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Sam – Reflecting on My Duke Gap Year


I had many new experiences during my gap year, I lived on my own for the first time, I took college courses in Spanish, I met new people and tried new things, but the takeaway that I will carry with me for the rest of my life is the importance of taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. Last summer, my plan was to live in Spain from late August until April. I was going to play hockey and take classes. By December however, I was a different person who wanted different things. I changed my original plan as new opportunities came up. I missed class to travel to Milan, Zurich, and the Canary Islands. Before I left for these trips, I often considered that I could just go some other time in order to not miss class and stick to my plan. These small adjustments had prepared me for the most consequential change to my plan that I made, the decision to forgo the rest of the hockey season and another semester of classes in order to go on a NOLS trip to Patagonia. Again though, I nearly didn’t do it. I felt like I was abandoning my original plan, like I was giving up, like I was failing. Even after I put down the deposit for the trip, I still felt like I had failed. It actually wasn’t until I was in Patagonia that I realized that it is not failure to change plans. I had grown over my gap year, and as a result I was ready to experience new things. I found an opportunity and I went with it, and as a result I had one of the best months of my life.

If you are planning to take a gap year, I guess what I am trying to say is that it is hard to tell who you will be 6 months from now, especially during a such time of personal growth and change that a gap year is. So, if you are part way into a plan that you made months ago and you begin craving something different, you should go with it. You haven’t failed or by changing your plan, you have actually grown to the point where you are ready for new experiences. This growth is much more meaningful than putting your head down and sticking to a plan that you made back when you were a different person.


Take a NOLS Trip, if You Can

By Sam

If you are taking a gap year and enjoy the outdoors, you should definitely go on a NOLS trip. I went on the NOLS Patagonia cultural expedition which was probably the highlight of my gap year. Having spent the previous 4 months in Spain, not only was I able to enjoy the wilderness, I was able to form deeper connections with the community along the way. These people included Chilean border patrol stationed on a lake that crossed over into Argentina, gauchos (Chilean cowboys), and pobladores (people who settled Patagonia). Not only did I learn about the current culture of Patagonia, but I also learned about the history, and the parallels between the Chilean/Argentinian settlement of Patagonia and the settlement of the American west.

This may sound a bit cliché, but the trip was a reset for me. I was with completely new people in a completely different place without my phone, which usually ties me to the world I know. Going into the trip I reasoned that anyone who wanted to spend 30 days in the Patagonian wilderness was someone I wanted to know, and I could have not been more right. I made friends from all over the country and world, some who I would have certainly seen more of if it weren’t for the pandemic.

If I boil down what really made this experience so fantastic it really comes down to the sheer number of experiences that the trip presented. I had not spent a full month without my phone since 8th grade. I learned just about everything there is to know about backpacking, and even earned a Leave No Trace Trainer certificate. I learned the proper way to make and serve maté, the unofficial official drink of Patagonia. helped a poblador named Oscar lasso a lamb, then watched him slaughter it and cook it over a fire to make the a traditional Patagonian asado. This experience was an especially fascinating one for me because it really made me think about eating meat. The way Oscar killed the lamb was the most humane way imaginable, which has made me more conscious about where the meat I eat came from and how it was raised and killed. It was also fascinating purely because of how unexpected it was. Finally, spending all that time and sharing these experiences with a group of strangers who all became friends makes me really excited for college. I grew up in a small town, so I haven’t really met anyone new since elementary school. I know almost no one going to Duke next year, but I can’t wait to share the experience of college with everyone.

It’s a bit odd that I haven’t written much about the hiking or the camping, but I think that is because those activities, while they take up the majority of your time, are really just a back drop for the rest of the experiences you have on a NOLS trip, so seriously, if you like the outdoors, there is nothing I can recommend more that you do on your gap year.

It occurs to me though, that a prospective NOLS student may be curious about the actual hiking and camping experience, so I will now share. The course lasted 31 days. Over the course of 28 days we hiked approximately 120 miles. On the first two days of the course, we looked at our route, packed up the provisions that we would eat over the next month, learned how to pack our packs, and then drove about 9 hours in a van to our starting point.

The hiking was broken up into 3 sections: 12 days, 9 days, then 7 days. We had to make our way to pre-determined re-ration points, where we would meet up with gauchos who would deliver our food and fuel for the next ration. A 12 day ration is long, so when we started out, my pack weighed about 68 pounds, the majority of it being food. Throughout the first ration, the instructors really acted as teachers. They taught us how to navigate using a map, compass, and GPS, how to choose a campsite, and most importantly how to get creative with the limited ingredients that we had brought. As the days passed, they gradually handed most of the responsibilities over to us. We would determine how far we would hike in a day and when we would start, as well as split our group of 15 into 3 self-sufficient hiking groups, which meant that if we got separated by night fall each group would have everything they needed, which happens more than you would think. In fact, the day before the first re-ration, 2 groups couldn’t find the trail, decided to bushwhack, and it took 4 days before my group of 5 met back up with them.

The rest of the expedition went much more smoothly. No one got lost and we started independent student group travel, where we would hike without the instructors. At this point we had learned so much about trail finding and map reading that it really was no problem at all. The next two re-rations were also much more cultural, as a I wrote about above. We met gauchos and pobladores, and shared many cups maté and stories. When we weren’t with the locals, the typical daily routine was wake up, make breakfast, hike for 6-10 hours, make camp and dinner, relax, then go to bed. But trust me, even though that takes up a lot of time, it goes by fast. Hiking really is one of the best times to have a conversation, and when you’re with a group of people that you just met a few weeks ago it if difficult to run out of topics.  NOLS runs trips all over the world, so this experience defiantly won’t be identical to any others. So again, if you like the outdoors, a NOLS trip is one of the best ways to see a place you travel to, so I hope you will consider one during your gap year.



My First Semester with NOLS

By Delaney

Hello! My name is Delaney, and I am from Cleveland, OH! I recently returned home after spending three months in Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. Now that I’m back home, and have access to a computer, a shower, and the internet, I figured it was a good time to write a blog post.  

For the past three months I have been on a NOLS course in the Rockies. I had never gone camping before this trip, and I figured a three-month trip was a good way to start! I spent 17 days hiking in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, 21 days rock climbing in the City of Rocks, Idaho, 16 days tandem whitewater canoeing on the Green River in Utah, 10 days earning my Wilderness First Responder certification on Three Peaks Ranch in Wyoming, and 17 days canyoneering in Grand Gulch, Water, and Slickhorn Canyon in Utah. Here’s a quick snapshot of this course, section by section– 


Wind River Range: 

The Wind River Range in Wyoming is an absolutely beautiful mountain range in western Wyoming. We spent our time there learning how to backpack, camp, ration food, fly fish, use bear spray(!), and live with others for extended periods of time. We talked about how to make a positive learning environment and what good expedition behavior looks like. At night, we sang around a campfire, read poems, and got to know each other. We played games all the time; trail games like “contact” or “alphabet DJ,” campfire games like “fantasy” or “Good Day Bob,” and get-to-know-you games like “Hot seat” or “In or Out.” NOLS is a leadership school, and we spent plenty of time learning and practicing leadership skills. By the end of this section, we were confident enough in our navigation and leadership skills that we would be “Designated Leaders” of the day. We’d plan our route, hold the maps, lead on trail, and choose a campsite. These days were incredibly rewarding because we could apply all we had learned from that section. 

City of Rocks: 

The City of Rocks was an amazing place to learn how to rock climb outdoors. Over the summer, I worked at my local rock-climbing gym, and knew the basics of how to climb and belay, but nothing could prepare me for what was in store. We spent every day at a new crag (rock climbing spot), learning a new skill. We learned knots, belay techniques, and anchor-building principals, and applied those skills that very day in a safe and structured manner. By the end of this section, I was able to “trad” climb (a style of rock climbing using protection you place in the rock yourself), lead a multi-pitch (“lead” is another style of rock climbing and doing multiple “pitches” or lengths of the rope ((basically I was up really, really high))), and set up a rappel (going down a rope using my own gear).  

Desolation and Labyrinth Canyon: 

In this section, we learned how to paddle, ferry, eddy out, scout and run a rapid, and line our canoes. This was a very challenging section because of the high-stress of running rapids. It was also super rewarding because this was a completely new skill for me. The rush of spending an hour getting out of our canoes, tying them up, finding high ground, scouting the rapid, choosing a line to run, getting back in our canoes, and hitting the line perfectly so as not to take on any water is amazing. There were plenty of times scouting rapids didn’t work like that, and I joined the “Varsity Swim Team” by (accidentally) flipping the canoe and swimming down the rapid. Worth it. 


Three Peaks Ranch: 

This is where I took an 80-hour course to get my Wilderness First Responder certification. This certification is just one step below a Wilderness EMT. We spent long days in the classroom learning about how to treat trauma and medical emergencies in the backcountry. This was a very different approach to medicine for me, because the first step is not to call 911 (there’s no cell service in the backcountry!) and there are no splints readily available. We learned how to treat crazy trauma injuries, like an open pneumothorax, and very mild medical problems, like a stomach ache. My favorite part of this section was when we simulated a search and rescue team with an “Incident Command Structure.” There were three “patients” involved in a severe canoeing accident, and a team of 13 people came to the rescue; equipped with one Incident Commander (me!), two Lieutenants, five rescue teams, two vacuum splints, and one litter. This was the most intense scenario we practiced, and the most interesting. At the end of this section, we took written and practical tests to be officially certified as WFR’s! 

Grand Gulch, Water, and Slickhorn Canyon: 

This was the most expedition-feeling section. We were so lucky the first four sections because we got almost no weather. There was no hiking in the rain or canoeing in the snow. We like to say because of our lack of weather, there was a lack of water in the canyons. The canyons were almost completely dry, which led us to change our route as we scouted for water. We would spend a whole day looking for water, only to find nothing and have to backtrack to our last known water spot. We also spent a good chunk of time trying to get out of the canyon and getting shut down by steep canyon walls and trails that led nowhere. We were much more independent on this section; we chose our own path (water permitting), traveled without instructors, and planned and led each day. This section felt very adventurous; we looked for water, scouted for a path out, found some amazing ruins, spent time sleeping under the stars, and soaked up our last time on the trail together.  

At the end of this trip, our group made a list of everything we learned throughout the section. There were technical skills (like how to use mechanical advantage to get a wrapped canoe off a rock), leadership skills (like how to use non-violent communication), and some life skills (like how to “unzip” an apple). I was astonished as the list continued to grow. I’m still reflecting on how much I’ve learned and grown and changed, and I’m so excited to take these learnings with me the rest of my gap year, into Duke, and beyond.  

Sunrise Summit

By Delaney

Hello! It’s Delaney again. The last blog I wrote was a huge overview of my semester with NOLS, but I feel like I didn’t give certain events and days the attention they deserved. In this blog I want to zero in on my favorite day from the hiking section in the Wind River Range; September 3rd, the Sunrise Summit.


Monday, September 2nd, 2019:

Pizza Monday! Pizza Monday is a tradition that our group had in the backcountry. We’d sit around the kitchen and make pizza for dinner, which is a laborious process in the backcountry. It was my turn to cook that day, so I was tasked with making pizza for my group. I spent about three and a half hours making some pretty terrible pizza (it was only my second time making pizza!). My cook group ate it and smiled anyway, complementing my “hard work,” which is just another way to say it was terrible. As we were eating, we talked about what the plan was for the next day. We were supposed to have a layover day, where we didn’t move campsites. Our instructor, Jason, suggested an optional hike to summit the close-by mountain. I was in. Then my coursemate Ben suggested we wake up crazy early and summit it in time to watch the sunrise. I was hesitant. And then I was in. So, we all went to bed around 7pm to prepare for this crazy day of hiking.


Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019:

Luna, Maggie, Ben, Jason, and I woke up at 4:30am to start hiking. We brought one backpack filled with layers, hot water in thermoses, and dry cereal. I didn’t really think this whole hiking-in-the-dark thing out. I didn’t realize that I was going to have to use my headlamp to hike because it would still be dark out?! Maybe I was just tired. We strapped on our boots and turned on our headlamps and started hiking. The moon was out of view and the stars were so beautiful. The sky was so clear that we could see the defined Milky Way. Such a cool view. Ben led us up a difficult incline that Jason scouted for us. The mountain across from the lake was grey and black and could only be made out as an outline of where the stars stopped. We hiked in silence as we looked at the stars and at the challenging route ahead. We looked over the beautiful sight of the sun beginning to rise and hit the mountain across from us. The colors changed from black with white stars to grey and purple skies, to orange mountains, to yellow mountains and blue skies. It was incredible. Once we reached the top, we enthusiastically took in the 360 degree view. The lakes glistened below us as we pointed out the campsite we had come from the day before and our tents that looked so tiny from our vantage point. We spent some time taking in the view, eating dry cereal, and talking about the ridiculousness of dog shows (not sure why, but I remember that detail very clearly). As we descended, we saw the first stirrings of our group at our campsite. Some were just waking up, Kahil was still snoring (sorry Kahil, you snore the loudest though). After a proper hot breakfast of powdered eggs and summer sausage, Luna, Maggie, Ben, and I spent some time on the lake meditating (or trying to and getting interrupted by Milan and Max fly-fishing). I napped for the rest of the day and met up with the group in the evening for a class on styles of communication and a campfire game. After the meeting, I promptly fell asleep, ending a beautiful day in the Wind River Range.

This day was so special to me and stood out as one of my favorite days on the hiking section. The hike was strenuous and peaceful. The view was vast and beautiful. And the people were encouraging and supportive.