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A Test of Leadership:
Outdoor Skills Program Helps Build Bodies, Confidence and Courage

by Matt Mullins

Reprinted with permission from:
Wisconsin State Journal
Wednesday, November 22, 2000

After five weeks of canoeing in 109-degree weather, the last thing Madison's Jared Main was going to do was dip his hand in the river to cool off.

On the Drysdale River in Australia, a cooling hand would provide just the grip necessary for a giant, saltwater crocodile to clamp onto an unsuspecting paddler and drag him under the surface.

Not that Main felt particularly fearful of the ancient predators on his 75-day canoeing and hiking expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). His fears leaned more toward the serpentine.

"I saw some really dangerous snakes,'' said Main, at 23 manager of the University Square Den.

Main was one of 15 young adults and three guides on the NOLS semester in Australia last April through late June. The program is one of more than 100 wilderness expeditions offered on five continents by the 35-year-old company.

NOLS boasts some 3,000 students per year in its instructional programs, which include backpacking, skiing, snowboarding, whitewater kayaking, climbing, horsepacking and a variety of other recreational sports.

Expeditions range from 11-day mountaineering trips in Wyoming to 75-day hiking and sea kayaking trips in Patagonia.

Brett Hulsey, the senior Midwest representative for the Sierra Club, recalls how, 20 years ago, his brother went off on a NOLS trip. He returned "tough as nails," according to Hulsey.

"He left smaller than I was and came back bigger,'' said Hulsey. "It's been tough for me ever since."

Local college student Erin Constantine will tell you that little has changed in two decades. When she returned from 75 days in the Rocky Mountains, explained Constantine, she had added 10 pounds of muscle and her mother called her G.I. Jane.

"When I was done I was in the best shape of my life," said Constantine, at 21 a psychology student at UW-Madison. "We were buff.''

Constantine's trip began with two weeks of winter camping in Wyoming. She and 10 cohorts skied and snowshoed from site to site carrying 55-pound backpacks and pulling 50-pound sleds loaded with supplies. Then they spent a month hiking in the canyons of the Dirty Devil River in Utah.

This was followed by two weeks of rock climbing in the Needles of South Dakota and at Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

Last, the group spent a couple of weeks exploring the caves of Big Horn and Horse Thief Caves in Wyoming and Montana.

It was no lark.

"We were challenged far beyond what I ever thought I would be challenged,'' said Constantine.

Many days were tough.

One day on the Dirty Devil, the group hiked 26 miles and completed over 30 river crossings, each person carrying 70-pound packs. Rations were carried in by helicopter to drop points in eight- to 12-day intervals.

Hikers treated water from streams with iodine, which couldn't always cloak unpleasant tastes. Once, said Constantine, they had to draw water from a spout emptying into a cow trough.

"We couldn't eat the oatmeal one day,'' said Constantine. It tasted too much like cow dung.

Constantine enjoyed most the rock climbing. On the final day of the climbing section, the group ascended Devil's Tower.

"It was the toughest day of the entire trip,'' said Constantine. "It took us about six hours to get to the top.''

Constantine relishes the challenge of climbing, now climbing at a gym three times a week.

"It's not that you need physical strength to do it,'' she said. "You just need overall strength, mental strength.''

The trip also gave Constantine leadership skills, true to the NOLS name. Time spent in group discussions selecting routes or navigating the back country with no input from instructors, or giving lectures on geology or star gazing, drew her from her typically quiet manner in groups, she said.

"This semester definitely improved my skill at speaking in group situations,'' she said.

Furthermore, Constantine no longer suffers test anxiety in school and studying has come easier. She has shifted up a grade level in performance.

"My grades are so much better,'' said Constantine.

The primary stages of Main's trip in The Kimberley region of northwest Australia included 42 days of canoeing, 14 days of hiking and 14 days on a coastal island learning to spear fish like the Bardi Aboriginals who live there.

The canoeing was the most important part of the trip for Main. "That was one of the big things I wanted to learn on this trip,'' he said.

Monsoon rains unexpectedly hit the Drysdale River basin before Main's arrival, and the water levels were running 23 feet above normal levels.

"We almost had to stop canoeing and hike out because the water got so crazy.''

Of his classmates, two dropped out of the program at resupply stops. Another broke his foot.

"We splinted him up and took him down the river for four days,'' said Main. A helicopter then lifted the student out to a hospital.

For both Main and Constantine, who each spent about $9,000 on travel expenses, the NOLS trips will stand as watershed experiences.

Both said they would be backpackers for decades to come.

"This was probably,'' said Constantine, "the most amazing thing I've done in my life so far.''

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