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A World of Change: A Father Reflects on the Wide-Reaching Effects of His Son's NOLS Experience
By John Williams, NOLS Parent
Bryan and coursemates in Patagonia.

It is an amazing experience watching two sons grow from gangly teens into strong young men.  Even more amazing, is the role that NOLS expeditions played in each case. In the summer of 2005, my 16-year-old son, Devon, traveled to Alaska for a month of backpacking with a group of teens he had never met. It was a tough and terrific experience about which he continues to surprise us with new stories of bears, beauty, friendships, and adventure. His stories were so positive that when my 19-year-old son, Bryan, found himself wondering if college was for him, his mother and I decided to sponsor a new challenge that would leverage the qualities and skills that we knew he had but Bryan had yet to discover. In late January 2006, Bryan was on his way to a NOLS Semester in Patagonia. This young man returned with 30 pounds of new muscle, a Wilderness First Responder certification, and skills in sea kayaking, ice climbing and mountaineering.

Although these young men explored opposite ends of the earth, both journeys shared a great deal in common. In addition to what they expected to learn, my sons came away with an unexpected appreciation and concern for the fragility of nature that was punctuated by obvious signs of change, exhibited by the glaciers and ice masses they encountered. The frequent calving of glaciers in Alaska and Patagonia brought with it a sense of reality that people back home were still debating: climate change. This reality was an enormous example of how Leave No Trace principles could have implications beyond what a bunch of hikers would normally assume.

Bryan with father, John, at his high school graduation in 2005.

While Bryan was in Patagonia, my work for a large engineering company was evolving to include research on sustainability and its relationship to global climate change. I had been invited to meetings to plan the Major Cities Carbon Summit to be held in New York City in May of this year. The Summit brings the leaders of the world’s most influential cities together with the world’s 50 most powerful CEOs to explore ways to collaborate to reduce mankind’s carbon emissions. Through this effort I had been introduced to a UK-based not-for-profit organization called The Climate Group.

After hearing first-hand stories from Bryan and Devon of disappearing glaciers and the merit of Leave No Trace, I encouraged both sons to share their knowledge with others. In May 2006, I arranged to take Bryan to the UK to meet with Dr. Stephen Howard, CEO of The Climate Group. We spent several hours in meetings with Bryan seated right next to me. Prior to the meeting I encouraged him to share his experience and to chime in at any time with questions or comments about the general topic we were discussing. Sure enough, in the midst of the meeting he began to add details about retreating glaciers (where he had been just 45 days before) and concerns he had with regard to greenhouse gas impacts on places like Santiago and the mountains of southern Chile.

Dr. Howard started talking about the leadership role The Climate Group is playing when Bryan asked him to define “leadership.” Bryan called on lessons learned in NOLS training, making a particular point of knowing when and when not to take action. Dr. Howard and I were extremely impressed and I was reminded that NOLS helped both of my sons mature into fine young men that have the makings and desire to accomplish good and great things in their lives. Environmental stewardship is high on their priority lists as is their knowledge that not only is leaving no trace and reducing our impact on the planet really important, is should be practiced on a global scale if we are to secure our futures.

Prior to our first experience with NOLS, my family was fortunate to travel extensively, but comfortable hotels, hot showers and plenty of toilet paper always buffered our experiences (not to mention the cars, boats and airplanes that shuttled us around). NOLS equipped our sons in a way that, as parents, their mother and I had overlooked. I can say we are so inspired that we are ready to try NOLS expeditions ourselves! In the meantime, The Climate Group is housed just down the hall from my office in New York City, and I am more involved than ever in promoting the values of Leave No Trace in venues that can reach the world.

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