In August, I gathered with a group of outdoor educator students at a local restaurant in Whitehorse, Yukon to celebrate our successful NOLS expedition. We had just spent four weeks hiking in the Yukon’s Coast Mountains and paddling the Hyland River. Up here, where the wilderness is vast and breathtaking and you can travel weeks without seeing a single person, we had felt so far from global issues and societal problems… But were we?
Because of its climate patterns and ecological nuances, the North gets hit hard by seemingly far-away issues. And it’s never easy to get world leaders to see the actual, measurable impacts of issues up here.
But on August 15, 2005—on the same day we celebrated our NOLS experience—these leaders came to us. They weren’t in Whitehorse to celebrate with us, but to witness the measurable impacts climate change is having in the Yukon.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, joined by Republicans John McCain, Susan Collins and Lindsay Graham, were on a visit to hear personal accounts of global climate change. The politicians flew over the Coast Mountains to see receding glaciers, and then flew over Kluane National Park, where warm-weather spruce beetles have destroyed a forest. They also spoke with First Nations elders for observations from the people who’ve lived here for thousands of years.
And they talked to our group. As Clinton walked by on her way into the hotel, she stopped and asked us who we were and where we had just come from. We told her we had just finished traveling in the Yukon wilderness on a NOLS course. “NOLS! I know NOLS,” Clinton said. “If you can survive NOLS, you can survive anything!”
We also talked with John McCain, who was amazed and excited for the excursion we had just completed. He echoed Clinton’s comments that people like us, who experience the wilderness and care about it, are the ones who are going to cause change. McCain stressed the importance of binding together to make issues such as global climate change heard.
This experience spoke loud and clear that climate change isn’t a partisan issue, nor even a national issue— Democrats, Republicans, Cana-dians and Americans—it belongs to us all.
John McCain’s words stuck with me the most: He told us that climate change was not going to affect his generation, but that our generation and our children will be the ones to feel the actions of today’s generation and generations before. He urged us to make change—since we have a connection to these places and see their beauty and challenges up close.
So what responsibility do we have to wilderness after we experience it? As NOLS grads, we are ambassadors. After all, you never know who you’re going to run into.