By Aloke Surin, a.k.a. “ADawg,” Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educator ‘02
My right hand was deep in the cavernous interior of the Dana Designs backpack. This humongous load carrier had been the monkey on my back for the last seventeen days in Olympic National Park, Washington … I was desperately seeking my own excreta, which had been dutifully deposited into a ziplock plastic bag two days earlier.
Now it was time to dig it out and transfer it to the large garbage bin that the Forest Service had so thoughtfully placed on a small platform amongst the talus. My eight fellow students and two instructors had successfully completed their individual contributions to the communal crap heap and were rolling in the grass with laughter as I struggled to locate my poop. Finally, with a sense of relief, and sweat pouring down my sunburnt brows, I found the missing item, fished it out triumphantly and hurled it into the garbage bin! We had now made sure that human faeces would not mingle in the meltwater of the Blue Glacier and kept the NOLS pledge—Leave No Trace.
[As we were driven back to the NOLS base] I marveled at the tremendous girth of the Douglas firs and the red cedars in this old growth forest, I realized how fortunate I had been to be a part of this course, without doubt one of the toughest physical adventures that I had ever embarked upon.
A little over a month earlier, as a new immigrant in Canada without a job, I was literally twiddling my thumbs when the telephone rang. At the other end of the line was Krishnan Kutty, an old acquaintance from Mumbai. He was calling from the NOLS Pacific Northwest location ... Kris was the Program Director for courses based at Ranikhet, India … and was helping out the Conway faculty for the summer. He inquired about my health, my family, my prospects in Canada and then came to the point: "Would you be interested in doing a course at NOLS?"
It was an easy decision. I'd rather be honing my survival skills in some pristine wilderness than flipping burgers in a "survival job" (the euphemism used by career counselors for new immigrants), which was the lot of most middle-aged newcomers to Canada.
[After a short snafu crossing the border, I successfully made it to the NOLS campus.]
By the time I checked into the NOLS campus at Conway, my course mates were already busy packing supplies for the trip. I was led into what looked like a lab, with weighing scales and zip lock bags and marker pens scattered amidst bins full of granola, pasta, flour and other types of bulk food.
As I was inducted into the packing process, I was gradually introduced to [my instructors and] the eight others I was going to spend the next few weeks with … one of them, for some reason I have not yet fathomed, called me ADawg, and the name stuck.
I probably had more high altitude experience than all the rest combined, considering I had been trekking and climbing in the Himalaya almost every year since 1976. But experience does not always count for much, as I was about to discover. I was an old Dawg about to learn some new tricks.
On the very first day's walk from the Deer Park campground in the northeast quadrant of the Olympic National Park … [my instructor] Brooke asked [my course mate] Jonny Rotten to demonstrate what educators love to call a Teachable Moment (TM).
Predictably, the topic chosen was “How to Defecate Outdoors.” On a forested slope of mountain hemlock, Jonny Rotten clambered into the dappled sunshine, his plastic mountaineering boots grinding invisible organisms into the earth and took up a suitable stance, one arm extended and braced against a tree trunk. Then he proceeded to execute a series of gymnastic moves in an awkward ballet, showing us a series of recommended postures to evacuate the contents of the human bowel.
He ended his lesson with a “Show and Tell segment,” displaying leaves, pebbles, stones, twigs, clods of earth, moss, grass. These handy items, he told us, were the only accessories we really needed, in the absence of a supply of water, to clean up! Toilet paper, along with the other trappings of "progress" (like money, cell phones, radios, Walkmans, Discmans, etc.) had been left behind at Conway … To me, this was hilarious - I had spent the major part of my life in the Indian subcontinent where I had picked up these skills instinctively every time I left urban conveniences behind … For me personally it was a bigger challenge to hike … with a backpack that felt like it had been loaded with everything but the kitchen sink.
[One one memorable] rest day, Brooke taught us how to bake a pizza using the very basic supplies and equipment that we carried ... I ended up coaxing the yeast-injected dough to rise by placing the lump, cautiously encased in a thin cellophane wrapper, on my bare belly … The resulting pizza, baked on our little MSR camping stoves, tasted better than any I had ever bought at Pizza Hut! Brooke is a wonderful teacher and I shall always remember her for this little cookery class in the wilderness …
[Our other instructor] Martin had an opportunity to show us his unique teaching skills as well … he swept through our campsite just beyond Happy Hollow in the Elwha Basin, donning a cape like a comic book superhero and scattering the stuff that we had left lying around untethered to demonstrate what havoc just a little breeze could do. Needless to say, the point was taken.
The culminating point of Phase Two of our sojourn in the Olympics was to ascend the middle summit of Mount Olympus. Since this was more than just a climb, but a Teachable Moment as well, it was drilled into us that as outdoor educators the concept of a “turnaround time” was critical in mountaineering. In simple terms, you should use your judgement to ensure that you have enough time to descend a peak safely with your clients. The classic case study to demonstrate what could go horribly wrong if the Turnaround Principle was not adhered to is, of course, the disaster on Everest in 1996, recounted in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air.
Mount Olympus is no Everest and the skies boded well as far as the weather was concerned. However, by the time our whole party had arrived at the bergschrund that gave access to the final rock pitch leading to the summit, we were well past the turnaround time that we had agreed upon as a group. Brooke led off the rock with the rope trailing behind her and soon we could hear her yell for us to follow.
It was an awkward moment. My heart's desire was to step on to the top - too many summits had eluded me in my mountain journeys and a climb somehow never seems complete without the "closure" that the highest point provides. Yet again, I had given my consent to the group decision that if we were to go beyond the turnaround time, we would not continue on to the summit. I decided to decline with the rest.
[We concluded the course rock climbing in Squamish, British Columbia, finally returning to the NOLS base in Conway.]
For the brief graduation ceremony on the lawns of the Conway base on a splendidly sunny summer day, each one of us was asked to present the certificate of completion to another trainee, prefaced by a little mute charade which would identify the person who would be stepping up to receive the honors; no words were to be spoken.
It fell to the lot of Emily Turner to summon me. She hefted a huge backpack off her shoulders as we squatted on the cool grass. She opened the top flap carefully and began to take out its contents slowly. Clothes and knickknacks came out in slow motion. She stopped, peered into the depths of the backpack, and fished out more stuff. Her pace had quickened now and she was flinging things out of the sack in a panic. With sweat pouring off her brow, she finally held up a black polythene packet in one hand while with the fingers of her other hand she pinched her nostrils shut and pretended to faint. While the others rolled with laughter, I rose to my feet to accept my diploma from her. The Turd had come full circle!
My sincere thanks to the following for making the NOLS Outdoor Educator Course an experience to cherish and remember for the rest of my life: Krishnan Kutty, Brooke Moran, Martin Muendel, Emily Turner, Pamela Anderson, Diana Livingston, Sarah Bruce, Jeffrey Kaphan, Bob Warner, Jon Larsen, Andy Heath