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Three ‘golden lessons’ from Alaskan back packing trip

By Kirsten Le Roux and Angette Pastuszek
Special to The SUN

Angette Pastuszek

Angette Pastuszek

Angette Pastuszek is about to start her senior year at Pagosa Springs High School, and as one of five 2014 GECKO (Giving Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors) scholarship recipients, she spent her summer in a unique way.

Pastuszek hiked for a month through remote Alaska on a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) trip, a course designed to equip young people with survival and leadership skills, as well as to challenge them to choose a path for their life that serves them in the best possible way.

Pastuszek joined 11 other teenagers and three course guides in Anchorage and packed her 65-pound pack with rations before setting off on the 30-day expedition. After an unexpectedly warm June, Pastuszek packed expecting sunny days and exposed, hot climbs, but instead hiked through rain, sleet and snow in what turned into the wettest July on record.

Armed with bear spray, Angette and her travelers banded together to leave technology and home comforts behind, facing endless daylight in an Alaskan summer where the sun never sets.

Being charged by caribou, having three days of rations destroyed by a grizzly, eating a bluebell salad and being flooded out of her tent at 3 a.m. were all obstacles she faced and dealt with, learning how to treat each with perspective, humor and a practical attitude.

On her return from 30 days in Alaska, Angette penned her reflections of that time and summed up her experience into “three golden lessons.” The following, in Angette’s own words, is her story.

The first lesson I learned is “take time to appreciate the hard work,” after hours of continuous bushwhacking, sheets of icy rain or a horribly cooked meal, you have to appreciate the effort put into each action. Sitting on top of a mountain after a hard, sweaty 14 miles, look up and appreciate the brilliant orange clouds that stained the snow-capped ranges. See the wonderful individuals who you share this experience with. If you wouldn’t have put that much effort into hiking that day, that view couldn’t be that striking, the friendships not as special.

The second lesson I learned was to “lead by example and share the wealth.” When someone was having a tough day, the kind of day that slowly grinds the gears, the best thing you can do is share your trail mix, crack jokes and help them set up their tent. Because your positive energy and willingness to understand is the greatest way to improve group dynamic.

The third lesson was, “when the milk spills, just clean it.” Some days when we were soaked to our skin it was difficult to not complain and to keep going. But you just had to realize the only way to get dry was to make it to camp and crawl in that beautifully crafted sleeping bag and slide on those sacred dry socks. Vocalizing the level of difficulty and discomfort doesn’t help the situation. Everyone already is going through the same exact experience. But it was these situations that we will remember the most, and what they taught us.

There were difficult times on our course, such as the day we climbed a steep pass in blizzard conditions. We all developed mild hypothermia but we sang loudly to Journey, trying to overpower the howling wind as we waited to hear from the instructors whether we could climb down the other side. Three hours ticked by, but we were unable to get down in this weather; we returned to our previous campsite and stayed there. Tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, right? It was a very humbling experience.

Another day we had set up camp along the banks of the Wood River with intentions to cross the next day. It had rained that entire day and didn’t stop that night either.

We decided to take a layover day to have classes on wilderness medicine. It had been raining for over 48 hours without stopping.

Before crawling in my tent, I noticed the small creek beside my tent swelling every hour. I said to my tent mate with all seriousness, “Jackie, we are going to be underwater in the morning.”

Then I crawled into my tent. I assured myself the 100 meters between us and the Wood River was safe enough. Jackie was very upset that night because she was supposed to be a Leader of the Day (LOD) and she couldn’t figure out how to read a map. I tried my best to teach her and comforted her with an, “Everything will be better in the morning.”

At 3 a.m., I woke to a damp feeling as water was creeping into my sleeping bag. I put my hand out onto the tent bottom, it was the consistency of a water bed, and the ground had turned to a consistency like Jell-O. I yelled to Jackie, who was still sound asleep, “Jackie we need to get out of here, we are going to drown!”

I frantically started to throw my wet belongings in my pack as water poured into the mesh bug netting of our tent. Jackie and I began to just start laughing, what were we supposed to do in this situation? Jackie said, “So Jett you said everything was going to get better in the morning?”

I shook my head and crawled out of my tent still in my base layers. My foot hit the sediment with glacial river water up to my knees. I threw my bag on high ground and began to wake everyone up.

As soon as two other people emerged from their bogged tents, we ran to the kitchen and started throwing our gear out of the river that was running through our cooking area.

Luckily nothing was lost. I sat in the mud, my feet purple and numb from the frigid water.

The instructors had decided there were to be no LODs that day, and we should cross the Wood River before it got any more dangerous.

It was 4:30 in the morning and we threw on our wet boots and packs. Watershed off the mountains was knee deep. Just imagine, everywhere there was a knee-deep river that you couldn’t get out of. We hiked 5 miles before we found a suitable place to cross. The water was belly-button-deep in some places, but we all made it across safely. We hiked another 3 miles to the airstrip where our re-rations would be. We made it there by 11 a.m.

As soon as our feet touched the airstrip, the rain stopped and the sun came out. It was surreal. We emptied our soaking belongings and hung them on every willow we could find. It looked like a used gear sale. Our instructor called the pilot, letting him know we reached the airstrip. Ray, the pilot, decided to go ahead and bring our re-rations a day early without knowing what we had been through that morning.

Needless to say, it was a long day, but not one moment during it did I wish I was home. Every hardship during my course was what made it so interesting. Even when a bear stole 15 pounds of food from my group and we went on a “low calorie diet” for ISGE (Independent Student Group Expedition, which is where we are completely independent of the instructors for five days and four nights).

The stories you tell people afterwards aren’t the beautiful and serene moments of sitting atop a peak, but the gritty and challenging ones.

What made it all worth it was seeing the natural beauty that surrounded us. The natural beauty people like NOLS and GECKO help protect. I am so glad I got to have such a wonderful and amazing experience and be around unique and incredible people whom I’ve grown to love so much. GECKO and NOLS are organizations I will always support for their dedication to the outdoors. They intensified my passion to teach the masses about wildlife and how important it is we protect and enjoy nature.

Thank you so much for time, energy and support for what GECKO and NOLS stand for. It was because of those things I was blessed to go on such a wild trip, a trip I will never forget and for that I am eternally grateful.

This story was posted on August 21, 2014.