An Adventure Uncertain: Part 1- COVID-19 and NOLS - Class of 2024

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Going into NOLS, all we knew was that the next twenty-three days would be spent in a dystopian world without cell phones or any connection to the outside world.  The world could be ending, and we would be hiking somewhere very remote and very far away from the comfort of our homes. Several of us were a little apprehensive, to say the least. Personally, I was frightened at every mention of the word “bear.” Others feared the “unhygienic” conditions and being away from our families during uncertain times.

The beauty of NOLS, however, was that it took all our expectations, hopes, and fears, and tossed them out the door—forcing us to accept something that seemed insufferably difficult, until one day, our cynicism was replaced by appreciation. Certainly, it was hard appreciating the trip during hikes that were often through torrid heat, but I have never experienced anything quite like NOLS. In less than a month, I grew into a better version of myself and formed meaningful bonds with people whom I initially did not know very well.

 - - - Jordane Williams


5 Ways COVID Affected NOLS

1. A crazy amount of hand sanitizer:

Upon arriving at the Charlotte airport I was given hand sanitizer, a trend that would continue throughout NOLS. Heading into the backcountry we were equipped with enough hand sanitizer for everyone to use a full 3oz. bottle EVERY DAY! That was more than enough to keep us safe and we certainly used it (okay, maybe not all of it, but close). It didn’t take long for people to be offering hand sanitizer to each other nonstop (you have to use the weight) and before we went on an independent expedition, one of our instructors walked around camp distributing absurd amounts of it from the big refills we had given the I-Team to carry. Safe to say my new habit to always reach for the hand sanitizer is a good one. 

 - - - Kaitlyn Gosline


2. COVID Checks:

Along with announcements and the plan for tomorrow, an important part of evening meetings was “COVID Checks”: everyone got their thermometers out, took their temperatures, and recorded them along with any common COVID symptoms they had that day. Not only did this give us an excuse to all scream “Expecto Patronum” nightly (one of the symptoms we were asked about was expectoration), but it allowed us to check in with our bodies and each other. Doing the COVID checks as a community allowed us to be aware when someone had a rough day physically and made me more aware of how I felt physically throughout the trip. 

 - - - Kaitlyn Gosline


3. Interactions with others:

One of the biggest impacts on our NOLS experience as a result of COVID-19 was our interactions with others. For one, it was either talking to someone with masks on, and having to project your voice in compensation, or it was talking to them from six feet away. The latter was more desirable because we could at least see each other smile, but our bodies constantly wanted to move closer because, as the social creatures we are, six feet feel awfully far. We were forced to master a crucial technique: quickly slipping on masks when we entered the six feet radius and naturally removing them once we were outside the danger zone. There is much to say about how we interacted during phase 1, but an equal amount can be said for phase 2— the hugging, the high fives, the horseplaying, the food sharing, the tent parties. Basically, everything was more social after day 14, and we began to feel like more of a family.

- - - Jordane Williams


4. Eats and Drinks:

As any scholar would tell you, our lives on NOLS revolved around food. Before a long day of hiking, we would huddle together with mini nalgenes of milk tea or hot cocoa as the odors of baking breakfast casserole, steaming sweet grits and sizzling peanut butter brown sugar quesadillas wafted from the kitchen. While adventuring across the Wind River Wilderness in both heat and hail, we snacked on pretzels, peanuts, and carefully rationed chocolate malt balls. Finally, we would gather bedecked in bug nets to feast on buffalo mac n’ cheese, chapati and lentil curry, or mystery mash, to mark the end of the day.

Like all other things, our dining experience was greatly affected by COVID-19. During phase one, only one person could be cooking from each group, hand sanitizer had to be used every time you touched someone's personal bowl, and food could not be shared between people or groups, resulting in a large amount of food waste. Additionally, we were given small personal snack bags instead of larger group rations. Any untouched snacks became exponentially more valuable as trade items as the trip went on. When phase two began, it suffices to say it was rare for any group to have leftover food.

 - - - Jesse Smith


5. Entering and Exiting the Backcountry:

Before leaving for NOLS I was asked what I was most worried about. In another year I might have said bears, the physical challenge, or hygiene, but my answer was pretty immediate: traveling on an airplane during COVID. After self-quarantining for two weeks I was so ready to be in Wyoming, but getting there required almost 12 hours of travel with masks on and hand sanitizer at the ready. Meeting everyone for the first time in masks was a little bit awkward, but from the second we stepped into the airport with our masks on we started taking care of each other, which was key to our success at NOLS.

23 days later after we all cheered for the bus coming to take us back to the front country, we gave every member of our group a hug before boarding the bus, unsure if we would remain in Phase 2 when we returned to Lander. Coming back to the front country was overwhelming, especially when COVID had slipped to the back of our minds when we entered Phase 2. Regardless of how long it took for the reality of the outside world to sink in, we slipped our masks on and continued to take care of each other. 

- - - Kaitlyn Gosline


COVID-19 certainly altered how we were able to participate in NOLS; however, we were still able to complete the course and take away many lifelong lessons. Stay tuned for our top five lessons learned during NOLS from our next post in just a few days, and remember the perfect amount of time to brush your teeth is to sing “Happy Birthday” in your head twice.