

From the moment a student calls NOLS Admissions, to the time they get on a plane at the end of their NOLS course, an elaborate network of people is spread out from Wyoming to locations around the world, working behind the scenes to make sure every student leaves with great memories.

“You realize in the end that it’s all about putting together the intricate details to make a course successful,” says Pearson, “and just how rewarding it is to see a positive outcome.”

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