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Spring 2005 Issue
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Looking Back
Way back when: NOLS Executive Director John Gans (middle) dons a colorful tie to teach a weather class to NOLS students in the early 1980s.


I am writing this letter on March 23, 2005—a significant day for NOLS. Forty years ago today, Paul Petzoldt started our wilderness school. The life of NOLS has been an adventure, made up of adventures. Our issues of the Leader this year will focus part of their content on this milestone, with a look at our past and what it means for us today.

Looking back over the past 40 years, I am struck by how much has not changed at NOLS. Our core curriculum is still centered on teaching wilderness skills, leadership and conservation. Our classrooms still inspire awe in our students and provide experiential lessons with real consequences that develop skilled wilderness visitors and great leaders. Our mission and values are nearly identical to those Paul Petzoldt described in 1965. And while we live in a changing world, our continued focus on our core purpose and curriculum has likely been our key to success.

While the school’s core mission has not varied, the world in which we operate has changed significantly. A quick look at photos of our students in the ’60s drives home that hairstyles and fashion have changed a great deal in the past four decades. For that matter, if we issued gear today that we issued then, our students would think we were kidding. But what I find most interesting are the changes in our society that have only made a NOLS education more relevant to our students and the world.

The increasing threats to our wild lands create a more compelling need for leaders with a wilderness ethic. A more complex world also requires leaders with good expedition behavior, judgment, communication skills, self-awareness, and the ability to tolerate adversity. As you know, a NOLS education provides an excellent classroom to develop all of these leadership pillars.

Our increasingly urban world has raised the value of wilderness recreation skills, making them an important antidote to our technology-filled and physically-deprived lives. NOLS also provides great opportunities for young people to grow and develop, away from a world that seems to focus too much on schedules and security. In many ways, our changing world has reinforced a need for what Paul Petzoldt set out to accomplish when he founded NOLS.

Of course, there have been areas where NOLS has changed along with the changing world. While our 1965 home in Lander, Wyoming and the Wind River Range is still our home today, we live in a far more global world 40 years later. In response, NOLS has followed that trend and now offers courses on every continent but Antarctica. The increased level of professionalism in outdoor education is what prompted NOLS to acquire the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) and to more recently start NOLS Professional Training. It is noteworthy that WMI is also celebrating an anniversary—their 15th year offering wilderness medicine certification programs.

In this issue of the Leader, our Trailblazer section features a few NOLS staff who were instrumental outdoor pioneers during our history. We had infinite candidates for this list, from Paul Petzoldt and Tap Tapley who don’t require mention, to Lucy Smith and Kevin Mahoney. Our list is a miniscule subset of the many staff and graduates who have been leaders in outdoor pursuits and wilderness education. As another example, just this last weekend, NOLS graduate Peter Athans received the Tenzing Norgay Award at the annual Explorers Club dinner in New York. Whether they are reaching the summit of Everest, crossing the oceans, exploring outer space, or on The Long Walk, our graduates are the 21st Century’s leading explorers. They are inspiring the minds of the world with the spirit and values of exploration and wilderness.

In the 1960s when Paul talked about creating outdoor leaders, it is unclear if he envisioned that our graduates’ contributions would extend far beyond the wilderness. Today our graduates are leaders in business, education, government, land management, the arts and many other endeavors. They are active, quality, experienced and ethical leaders with great expedition behavior and a wilderness ethic. Our alumni are leaders of whom I am proud, and leaders of whom our world can be proud. What an outcome for a small non-profit school founded 40 years ago in the foothills of the Wind River Range.

John Gans, NOLS Executive Director

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