How I Became a NOLS Nerd

By Jonas Alexanderson

Jun 14, 2016

“Next year I will turn 50 years old,” I told my wife. This was 2011 and I didn’t want any presents. Instead, I wanted to travel to Alaska from my home in Sweden to sea kayak.

Sea Kayaking in Alaska.

Sea kayaking in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Jonas Alexanderson.

After some research on the Internet, I found a company that used to guide expeditions in Alaska. They stopped that service, but recommended NOLS, where the company CEO had been an instructor for many years.

After checking out various NOLS courses, I found an Alaska sea kayaking course for adults that was perfect—and during my holiday period.

I told my wife and my company’s HR department about the course, Prince William Sound Sea Kayaking. My company, where I work as a ships’ pilot, agreed to pay for the course, as I showed how good a leadership course this was! I got the thumbs up from my real boss (my wife) as well; she said “You can go, but I’m staying at home.” All I had to do now was enroll.

I had been kayaking about ten years at that time and increased my training to prepare for the course, as I knew it was going to be tough for a fifty-year-old. It was a long wait until departure from Sweden, but finally, a few days after my fiftieth birthday, I was on my way to Anchorage, Alaska.

A bit anxious, I met the rest of the group at the Anchorage railway station. Then, I found out that I was the only one not from the U.S., but also not the oldest participant, which surprised me.

After a few very busy hours to prepare everything at the NOLS campus in Palmer, a bus ride to Whittier to pick up our kayaks, and then a boat ride to Perry Island, we finally headed out to Prince William Sound.

That started two of the best weeks in my life. The weather was fantastic (like a very good Swedish summer), my coursemates were friendly and supportive of me, the odd Swede, and were all amazing leaders.

The skilled leadership from our lead instructor, Oscar, and the other two instructors really impressed me. I have a lot of experience in leadership as a master mariner (captain) and outdoor guide in Sweden, but still learned a great deal from them.

Kayak rolling in Alaska.

Kayak rolling in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Jonas Alexanderson.

Coming from Sweden, where outdoor activities are part of our life, I still learned a lot of new stuff in woodcraft, camping, and especially sea kayaking. My most lasting impression, besides new skills learnt, was smiling faces. Never a dull moment, harsh words or any arguments during the whole trip—it was all smiles and laughter.

One person who impressed me the most was my tent mate. He was a teacher from Philadelphia, almost my age, and with very little experience in the outdoors.

Even though everything was so new for him, he still managed to fit in and I could see that he gained experience and self-confidence almost daily. I think this is what NOLS is about.

Two weeks went by very fast and all too soon we had to part. I gained some new friends for life (and still keep in contact with most of them) and came to love Alaska.

Coming home, I contacted NOLS Scandinavia and took a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course with Lena Conlan at Crossing Latitudes. Since then, I have been helping at the NOLS booth at the Stockholm Wilderness Fair for three years straight and taken a WFR refresher course.

Since that NOLS course, I have been giving a few lectures about NOLS and Alaska and dreaming of going back there. My sea kayaking skills have increased a lot and I have been to Croatia and Greenland to kayak.

Last fall, I finally decided to return to Alaska with NOLS. As sea kayaking is my biggest passion, it was natural to take the same course again. And I think it will be just as great as last time, with some new amazing people to meet. I am preparing myself even better this time with a lot of training in the gym, running, and a lot of kayaking.

In the last four years since my first NOLS experience, NOLS has been an important part of my life. When I work as a guide outdoors, all the skills learnt help me to be confident whatever happens. I think I have also used the leadership skills I learnt in my regular job as a ships’ pilot. No wonder I am now a “NOLS nerd.”

Alaska and NOLS be prepared, I’ll be back soon!

See Jonas' course, Prince William Sound Sea Kayaking - Adult

Written By

Jonas Alexanderson

Jonas is a Master mariner and ships’ pilot who likes to do activities outdoors. Kayaking is the big passion and he does that year around even in an icy Swedish winter. He writes his own blog at

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