Learning To Lead From The Seat Of A Kayak Each year, the National Outdoor Leadership School gives about 3,000 young people an education in how to live and work in the outdoors. The lessons focus on safety, survival, and teamwork — and the students hope to translate them into their daily lives back home.
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Learning To Lead From The Seat Of A Kayak

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Learning To Lead From The Seat Of A Kayak

Learning To Lead From The Seat Of A Kayak

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We do a lot of stories on the show about people learning in classrooms. For thousands of students every year, learning takes place miles from any school, in places like Lodore Canyon in Western Colorado. NPR's Larry Abramson spent a few days with students there, finishing up a 70-day wilderness course with the National Outdoor Leadership School.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Why would a 20-something give up iPods, alcohol, a soft bed - all the things that young people supposedly hold dear, and sleep on the ground for two and a half months? Each of the 11 students on this wilderness course has a different reason. Josh Sherman, a music student from Nelson, British Columbia, wants to prepare for an uncertain future.

Mr. JOSH SHERMAN: We're running out of water. We're running out of oil. I'm not a pessimistic guy, but I would say that it just behooves you to know how to pitch a tent and be able to live outside.

ABRAMSON: Josh is tall, frizzy-haired, one of the more spiritually inclined members of this group. Many are at turning points in their lives trying to decide what to do. Others want to test themselves in the outdoors before they sign on to a life of work. Rick Bieterman(ph), a high school teacher from the Chicago area, says he came because he wants to bring something back to his students at Hinsdale South High School.

Mr. RICK BIETERMAN (Teacher): Kids really don't get out and do a lot of this stuff, you know. They're sort of trapped in suburbia where video games have become the norm and not many people even get out to the forest preserves in our area.

ABRAMSON: Bieterman parted with 10,000 dollars of his own money in the hopes of bringing awareness of the outdoors to his suburban school. The 11 students have had plenty of surprises since they got off the bus in Wyoming's Absaroka Mountains in early June. They were hit by two weeks of unexpected snow. Now that they're entering Lodore Canyon on the Green River in Western Colorado, they face a new danger.

Mr. SHERMAN: We're going to aim for a 25-minute scout.

ABRAMSON: Today, Josh Sherman is leader of the day. He tells the flotilla of rafts and kayaks to stop and scout the first section of rapids. The river is higher than usual and will easily flip rafts or smash a kayak or its head against the rocky bottom.

Mr. SHERMAN: We have a lot of food on board and if we lost it, it would be a disaster because I love to eat.

ABRAMSON: Josh will steer an ungainly oar raft loaded with a ton of gear. In a wilderness version of a thesis defense, students must justify their path down the river before their instructors.

Unidentified Man: We want left-to-right momentum. We want...

Mr. SHERMAN: Yeah, left - well, pretty much straight to right.

ABRAMSON: In the middle of the channel is a warning sign, a red boat that wrecked weeks ago. Instructor Amy Christeson(ph) turns this into an object lesson.

Ms. AMY CHRISTESON (Instructor, National Outdoor Leadership School): The guy who's there in Lodore, we asked him what happened and he said, you know, I just - I've done this a million times, and I just wasn't paying attention for this rapid. So, what trap is that? Complacency. So remember, pay attention, pay attention.

Mr. SHERMAN: Right, back. Left, forward. All forward.

ABRAMSON: But even those who pay attention can get wet or worse. One boat suddenly turns turtle. Rick Bieterman, the teacher from Chicago, hangs upside down in the water, then emerges from his kayak. He leans against a rock, clearly in great pain.

Mr. BIETERMAN: I just got some of what we call instant feedback.

ABRAMSON: Tell me what that means.

Mr. BIETERMAN: I hit a rock.

ABRAMSON: On your knee?

Mr. BIETERMAN: On my left knee, yeah. So it's a little wobbly right now.

ABRAMSON: Are you going to keep guiding or you're -

Mr. BIETERMAN: Absolutely, yeah. You don't need your knees in kayaking, right?

(Soundbite of pan being struck)

Mr. MARK WADSWORTH (Student, New Hampshire): We're making breakfast burritos and we're cooking bacon for BLTs for lunch.

ABRAMSOM: The next morning, student Mark Wadsworth from New Hampshire is on kitchen duty. The work starts at sun up, and ends at 10 p.m. many days, with little personal time. Most work is done in teams, which leads either to teamwork or bickering. After nearly 70 days of sharing tents, food and body odors, students are getting on each other's nerves. Course Leader Frank Preston(ph) warns them about this.

Mr. FRANK PRESTON (Course Leader): More of the communication I saw this morning was kind of little groups of people talking about other groups of people or why they were mad at so and so. And I don't think that's healthy, and I definitely know that it's not safe if we carry that onto the river.

ABRAMSON: Working well with others isn't just key to safety. Students can take this course for college credit. Teamwork and leadership affect students' grades.

Mr. BIETERMAN: The first rig has been a pleasure, having you on the course, and we've all enjoyed you, and you've been a very valuable member of the group.

ABRAMSON: As a teacher, Rick Bieterman is used to giving out grades, but on the last evening of the course he gets his NOLS evaluation. Instructor Larry Berger sits down with Bieterman after dinner. Rick gets a B-plus on his kayaking skills.

Mr. LARRY BERGER (Instructor): Basically, he just needs a little more work and more experience.

Mr. BIETERMAN: You know, being an athlete all my life, I thought, hey, I'll picked this up real quick. And I didn't, because I wasn't having as much success as I wanted to, but that made me more hesitant to be a leader.

ABRAMSON: And that, in fact, is the real point of these courses. If you can guide a group of rafters to rapids, if you can keep everyone safe and well-fed in the desert, you can probably lead people through anything, be it the boardroom, or in Bieterman's case, the classroom. Here Bieterman has been a star. He's been giving his fellow students mini-courses in astronomy and geology as they move through the canyon.

Mr. BERGER: On your leadership day, you led with good style and you were a very vocal leader. People were good at following your direction.

ABRAMSON: Many students have struggled with this role. After he led the group for a day, Josh Sherman confessed...

Mr. SHERMAN: What I learned is that I've got to change from my sort of passive, hippy-dude, leadership style to a more full-on, confrontational style. And I tried a little bit of that out today and it felt really good.

ABRAMSON: Josh Sherman says he thought this course would be a meditative experience, just man and nature. Instead, it has turned out to be intensely social. As difficult as it has been for this group to bond, it will be even more painful to de-bond. Many are openly tearful at the prospect of leaving one another. For the instructors, this is just another turn of the wheel. Amy Christeson has been down this river about 40 times. She's only 25.

Ms. CHRISTESON: I will finish this course at noon, and by 8:30 on the next day I need to be at the put-in for the lower Salmon River to meet up with my boyfriend to do a trip there.

ABRAMSON: Only one of the 11 students actually plans to become an outdoor guide, but many say they are now rethinking their career choices. One plans to leave the business world and become a teacher. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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