My Yukon Adventure with NOLS
Something about the Yukon intrigued me. I was sat looking at my laptop at all the different programs NOLS had to offer when I scrolled past one advertising a backpacking trip through the Yukon. The thumbnail picture was of a person walking down a grassy hillside, carrying a brightly colored backpack, surrounded by enormous mountains. After reading a brief description of the course I signed up and began preparing for a once in a life time trip.
After signing up, I had access to my dashboard which had a more detailed description of what to expect on the course, a packing list, and a checklist of the paperwork I needed to fill out. Unlike other courses NOLS has to offer, trips in the Yukon won't tell you in advance where exactly you'll be going. They actually decide the course only days in advance. This is because of the permits they have for the Yukon they basically have access to wherever they want to go so there's no need to plan way in advance.(Don't quote me on this, but this is how I remember it being explained.) This is somewhat annoying if you are a student and want to get more of an idea on where you're going and what to expect. On the up side you are able to have some spontaneity and choose as a group where you would like to go. You only need to be at the resupply places at certain times, then the rest is up to you.
One area that I could have prepared for more was the physical aspect of it. On my dashboard there was a section on exercise recommended to do before the course. Based off their recommendation I honestly thought I wouldn't be too badly off. I went to the gym four to five times a week for usually an hour or more. I figured I would be fine, but boy was I wrong. The best way to prepare for walking up a mountain with a 40 pound backpack on is to walk up a mountain with a 40 pound backpack on. Or if you're from a place lacking in mountains like I am, than maybe a large hill. Either way if you think you're in shape, it couldn't hurt to get in even better shape for your course. There's no such thing as being too fit when it comes to something like this. And the more prepared you are, the more fun you'll have.
That being said, don't let the fact that you can't run a six minute mile or the fact that you've never gone backpacking before deter you from signing up. There were people with all different physical abilities in my group. And if people have to slow down for you, then they slow down. There's something not only physically draining about backpacking, but it's mentally challenging as well and always being in the back of the group can be a bit of a downer. If you're the slowest in your group, place yourself at the front where you can set the pace.
Now when it comes to packing there are two rules you should keep in mind, less is more and quality over quantity. As disgusting as it may sound, I pretty much wore the same outfit everyday for a month straight. Don't worry I changed my underwear calm down, but other than that it was the same shirt, pants, sports bra, and socks. The extra T-shirt and shorts I brought I maybe wore once at camp and then never again. I would highly recommend investing in high quality base layer clothes to wear while hiking. If you bring clothes that are fast drying then you can easily clean them and you don't have to worry about bringing a bunch of extra clothes. Also, don't feel guilty about spending a few extra bucks on fast drying, thick, wool socks. No one that I know of has ever complained of having too nice of socks. Those socks will be your best friend and the faster they dry, the happier you'll be after a river crossing! Also, definitely bring a pair of socks just to wear while sleeping. The softer and warmer the socks are, the better you'll feel when you crawl into the tent after a long day of hiking. Your "sacred socks", as we called them, will really be just that to you, sacred.
Another thing to consider when planning for your trip is how are you going to remember it? Though my camera was on the pricey side the pictures I took are priceless. You definitely don't have to bring an expensive camera though. The cameras in my group ranged from disposable to a DSLR and everything in between. The biggest things to remember when bringing a camera is that you're going to have to carry whatever you bring and keep it dry. As well as a camera, I would suggest bringing a journal with a waterproof bag to put it in. Being able to get away from technology, work, school, and everything in your daily life is a privilege few get to experience. Being able to look back and remember how you felt during this trip and what you learned is something you'll enjoy for the rest of your life.
The first hike was a shock to the system to say the least. Our instructors called it "heartbreak hill" and it was pretty much as bad as it sounds. After the first week however, your body will start to adapt to the weight of the backpack and how much hiking you're doing on a daily basis. So be prepared for the first couple days to be a challenge, but also know that it gets easier and if you're struggling you'll be having fun in no time.
Hiking, eating, and tenting with the same group of people you just met for a month has it's challenges, but is also what makes this program so fun. As you can imagine being around the same people and never really being alone can be problematic. You won't just learn everybody's names and where they're from, but also the things they do that drive you crazy and frustrate you beyond belief. And they'll be the most ridiculous smallest things too, but you won't be able to help how annoyed you feel. Add in bad weather and hanger and you have yourself a tense situation. When I was hangry it would absolutely enrage me when the person cooking dropped food on the ground. I think one time someone was stirring the pasta and two noodles spilled out. A little mad with hunger I scolded them for dropping two noodles. Looking back it's pretty funny, but in the moment I was actually pretty irritated. Being able to work with people with different opinions and backgrounds than you is a great skill to have when entering the workforce and one of the many things you learn on a NOLS course.
s It's not all hanger and arguments though, on the trip there were some pretty spectacular times too. Spending that much time with people also means you'll make some great memories and lasting friendships. Lots of inside jokes were made and I think it's the social aspect that really makes this trip so worthwhile and memorable.
Above all else, this course instilled in me an appreciation for the back country and eagerness to witness and experience the rest of this amazing world. Thanks to NOLS, I'll go forth with an excellent outdoors education and newfound confidence.