From Angette Pastuszek - "The Golden Three - Lessons I learnt backpacking through Alaska"

Dear GECKO supporters,

            I would like to take a moment of your time to thank you for giving me this wonderful experience.  Your support has given me a scholarship to a NOLS course. As an avid outdoorswoman and a future wildlife biologist this was a dream come true. My NOLS course has taught me lessons that I will undoubtedly refer to in the future. There were many lessons, but I picked “The Golden Three”.

The first lesson I learned is "take time to appreciate the hard work", after hours of continuous bushwhacking, sheets of icy rain or a horribly cooked meal, you have to appreciate the effort put into each action. Sitting on top of a mountain after a hard, sweaty 14 miles, look up and appreciate the brilliant orange clouds that stained the snow capped ranges. See the wonderful individuals you share this experience with. If you wouldn't have put that much effort into hiking that day, that view couldn't be that striking, the friendships not as special.

The second lesson I learned was to “lead by example and share the wealth”. When someone was having a tough day, the kind of day that slowly grinds the gears, the best thing you can do is share your trail mix, crack jokes and help them set up their tent. Because your positive energy and willingness to understand is the greatest way to improve group dynamic.


The third lesson, “when the milk spills, just clean it”. Some days when we were soaked to our skin it was difficult to not complain and keep going. But you just had to realize the only way to get dry was to make it to camp and crawl in that beautifully crafted sleeping bag and slide on those sacred dry socks. Vocalizing the level of difficulty and discomfort doesn't help the situation. Everyone already is going through the same exact experience. But it was these situations that we will remember the most, and what they taught us.

There were difficult times on our course, like the day we climbed a steep pass in blizzard conditions. We all developed mild hypothermia but we sang loudly to Journey, trying to overpower the howling wind as we waited to hear from the instructors whether we could climb down the other side. Three hours ticked by but we were unable to get down in this weather, we returned to our previous campsite and stayed there. Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty, right? It was a very humbling experience.

Another day we had set up camp along the banks of the Wood River with intentions to cross the next day. It had rained that entire day and didn’t stop that night either. We decided for a layover day to have classes on Wilderness Medicine. It had been raining for over 48 hours without stopping. Before crawling in my tent I noticed the small creek beside my tent swelling every hour. I said to my tent mate, “Jackie, we are going to be underwater in the morning” with all seriousness and crawled in my tent. I assured myself the 100 meters between us and the Wood was safe enough. Jackie was very upset that night because she was supposed to be an LOD(Leader of the Day) and she couldn’t figure out how to read a map. I tried my best to teach her and comforted her with an “Everything will be better in the morning”.

At 3 am I woke to a damp feeling creeping in my sleeping bag. I put my hand out onto the tent bottom, it was the consistency of a waterbed, and the ground had turned to Jello. I yelled to Jackie, who was still sound asleep, “Jackie we need to get out of here we are going to drown!” I frantically started to throw my wet belongings in my pack as water poured into the mesh bug netting of our tent. Jackie and I began to just start laughing, what were we supposed to do in this situation? Jackie said, “So Jett you said everything was going to get better in the morning?” I shook my head and crawled out of my tent still in my base layers. My foot hit the sediment with glacial river water up to my knees. I threw my bag on high ground and began to wake everyone up. As soon as 2 other people emerged from their bogged tents, we ran to the kitchen and started throwing our gear out of the river that was running through our cooking area. Luckily nothing was lost. I sat in the mud, my feet purple and numb from the frigid water.

The Instructors had decided there were to be no LODs that day, and we should cross the Wood River before it got any more dangerous. It was 4:30 in the morning and we threw on our wet boots and packs. Watershed off the mountains was 1 ½ feet deep. Just imagine, everywhere there was a knee deep river that you couldn’t get out of. We hiked 5 miles before we found a suitable place to cross. The water was belly-button deep in some places but we all made it across safely. We hiked another 3 miles to the airstrip where our re-rations would be. We made it there by 11 am. As soon as our feet touched the strip the rain stopped and the sun came out. It was surreal. We emptied our soaking belongings and hung them on every willow we could find. It looked like a used gear sale. Our instructor called the pilot letting him know we reached the airstrip. Ray, the pilot, decided to go ahead and bring our re-rations a day early without knowing what we had been through that morning.

Needless to say it was a long day, but not one moment during it did I wish I was home. Every hardship during my course was what made it so interesting. Even when a bear stole 15 pounds of food from my group and we went on a “low calorie diet” for ISGE(Independent Student Group Expedition, which is where we are completely independent of the instructors for 5 days and 4 nights). The stories you tell people after aren’t the beautiful and serene moments of sitting atop a peak, but the gritty and challenging ones.  

What made it all worth it was seeing the natural beauty that surrounded us. The natural beauty people like NOLS and GECKO help protect. I am so glad I got to have such a wonderful and amazing experience and be around unique and incredible people whom I’ve grown to love so much. GECKO and NOLS are for sure organizations I will always support for their dedication to the outdoors. They intensified my passion to teach the masses about wildlife and how important it is we protect and enjoy nature. Thank you so much for time, energy and support for what GECKO and NOLS stand for. It was because of those things I was blessed to go on such a wild trip, a trip I will never forget and for that I am eternally grateful.

Angette Pastuszek