Pursuing a Passion: Choosing an Outdoor Gap Year

By Eugene Buchanan

Oct 26, 2016

Father and daughter use a camera outdoors togethe
Eugene and daughter Brooke. Photo courtesy of Eugene Buchanan.

Gap year parent Eugene Buchanan writes about his daughter's unexpected decision to take a gap year.

The NOLS Decision

“You what?” I asked my 17-year-old daughter, Brooke.

“I’m going to graduate early, a semester, my senior year. I want that to be my gap semester. I want to do a NOLS course.”

Accepting the independence of a teenage daughter is hard enough; seeing it come at the sake of a promising soccer career—one making you a doting soccer parent for over a decade—was perhaps even harder.

As a junior, Brooke had been a star on her high school soccer team, helping carry them to the third round of the state playoffs. By graduating early, she was forsaking her final year, much to her coach’s and teammates’ chagrin.

“Honey, chances to play on a team like that only come around once in your life. Are you sure you don’t want to stick around to play soccer?”

“Yeah, dad, I’m sure. I want to do a NOLS course.”

Her mind was set, and there was no changing it. But I couldn’t have asked for a better alternative.

Valuing wilderness, education, leadership, safety, community and excellence, NOLS’ mission is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership serving people and the environment. Believing positive, ethical leaders change the world, the 54-year-old nonprofit takes students of all ages on remote wilderness expeditions and teaches them technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics—skills that can’t be learned in a traditional classroom or on a city street.

Father and daughter on stand-up paddleboards
Eugene and Brooke paddling Costa Rica's Pacuare River. Photo courtesy of Eugene Buchanan.

Brooke got the idea from senior friends of hers—including her boyfriend—who had done NOLS courses that spring, both to Chile and India. With that, the die was cast. She’d always been confident and outdoorsy, and now she was going to get a quick boost in being even more so.

And I was sold on the benefits of taking a gap year. According to Joe O'Shea, author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs,“researchers found that high school students who took a gap year went to college at the same rate as those who went straight to college.”

The study also found that gap years “had a significant positive impact on students’ academic performance in college.”

Additionally, a survey by the American Gap Association found that those taking gap years cited “gain life experiences/grow personally” and “travel/experience other cultures” as the top influences when deciding to take a gap year, with 90 percent saying it “helped me develop as a person”; “allowed time for personal reflection”; and “increased my maturity and self-confidence.”

These findings aside, it was Brooke’s all-out enthusiasm that persuaded me most, as evidenced by her first journal entry:

Brooke Buchanan: Journal Entry #1 (9/23/2016)

“Every second, minute and hour is worth cherishing because we have so little time on this Earth. It is impossible to go back and change something. In my opinion, regret is the worst feeling ever. These phrases run through my mind whenever I’m spending my time on something that isn’t worthwhile. Each day in my high school classes I dream about what other, more meaningful things I could be doing. I feel guilty or as if I am wasting my time each moment that I am feeling bored, when I could be immersing myself in the outdoors and learning from nature and Earth’s beauty.

Don’t get me wrong, education is a crucial component to the development of humanity and without it our species would deteriorate. But I’d rather be educated through what the Earth is teaching.

Last winter I decided I was done being confined in a classroom when I could learn in a different and more enjoyable way. I’d complete my senior year at the end of the first semester, five months before my fellow classmates would graduate. I talked with my counselor, and together we figured out a way to make it into a reality. I’d have to take extra online classes over the summer and get the request approved by many different school faculty members, but to me it was worth it.

Now that the hard work has paid off and it is certain that I will be graduating early, I get to plan what I’ll be doing for my gap semester: my first choice is to do a NOLS trip, if for no other reason than its acronym: the National Outdoor Leadership School. What more could I want? NOLS takes students to remote wilderness areas around the world and teaches them leadership skills, outdoor education, and environmental ethics. That’s exactly what I’m looking for: life-long lessons taught through nature and its surroundings.

After consulting with my parents, we all agreed it would be perfect for me. And so it began. We researched different courses and found one ideal for me. I will travel to Patagonia and spend a month backpacking and sea kayaking, outdoor activities I had already grown to love. This course even offers college credit and will teach me wilderness and backpacking skills. I couldn't be more excited...”

For me as a parent, it was that last line that cemented it: “I couldn’t be more excited.” Having your child that fired up about something—especially as he or she is about to embrace life’s next chapter—is all you could ever hope for, even if it brings them nearly 90 degrees of latitude away. Add the benefits of NOLS to the equation and any judgment gaps about a taking gap semester before college vanish like the sun she’ll see setting across the Patagonian Pacific.

Learn more about outdoor gap year programs with NOLS.

Written By

Eugene Buchanan

A 14-year editor-in-chief of Paddler magazine, Eugene Buchanan has written about the outdoors for more than 25 years, from covering the X Games for ESPN.com to working for NBC at the Beijing Olympics. A Business/Economics graduate of Colorado College, where he captained his NCAA lacrosse team, the former ski patrol, kayak instructor and sea kayak and raft guide also enjoys a successful freelance career, with articles published in the New York Times, Men's Journal, Sports Afield, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Adventure Journal, Skiing, Ski, Powder, Backcountry, 5280, Bike, Mountain Bike and other publications. An avid adventurer and member of New York's Explorer's Club who has kayaked in more than 30 countries, he is also a Contributing Editor for Powder and Canoe & Kayak magazines and contributor to Men’s Journal’s The Great Life anthology. His first book, Brothers on the Bashkaus, was released by Fulcrum Publishing in 2008. His second book, Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids, a winner of the Living Now Book Awards, was released in 2010, with Ultimate Canoe & Kayak Adventures following in 2013. His fourth book, Comrades on the Colca, was published by Conundrum Press in September 2016. He lives with his wife, Denise, and two daughters, Brooke, 17, and Casey, 14, in Steamboat Springs, Colo., just a block away from the Yampa River.

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kayaker paddling smooth blue water in Patagonia, as seen over the nose of photographer's kayak
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