NOLS Grad's Expedition on the Blue Nile Featured in National Geographic
by Tom Reed
Gunfire woke Kate Dernocouer one night this
past autumn and she remembered that she wasn't
home safe and sound in Michigan. Instead,
she was only a few days into a lengthy expedition
in the middle of Ethopia and an attempt by
bandits to steal some of the team's pack
animals was being met by firepower.
As the expedition's sole medical technician,
Kate remembers thinking, "Please God,
don't let anybody get shot." Some of
the team members started running over the
rough, broken ground in the moonless night,
and Kate's concern changed to, "Please
God, don't let anybody break a leg."
After a few moments, everything calmed down
and a quick inventory turned up a missing
donkey and that was all. No one had been
It was another thrilling chapter in a five
week adventure that was sprinkled with many
exciting, but less dramatic, moments. Dernocouer,
46, was a member of a team of explorers rafting
Ethopia's Blue Nile from its origin at the
outlet of Lake Tara all the way to the border
of Sudan some 900 kilometers downstream. The
Blue Nile, which meets the White Nile to form
the Nile, is born in Ethopia's highlands amid
15,000-foot peaks. It flows south and east
before button-hooking to the west and north.
© Nevada Weir,
Dernocouer was something of an unlikely,
late addition to a team that included photographers
and journalists from National Geographic
magazine and National Geographic Explorer
television. A paramedic with little boating
experience, she had been chosen because of
her medical training, but the additional
experience as an alumnus of the National
Outdoor Leadership School didn't hurt her
either. When the team's original doctor cancelled
out of the trip, Dernocouer entered the picture
after being recommended by a friend.
"It was one of those things that just
came together," remembers Dernocouer. "I
checked my schedule thinking, 'There's no
way I'm going to have that much time available.'
But I did and so I asked my husband and my
daughter and they gave me total support."
In a few months, she was off on the expedition
with a team of Americans, Canadians and Ethopians
traveling down the river by foot and boat.
"It was a totally exploratory route
and there were plenty of things to worry
about," remembers Dernocouer, naming
off such hazards as drowning, wild animals
and bandits with firearms.
While the night of gunfire sticks out in her
memory, so too do encounters with crocodiles
and hippos, various officials, and the thrilling
whitewater of the Blue Nile. Indeed, the first
section of the river was so heinous that the
boaters did 60 kilometers of trekking and carrying
gear rather than attempt what could be a disaster
on the water. This called for the use of the
donkeys in the early going.
© Nevada Weir,
The expedition clicked on all levels and
Dernocouer remembers thinking how important
her NOLS training was to her success. "Expedition
behavior was so much a part of it. There
was never a cross word that I can remember
and everybody was world class. I walked away
with seven or eight new friends."
Dernocouer had taken several courses with
NOLS back in the '70s, and found the training
coming back to her in the form of not only
expedition behavior, but leadership and outdoor
The route was extremely remote, with only
occasional encounters with people. During
one leg of the journey while traveling through
an area known as the Black Gorge, they didn't
see any people for a week, says Dernocouer.
As they neared the border with Sudan, there
were more and more encounters with people,
particularly villagers and farmers along
While the expedition had a lot of potential
for emergencies, Dernocouer's medical duties
mostly focused on giving out antibiotics. "The
most frustrating thing for me to deal with
was the chronic illnesses that many of the
villagers had that I couldn't treat," she
The trip was planned by an experienced and
seasoned veteran, 65-year-old Kelly Shannon
and also included a host of National Geographic
journalists, videographers, and photographers,
as well as expert boatmen to man the three
The Blue Nile Expedition is featured in
the December, 2000 issue of National Geographic
magazine. A special about the expedition
will also air December 24 at 8PM EST on CNBC
as part of National Geographic Explorer Television.
For more information on National Geographic
visit their web site, www.nationalgeographic.com.
More about the expedition:
Redemption by Kate Dernocouer. The Leader, Summer 2000.