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The Way It Was…
Mark Owen
Wind River Wilderness 8/4/71


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 expedition.

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, maps 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 a predetermined 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 and 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.

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