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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 shot.

Raft on Quiet Water
 © Nevada Weir, photographer.
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.

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.

Raft in Rapids
 © Nevada Weir, photographer.
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.

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 skills.

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 the river.

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 says.

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 oar rigs.

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,

More about the expedition:
by Kate Dernocouer. The Leader, Summer 2000.
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