Wilderness travel

By Natalie Beittel

I spent the summer before my junior year of college working for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s professional White Mountain Trail Crew. My summer on Trail Crew was the most wonderful, the most physically and the most mentally challenging three months of my life. We hiked around 20 miles a day cutting out fallen trees. We carried loaded pack boards up mountains to work sites where we would spend the week quarrying rock to build staircases on the trail.

The constant challenge was exhausting but liberating.

I returned to the University of Massachusetts the following fall, feeling withdrawn and that everyone and everything around me at school was superficial and inadequate after trail crew. I was also frustrated with being pushed onto a career path at the university so that I would be prepared to graduate, while all I really wanted was to be back in the woods. I searched the Internet looking for something I could do for the spring semester instead of going to school, wanting to escape the university’s structure. I did not want a traditional abroad program, where I would be in another country but still in a classroom.

I came across the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and was immediately drawn in by the pictures of students hanging out in high mountain peaks and paddling down wild looking rivers. NOLS offers wilderness leadership and education programs all over the world ranging from a few weeks to yearlong expedition. The goal of NOLS is to have students become technically skilled in outdoor travel, whether mountaineering, backpacking or backcountry skiing and have them lead expeditions in the future.  I approached the UMass abroad program office but they would not accept NOLS for credit because there would be no “classroom time.” Dead set on doing this, I took a risk and withdrew from the university.

In January I took a plane to California and then to the South Island of New Zealand (my chosen NOLS destination) with just one backpack containing everything I would need for the next four months. I carried my boots onto the plane, wearing my bright orange Crocs, which got some funny looks. Upon arrival I met the 10 other students I would be traveling with. In the first few days, we packed up all of the food we would need for the entire semester as well as all of our gear because we would not return to civilization again for four months. We weighed all the food (everything dried to save weight) into 250- or 500-gram bags. Food would be delivered to us as the course went on in designated ration periods. We were split into three expeditions: sea kayaking, white water canoeing and backpacking. I was in a tent for 99 days (except when it was clear skies and I slept out on a beach, or field, or in a mountain valley). The South Island of New Zealand is extremely unpopulated, with only two major roads up traveling the length of the coastlines and nothing in between. I went anywhere from two to three weeks without seeing a person except those I was traveling with. I traveled in hot sunshine down the river wearing zinc oxide on my face to protect against the sun, because even the highest SPF sunscreen was just not good enough at that latitude along with the reflection of the water. The days on the river were hot but the nights were cold, like being in a desert. I paddled and hiked in pouring rain and crossed rivers linked arm-in-arm with my fellow students to avoid being swept away. I squeezed in with 12 people in a four-person tent for class because of hail coming down on us.

We navigated mountain ridges and thick bush using a map and compass. All of our travel was done off trail, so we bushwhacked through trees so thick you would loose sight of the person in front of you if they got more than 10 feet away. We camped by hot springs and while there had an astronomy class one night under the stars. We camped near hidden waterfalls inhabited by glowworms transforming the night into a mystical fairy-like land. I even had the pleasure of waking up in the middle of the night to a storm and my tent floating in water because the nearby lake flooded. Yes, 99 days without a shower wearing the same clothes over and over, but only 30 without a proper wash in a river.

As for the academics, we had classes everyday during and after travel on environmental science, our method of travel, resource management and related subjects.

During both kayaking and canoeing we had a large barrel full of books with us, a collection we did downsize for hiking since we would be carrying the weight on our backs. The instructors would often stop us during a steep uphill climb to point out and explain a plant or animal that had some significance. Backpacking was the most exhausting, with travel taking from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. some days, cooking dinner and then class. In New Zealand I learned more academically, technically and socially than I have anywhere else.

As it turns out, I was able to transfer credit back to UMass from the University of Utah, through which NOLS is based. I received 16 credits for the semester.

Upon return to the United States, I seriously thought about not returning to UMass for my senior year. How could I go sit in a classroom and be lectured after New Zealand?

After some heavy thought I decided it was best to tough out one more year and get a degree. Luckily I had only a few weeks to mope around the house before I headed back up to New Hampshire’s White Mountains to again run wildly around the trails, chopping out fallen trees with my axe and being surrounded by my fellow trail crew workers.

So if it’s a beautiful day and I don’t show up to class, if I’m wearing a torn wool sweater and dirty boots instead of a cute tight shirt and leggings, if I don’t share your concern because you got wet in the rain? Forgive me because I belong in the woods.

Natalie Beittel is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]