Wilderness school a natural fit for Yukon

With just an office and storage space tucked away in Hillcrest, it’s easy to overlook the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Yukon…

With just an office and storage space tucked away in Hillcrest, it’s easy to overlook the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Yukon operation.

“Nobody knows we’re here; we’re fully off the radar screen,” said Jim Chisholm, who heads up the Canadian operations for NOLS in Whitehorse. There is no school or classrooms, at least not in the city.

The wilderness is the classroom for these students.

 “In our 76-day semester, people are in town for, maybe, four hours,” said Chisholm, adding that as soon as students arrive, they start camping. When they finally return to town in August, “some take a shower, some just want to get a hamburger.”

The school, a non-profit society that started in Wyoming 42 years ago, has operations in Chile, India, Australia, Mexico and the USA, with a mandate to deliver expedition-length courses on outdoor education and leadership.

“Characteristically, we’re a whitewater canoe and backpacking branch,” said Chisholm of the Yukon school. “Some of the other places have sailing or sea kayaking; we specialize in whitewater canoeing because the rivers are so great up here.”

NOLS has been running courses in the Yukon wilderness since 1996 — they relocated their Canadian operations here from Smithers, BC, in 1999.

“We found we kept coming farther and farther north,” said Chisholm. “We thought, ‘Why aren’t we in Whitehorse? Why are we doing all this driving?’”

Yukon is high on the to-do list for most NOLS instructors, because of its remote location.

“It’s pretty easy to operate here, because there’s so much wilderness,” said Chisholm, who spent 22 years teaching around the world with NOLS, before taking a desk job here two years ago.

For a six-year period, he never crossed the equator, or had a home — he just went from course to course in Chile, Australia and New Zealand.

Chisholm said he’d like to increase the number of local people taking courses, adding that Whitehorse is a perfect place to have the skills that NOLS teaches.

“It really is the best place, if you look at our 13 locations,” he said. “People can go out for a month and never see anyone except the people they are travelling with. In Wyoming or other places, you may see people on a daily basis.”

The courses start at $100 a day, and increase from there. But Chisholm is hoping a local scholarship plan will boost NOLS’ profile in Whitehorse.

As it is, most of the 130 students coming through the Yukon programs in a summer season are American.

Last year, 13 Yukoners qualified for the scholarship, including two high school students.

“We’d like to give the outdoor industry, if you can call it that, a boost,” he said. “To teach about northern Canada, to be a Canadian with experience in the North is going to make for a better course than someone from California here for the first time.”

Yoshie Kumagae, who works with international students at Yukon College, qualified for one of the scholarships last year.

“I was amazed, when I told people I was taking a NOLS course … people didn’t know what it was — they’re more aware of Outward Bound,” said Kumagae, who heard about the scholarship from a NOLS instructor friend.

“But more people will get this local scholarship opportunity, and I talk about it a lot,” she added.

Kumagae did a 32-day course of whitewater canoeing on the Bonnet Plume River.

“I was expecting to get skills development — but I was amazed how much it affected me personally,” she said.

“I felt really strong about who I am. It really helped me develop my self-confidence.”

The school attracts a wide range of students, from seasoned vets to complete newbies.

“One of the students had never slept in a sleeping bag in the past,” Kumagae said of an Irish student in her group.

“But he was one of the best students in the class, because of his personality. That’s important on a long trip with people you don’t know.”

Motivations are wide ranging too; some people just want to get some outdoor skills, others hope to start a career as a guide.

NOLS Yukon offers a number of programs over the summer, from two-weekers to the 76-day semester program. Chisholm hopes to add winter programming soon.

“I would love to do a backcountry ski and winter camping course, but we already have that in our Wyoming and Idaho programs — using Telemark skis, building quinseys, avalanche training — if the demand was there, we could open a third winter program.

“As it is, we can’t have three programs that are half full. It’s a matter of time, I think.”

Registration for summer 2007 courses will begin in March, but Chisholm wants to get the word out early about the local scholarships that are available.

NOLS Yukon will be holding an information session at the Whitehorse Public Library on December 13, 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Check out www.nols.edu for more information.