Copper River Record 2015
By Hazel Underwood
“This...is life. This is tasting the pain, the sweat, the raw intense beauty of life. Living as a wild human, in the dirt and the stars. I love it. I hate it. It's wonderful. It's hard. But it's beyond amazing."
Words can hardly convey the vast depth of the experiences I had on my semester in the Baja peninsula with the National Outdoor Leadership School, but that paragraph begins to. It was November when I wrote that; I had just climbed out of a kayak in the harbor of Santa Rosalia on the Baja Peninsula alongside my eight expedition mates. Draped in well-worn clothes and colorful sarongs, with salt-caked skin and hair approaching dreadlock status, we Gringo children must have been quite a sight to the local Mexicans in that town. We dragged our fleet of kayaks up onto the cracked concrete and wandered into town in search of Nutella and chances to experiment with our broken Spanish.
How did I get here? Months before as I filled out the application, I looked out at the gray Alaskan spring and found it difficult to imagine myself in an adventure like that. Being accepted to the school felt akin to signing up for bungee jumping. But at the same time, it was much more than that- I knew that this opportunity was more like a doorway, and, waiting for me on the other side, was a fresh and unique perspective on this life. I was right.
However, adequately explaining to everyone exactly what I had gotten myself into proved to be a challenge. Those who knew about the school were excited and ready to share stories and advice. Those who didn’t listened eagerly, but I am not sure I explained it well enough for them to truly understand. The phrase “sailing in Baja” conjured up images of bikinis and margaritas - when in reality there were no margaritas, and instead green tea in Nalgene bottles.
This quote the National Outdoor Leadership School’s website sums up their philosophy on experiential outdoor education: “ We believe positive, ethical leaders change the world. Founded in 1965, NOLS takes students of all ages on remote wilderness expeditions and teaches them technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics. What NOLS teaches cannot be learned in a traditional classroom or on a city street. It takes practice to learn skills and time to develop leadership....We believe living in untouched places like our classrooms will teach students responsibility for all that surrounds us.” Growing up in Alaska has given me eighteen beautiful years in the beautiful outdoors. Thanks to friends, family, and WISE, I have had all sorts of unique experiences in the wilderness. But other members of my expedition were not so lucky. For some of them, the semester was their first time ever sleeping under the stars. By the end of the trip, we had all transformed into tough, tan adventurers who now felt uncomfortable under an actual roof.
Looking back on my experience with the National Outdoor Leadership School, I can only encourage every young person to consider taking part in it. It is a perfect way to begin a college career - yes, I actually earned sixteen college credits as I sat on a beach and counted hermit crabs. The school is generous with financial aid, and runs expeditions all over the world - India, Alaska, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile. Learn to kayak in wild rivers or on the ocean; become a salty sailor fluent in nautical jargon; scale the cliffs of your dreams; and so much more. But honestly, the technical skills taught paled in comparison to the interpersonal and worldly skills that we experienced firsthand. You don’t truly know someone until you have camped, cooked, hiked, swam, and worked with them for eighty uninterrupted days. And thus are born some of the strongest relationships you’ll ever know, as well as the ability to swallow your pride and jump headfirst into new experiences, no matter how strange or daunting they may seem.
At the casual graduation ceremony, held on a torchlit stone patio, my instructors told us that we would spend the rest of our lives thinking about what we had done; that we wouldn’t realize the greatest lessons until months, even years, later. Every day I’m finding this to be more and more accurate. I could go anywhere from here.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.