“NOLS has been on the periphery of my life for 40 years,” says Kate Dernocoeur. She sees that as a boon to her position as the author of NOLS’ new history book, A Worthy Expedition: The History of NOLS. “I’m close, but not too close.”
Dernocoeur completed a Wind River Ski course in 1973 and a Wilderness Horsepacking course the next summer.
“I get a lot of credibility when I tell old-timers my stuff burned up in the lumberyard fire in ’74 [which partially destroyed NOLS Rocky Mountain].”
On that first course, an instructor mentioned a new idea in medicine: the “emergency medical technician.” She remembers immediately thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” After graduating from Boston University with a degree in journalism in 1976, she enrolled in paramedic school and immersed herself in the world of emergency medicine.
In the late 1970s, the modern EMS system was still in its infancy. EMT training was based around medical techniques that hospital-based doctors were used to practicing. But Dernocoeur’s experience as an EMT showed her that other aspects of medicine on the street were just as important, as well as more challenging.
“You could handle 1,000 chest pains—same medicine. It’s the scene that’s unique. I thought, ‘why isn’t anyone teaching this street sense stuff?’”
The end result of her observations was the publication of Streetsense in 1984, the first in what would be a series of four books and hundreds of articles focused largely on the interpersonal complexities of street medicine.
Streetsense introduced the world of EMS to a skillset no one had thought to teach before. Now, says Dernocoeur, the field has grown up. The book, which went through three editions, is an out-of-print classic.
During the more than 20 years that Dernocoeur worked full-time in EMS, she had little contact with NOLS. As she related in the August 2000 edition of The Leader, she darted from her 1974 horse-packing course directly to Alaska for a sea kayaking trip. But just two days in, she evacuated herself from the course for vague medical symptoms she couldn’t figure out.
Although the Anchorage hospital diagnosed possible encephalitis, Dernocoeur felt the sting of failure.
“I felt somehow inadequate. Reports from others of wonderful NOLS experiences always made me … wishful that I could go back.”
Dernocoeur wrote that Leader article after acting as expedition medic on a National Geographic expedition down the Blue Nile in 1999. That trip healed her and convinced her to reconnect with NOLS. It also helped her realize that her time at NOLS had been formative.
“I have skills,” she says. “But I’ve never been able to put my finger on where they came from. Day by day, I give more credit to NOLS.”
Dernocoeur left EMS in 2003, returned to school, and completed a masters program in creative non-fiction in 2010. In the summer of 2014, she found herself on a NOLS alumni hiking trip in the Dolomites of Italy. She overheard a conversation about the NOLS history book project. When the school later put out a call for author applications, Dernocoeur was ready.
“The best part of this project is having the confidence of a place I really respect. That’s also the scariest part,” she adds.
After more than a year researching and writing the authoritative history of the school, Dernocoeur will never be able to claim “fringe NOLSie” status again.