Why I Decided to Finish High School Early and Take a Gap Semester and NOLS Course

"Then,15 minutes after we left, while I was throwing a pity party for myself, a pod of three orca whales surfaced and blew air just 30 yards away from our kayaks..."


Having a whale of a time: Paddling through a fiord in Patagonia.


One of countless bays the group explored.
So much can happen in a year. People change, move forward, grow, and accept. Looking back a year ago from today, I was completely different. Sitting in class as a junior in high school in Steamboat Springs, Colo., I was bored and anxious, dreaming to go outside and do something more meaningful...

Then a brilliant idea dawned on me: graduate a semester early for a so-called “gap” semester before heading off to college. After talking with my counselors and parents we figured out a way to make it a reality. A couple of online courses over the summer and good grades would see me finish five months earlier than my fellow classmates.
So then I started researching possible adventures to do with my off time. I wanted something that would challenge and invigorate me. My good friend had just finished a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course and he suggested to check it out. It was totally up my alley. I decided on a NOLS expedition in Patagonia, Chile, where I’d backpack and sea kayak for 30 days, leaving my school desks far behind me. So now, after coming back, I’m here to write about the importance of stepping out of your boundaries and taking chances.

On March 15, I stepped onto the airplane feeling more nervous than ever. Reality sank in: I was going to live in the boondocks for over a month with no showers, cell phone, or connection to society. What the heck had I signed myself up for? After 27 hours of travel, I slept-walked my way into the NOLS base camp where I met the rest of the group that I’d be living with for the upcoming month. We gathered our food, went through our gear, packed up the bus, and set off.
Our plan: sea kayak five days through various fiords, then paddle up a stream only accessible at high tide to a lake that has never been explored—even by our NOLS instructors—and from there kayak three more days to the lake’s end where we’d backpack for nine days. It sounded ambitious.

The first couple days were way more amazing than any day in school. Clear skies, glassy water, and perfect camping beaches. We got to see dolphins and sea lions. I was connecting well with my group and having the time of my life. I felt clear-minded and present, enjoying nature’s beauty and simplicity. Thinking the trip might be easier than I expected, as if Patagonia read my mind our trip then took a turn for the worst.

On day six of our expedition, we set off from our beach into a fiord that no NOLS course had ever explored. The day started off with a rosy sunrise, glassy water, and dolphins jumping and playing. In the channel we were all singing songs and sharing stories of our lives. I was happy, excited, and comfortable.

Then 4 o’clock came along. The wind picked up and the rain clouds moved in. Within minutes, the ocean transformed from mirror-like to an angry wave train. I was well aware of the story of The North face founder Doug Tompkins dying sea kayaking just the year before when winds kicked up on a Chilean lake he was paddling. We, too, were in dangerous waters. Exhausted, we began looking for a camp. But both sides of the channel were cliffs. We kept searching for a beach but nothing appeared. Time flew by with the wind.

By 6:30 p.m. the sun began to set and we decided we had to “combat camp.” We found a small grass patch where we were able to land and unload the boats and make a warm dinner in the dark. This grass patch was only there at low tide, so half the group had to sleep on the grass until midnight and then wake up for high tide and hold their gear until it subsided four hours later. Luckily, I found a camp in the marsh.

March 26: I was in a terrible mood…cold, homesick, and exhausted. I couldn’t believe I was only a quarter of the way through this confounded course. I regretted coming. We left camp at about 11 a.m. and started paddling. Then, about 15 minutes after we left, while I was throwing a pity party for myself, a pod of three orca whales surfaced and blew air just 30 yards away from our kayaks. One of my teammates set my perspective straight: “Orcas are never this far back in the channels, and they only come up for air every so many miles. We could have left 30 seconds later and missed them completely.” I realized then how synchronistic life truly is. I was there for a reason, and although I was miserable, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. My problems on this course were far more drastic and real than any of my problems in normal life. I began to feel humbled and grateful.

The next couple of days were easier. We made it to the lake, where we immediately stripped down and had our first “bath” in eight days. I felt like a sparkling diamond while getting out of the pristine water. We continued up the lake for another day, finally finding a base camp to prepare for our backpacking leg.

March 30: We stashed our kayaks in the woods and packed our backpacks. My pack felt like it weighed more than me. I was carrying food, kitchen supplies, a tent, and personal gear (which I brought way too much of). The first day’s hike was tricky but fun, leading through a dense, steep forest where you couldn’t see five feet in front of you. I was astounded by how much life there was. I saw about 20 different types of mosses, all different shades of green, and an infinite amount of other plants, trees and bushes. Everything seemed so healthy and untouched. It made me happy to know that there are still places on Earth that haven’t been affected by humanity.

Unfortunately, this same terrain cut our backpacking portion short. After day four we realized the underbrush wasn’t going to let us get to our target peak. But this allowed us to have a layover day on a different lake, where we got to hang out in the sun, play cards, cook pizzas, read, and have some much-needed solo time.
The lake was serene. Sky-scraping mountains surrounded it and the water was a clear blue. Going for a quick swim, a sense of relief and tranquility washed over me. I was refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready for the trek back to our sea kayaks.

April 5: We arrived back at our kayaks stashed in the bushes and began to paddle to the other end of the lake. I felt sad leaving the beautiful mountains behind, knowing I’ll likely never see them again. Once we got to camp we all sat under a tarp and played a deadly card game called Presidents. After losing four rounds in a row I left to my tent, excited to cozy up in my sleeping bag and conk out. On my way over, however, I felt a sharp sting on my left hip. Grabbing where the burn was, I found a hungry, slimy leech. I am not good with bugs at all. Within seconds my clothes were off and I was screaming. I ran to my tent group and made them scan my entire body for leeches. After that night, I covered up better.

The next day, our plan was to paddle back into the ocean channel. But then a teammate noticed he was missing his hiking boots. Strictly following Leave No Trace principles, we unpacked all of our boats, to no avail. Guilty and embarrassed, he then kayaked with three others all the way back to the other side of the lake to look for them. The good news: This meant another layover day. I got time to do yoga on the beach and go for a hike alone.

The rest of the journey home was filled with all sorts of ups and downs. Some days were sunny, glassy and easy while others were filled with rain, wind and hail. I was challenged emotionally and physically. In one moment I’d be counting the days until I could shower and see my family while the next I’d wish I had more time out in this spectacular wilderness.

When things got rough, I learned to fight through it. During one rainstorm, I put my rain pants on my head to ward off the bugs, such that I looked like Rudolph. During another, out of the blue I started singing, “I got a feeling, that tonight’s going to be a good night…”. Pretty soon someone else joined in, then another and another. Soon, despite the wind and rain, we were all belting out the song out at the top of our lungs, circumstances be damned.

Our last day was one of the roughest. The wind was at our faces and we had to paddle up a river to get to the dock. It took us over five hours to move two miles. My arms felt like noodles. But by the time we reached the dock I didn’t want to get out of my kayak. I realized the trip was actually over. Nostalgia washed over me as I realized I’d just had the most rewarding, challenging and life-changing trip I could imagine.

After cleaning the kayaks and loading our gear onto the bus we set back to civilization. I felt like I had accomplished more in the past month than I had in my entire life. Before leaving, I felt strangely attached to the illusions of society. I made my life over-complicated with social media, politics, relationships, you name it. And on that bus coming back, I was grateful for how simple life truly is. I was excited to have the privileges of using a toilet, microwave and a warm bed, and I felt humbled for the opportunities I’ve been given. If so much can happen in a year, so much can also happen in a month.

For more information on NOLS' paddling offerings, visit www.nols.edu





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