by Nate Kratz
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 1999.
"Our early business plan was to make friends not money," laughed Melissa "Bugg" Gray, "and it's pretty much worked out that way." The co-founder of the Colorado-based Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) reported that she has "basically been involved with wilderness medicine my whole adult life." Bugg went to work for SOLO (Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities) in the mid 1980's at age 25 and has been working in Wilderness Medicine ever since.
"I'm one of the few people who were able to actually use their degree in recreational administration," she joked.
Gray and Buck Tilton, known as Bugg and Buck to those who know them, founded WMI in the summer of 1990. The pair were the first full time wilderness medicine instructors at SOLO which is located in Conway, N. H.
Gray illustrated their partnership: "Buck's the visionary, I think, and I'm the operations. At the time we had the idea that we'd come out West and start our own wilderness medicine school. Back then we would work half the year and then do fun stuff: paddle, climb and backpack."
When she and Tilton decided to found their own school, their goal was to "be the most usable medicine institute for the outdoor professional." A friendly business relationship with SOLO enabled them to secure the exclusive rights to teach SOLO wilderness medicine curriculum in the western United States. And, Gray continued, "We've really focused on what our clients need." That focus has enabled the institute to grow tremendously. Over WMI's nine year life span, it has educated thousands. Currently the institute runs 160 courses per year in 15 western states, and educates over 2,600 students each year.
Bugg and Buck have had a long and productive partnership. They met in Alta, Wyo., Bugg explained excitedly. "I met both Buck Tilton and Paul Petzoldt on that day!" Although she and Tilton started out as friends, the two have become much more, eventually sharing both business and life interests, including a young son. "I think Buck and I evolved together at the institute. We've evolved to the point where we balance each other really well. Although we did take a long sea kayak trip once . . . ." She laughed and continued, "After that we decided that it was okay to share a canoe but a sea kayak was just a little bit too close."
In April, NOLS announced that it was buying WMI. Currently based in Pitkin, Colorado, WMI plans to move its headquarters to Lander, Wyo., within the next two or three years, depending on the construction of the new NOLS headquarters. "We won't really be giving up the Colorado area," Bugg explained. The WMI administration will take up residence along with NOLS in its new building.
The decision to sell their institute has been a long process, said Gray. "We spent a lot of time thinking who would buy it? NOLS felt really comfortable. Their mission of 'educating the educator' fit really well with WMI. Plus, I think it would be hard to find a better cultural fit. One third of our staff have worked at NOLS, and I think it's that way on both sides." Even Bugg, in addition to working for Outward Bound in the early 80's has taken a NOLS instructor course (in 1991), and worked the 1992 summer season. She has taught wilderness medicine at NOLS since 1989. "I really enjoy the NOLS community, I always have.
"Part of the reason for wanting to sell was wanting a larger support system. For a long time Buck and I were instructing courses at NOLS, at WMI, etc. It's nice when you have people to discuss things with, instead of calling all the shots."
The couple plan to move with WMI to Lander where Gray is excited to raise their young son. "It's become important to me to raise my son in a community of like-minded people." In fact, the two previously owned a house in Lander for about an hour, as Gray shared. "We were considering moving. We had decided to buy the house about an hour before the owner took it off the market."
Although she claims to have difficulty looking beyond the next three to five years in her life, there are some things Gray is sure about. She will remain as the director of WMI of NOLS for at least the next three years. "I like working, I don't want to stop. I'd like to keep working and taking outdoor trips." Bugg seemed to sum up her philosophy in a few words, "I want to be outdoors with people I like," she confided. "Fun is good."