You'll have to go back to 1970 when I watched a television
special produced by the editors of Life magazine and
sponsored by Aluminum Corporation of America (ALCOA),
titled "Thirty Days to Survival.” It showed
an older, yet burly and strong gentleman leading young
students into the Wind River Mountain Range of Wyoming
and teaching them skills to survive in the wilderness.
I was a college student, and since my draft number
for the Vietnam War was pretty high, I thought I might
try to spend some time in the wilderness the following
summer. I wrote the National Outdoor Leadership School
and received a letter back from the gentleman on TV,
Paul Petzoldt, inviting me to come out and join a summer
I would have to pay the tuition fee of $450 plus
boot rental, fishing license, and extra equipment – all
totaling $495. I kept this from my mom and dad until
the time came for a signature from a responsible parent.
I had to sell my dad on the idea that this was a great
challenge and that I would pay for it with my own summer
earnings. He reluctantly signed but said something
like, "For that kind of money, you can camp out
in our own backyard and scrounge around for food, and
I'll only charge you $200.”
NOLS sent me a list of people who were coming to Lander
for the August 4 Wind River Wilderness expedition.
I made some calls and caught a ride with a father and
son who were going on the same course. They were driving
through Indiana (my home state) on their way to visit
grandparents in Nebraska. We drove to Chicago and picked
up another camper, then stayed two days in Nebraska
visiting their relatives. I guess the cheap cost—$25
for my share of the gas—made up for the long
drive. Five days after leaving Indiana, we arrived
in Lander, checked into the Noble Hotel, met some fellow
campers and took our last shower for the next 32 days.
The next day NOLS Instructors outfitted us with
ice axes, packs, sleeping bags, ropes, fishing gear,
and food. The pack was getting very heavy! We were
all getting anxious and wondered what we had gotten
ourselves into. Finally a large cattle truck with
stake-bed sides pulled up, and we were told to climb
in and get
comfortable. They were driving us to camp overnight
at South Pass on the way to Fremont Lake. I remember
climbing down out of the truck after a long drive
into the sunset and being told to "keep an eye out
for rattlesnakes.” Other than our leaders, I
do not think anyone slept very well that first night.
In fact, one of the interesting things I remember is
how at the very beginning of the expedition, everyone
slept all together in one big group. As the days passed
and we became more confident, the groups started to
break up and cooking partners began to camp hundreds
of yards apart from other groups.
Paul Petzoldt was
with us for the first couple of days, and then he
left us in the hands of our leaders. As
time went on and people practiced their leadership
skills, we would break up into groups of five to
six and travel separately until we rendezvoused at
location. We were taught the basics: map reading,
first aid, fishing, cooking out of a "Billy Can" (a
1-pound coffee can), crossing rapid streams, rappelling,
and using ice axes on the glaciers. We always drank
directly from mountain streams in those days. No one
ever got sick, and the water was cold and refreshing.
One morning we awoke at four to climb a mountain peak,
either Gannett or Fremont Peak. We did not make it
all the way and rappelling down was the scariest thing
I have ever done. Somehow, walking backward off a mountain
ledge did not make this kid from Indiana feel comfortable.
One young woman fell and injured her knee during the
trip and we needed to get medical assistance – no
cell phones in those days. I was selected to go with
three others (in case one of our group was then injured,
one would stay with him and the other two could go
on) to hike back 14 miles to get word to a ranger to
have a helicopter meet us at a certain location. Then
we reversed our trip the same 14 miles to catch up
with the group. We traveled 28 miles in two days. No
wonder I lost 28 pounds in 32 days.
We came to the most challenging part of our expedition
when we were separated into groups of four and our
food was taken away (except for a few salt tablets).
We were told to meet in five days at a trailhead 24
miles away on the other side of the Continental Divide.
I served as group leader of an interesting foursome
including, a Harvard Medical student, a 16-year-old
high school student from Wyoming, a young woman from
California studying belly dancing, and me, a freshman
college student from Purdue University. We foraged
on our own, slept under a canvas tarp, fished for dinner,
and tried to stay warm as the first snowfalls came
and dumped eight inches of snow on us. All summer we
were able to catch as many trout as we needed but now
that we really needed some food, the weather fronts
changed the fishing and we were able to catch only
five fish in four nights. I remember chewing on my
Chapstick and eating toothpaste. We all tried to chew
the Elk Thistle. The temperature dropped and I remember
getting up in the morning and having to break the ice
off of the pants that I had laid outside my sleeping
bag. Finally we arrived at the trailhead on the fifth
morning to a breakfast and another cattle truck ride
back to Lander.
Equipment was returned, letters were picked up at
the NOLS office and postcards were sent to families
friends. We received our diplomas at a dinner banquet —very
little food was consumed, as our stomachs had shrunk
so much—said our "good byes," and then
I carpooled back to Bedford, Indiana.
I had no idea at the time what I had accomplished.
I made new friends, including Ted Forsberg, my cooking
buddy, who I have stayed in contact with for the
last 32 years.
I experienced the beauty of the Wyoming mountains—-
gaining respect for Mother Nature and always deferring
to her strength and power.
I gained self-confidence to the point that
when anything challenging came along later
in life, my mantra became "If
I could do NOLS, I can do this.” Most of all,
I spoke about NOLS to my two daughters as they grew
up. My oldest daughter, Katie, attended the Wind River
Wilderness course in 2000. She said it was the hardest
thing she ever accomplished but, just like me, it instilled
a new level of self-confidence and a great love of
the environment. When we reviewed her routes and photos,
we discovered she retraced many of the same steps I
had taken 29 years before.
NOLS is such a special organization and I
am proud to say that I am a NOLS graduate.