by Eliza Eddy
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 1997.
After passing the NOLS sign in front of an old cabin at the mouth of Sinks Canyon day after day, summer after summer, Al Blyth's father finally stopped. He walked in, talked to Paul Petzoldt and signed his son up for a NOLS course. Al and his family traveled out to Wyoming each summer from Ohio to explore the Oregon Buttes area and search for petrified wood and jade. The family always camped in Sinks Canyon outside Lander, and every time they left and returned to the canyon, they passed NOLS. The wooden sign that sat in front always caught young Al's eye.
When Al signed up for his course he didn't know that he would be faced with the ever present lens of a video camera for the duration of his course. Al was one of the students in the television show, 30 Days to Survival produced by the editors of LIFE and aired on PBS. The documentary was filmed in 1969. A year after its release, the school experienced nearly unmanageable growth.
The cameramen carried their share of the weight and more-an extra 30 pounds of camera equipment. The cameras were always on. There was never any set up, never any second takes. The film crew captured and documented the intense physical challenges of a NOLS course, including the long days and the humbling weather. The tapes also recorded the challenges to the dynamic of the group. Al says while the cameramen were very nice and fun, and mostly their presence went unnoticed, there were times after a long day where the cameramen were told where to go.
The next summer Al came back as an unpaid assistant and became a full time instructor for NOLS the following year at the age of 17. He worked mostly in Wyoming. Al enjoyed working the wilderness courses and the biology component of them in particular. The Winds got to be like home, he recalls. "I still feel that way. I feel real comfort in them and yet they were always unpredictable. There will always be a place in my heart for them."
While group sizes have changed and Leave No Trace practices have been improved, Al and I found there are similarities between the school now and the school then. The climbing commands are the same, and the students, although dressed differently-in the early days, they were dressed in wool and carried three bags horizontally tied to an external frame pack with parachute cord-have the same weathered and worn faces as students do now. They still beam with smiles and glassy irritated eyes from the exposure to the elements.
Working with Paul was quite an experience in itself. "Paul was a huge, hunkering, white-haired man with hands as big as the outdoors. When he put his arm around you, you felt like you were in the arms of a bear. He was frightening to work with. He was intimidating and yet would want you to talk back to him. Sometimes he would set you up, like with tying a bad knot that he would want you to call him on."
Frightening perhaps, but Paul was genuinely nice, with a firm conviction in the importance of strong leadership qualities. He wanted you to stand behind your decisions.
Al recalls one fond memory of standing in a circle around Paul and a transistor radio in the Winds, listening as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. It was an awesome experience to feel almost as remote in the Winds as Neil perhaps felt as he stepped out on to the moon.
Al worked for the school until 1975. His last course he worked was out of the Pacific Northwest in the Cascades, when he injured his knee. He fell in love, got married, and now owns a remodeling business in Columbus, Ohio. He has two girls, 9 and 13, with whom he shares stories of NOLS. He doesn't tell them all because "you've got to hold some back."
I asked Al if he thinks about coming back to the school. "If I did I'd come back in a boat," he responded. "I carried too much weight, too far, too often when I worked for the school in my younger years." But he thinks of NOLS fondly, remains in touch with some of the instructors he worked with in the 70's, and every so often crosses paths with others from the earlier days. "I have moved on to other things . . . but NOLS has a lot to do with who I am now. "I climbed, I caved, I got to muck around in the snow. I feel very lucky. I got to sit up on the Continental Divide in the middle of a blizzard. I think everyone should do that, a couple of times."