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Wilderness helped man to know his limits

Courtesy photo
The final test of Wells Rugeley's 90-day wilderness adventure at the National Outdoor Leadership School was 30 days of trekking through desert canyons in Utah, which included a traverse of the San Juan River.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some high-school graduates go to the beach before they head off to college. Wells Rugeley went to the wilderness.

Rugeley, 19, of Charleston, spent 90 days in the wilds of Wyoming and Utah, learning to survive in conditions many might consider intolerable. He backpacked through snow-capped mountains, canoed a whitewater river, climbed steep cliffs and trekked through a parched slick-rock desert.

He learned how to choose campsites, treat injuries, set climbing anchors, tie knots, build fires and purify water. More important, though, he learned that he was capable of far more than he ever might have imagined.

"I learned that I can adapt to any situation, overcome any challenge," he said.

In other words, Rugeley learned exactly what the teachers at the National Outdoor Leadership School hoped he would. The school, located in Lander, Wyo., uses wilderness adventures to teach environmental ethics, technical outdoor skills, safety, judgment and leadership.

Rugeley said it took him a while to figure out if he was up to the challenge.

"I was planning to go straight into the military out of high school, but my dad kind of talked me out of it because he wanted me to go to college first," Rugeley said. "He found the NOLS program and told me about it. It seemed like a challenge, and I like to challenge myself. So instead of starting college in the fall, I went out west."

He arrived in Lander, Wyo., on Aug. 22 and began the adventure.

"We got briefed on the course, got the gear we would need, and headed out for 10 days of backpacking in the Wind River Mountains," he recalled. "That was just to warm us up, to allow us to get familiar with all our equipment, and to break in our boots. After 10 days in the mountains, we went back to Lander."

"After that, we drove to Vernal, Utah, to start an 18-day, 120-mile whitewater canoe expedition.

We floated the Green River in two-person canoes, with all our gear loaded in. We camped along the river every night and moved every day."

After the expedition, the 11 adventurers in Rugeley's class traveled to Wyoming's Sinks Canyon State Park, where they spent a week climbing the canyon's rugged sandstone walls.

"At Sinks Canyon, we did 'sport climbing,' short pitches with gear already placed and bolts already in the wall. After seven days of that, we moved to Lankin Dome, Wyo., for nine days of traditional climbing. During that part of the climbing adventure, we learned to place our own gear and do multi-pitch ascents," he said.

Rugeley's curriculum at NOLS also included a 10-day course in wilderness medicine at the Three Peaks Ranch near Boulder, Wyo.

"We learned how to perform first aid using the kind of stuff you'd have on your hands," he said.

"In one exercise, we made a splint from a day pack, a pair of running shoes, a manila envelope and cut-up T-shirts," he said. "I ended up being certified as a Wilderness First Responder."

Rugeley's final adventure proved to be the most difficult.

"The last place we went was Cedar Mesa, Utah, for 28 days of hiking and camping in desert canyons," he said. "The desert climate at that time of year is pretty challenging. It's dry, with temperatures in the 70s during the day and well below freezing at night."

The most important chore each day was finding water.

"We would puddle-hop, and a lot of times the water we found wasn't the best. We could purify it for drinking and cooking, but sometimes it smelled or looked bad," Rugeley said.

The students carried only enough food for a few days at a time, and had to reach agreed-upon destinations on agreed-upon days to restock their backpacks.

"We started off carrying about 60 pounds worth of stuff in our packs," Rugeley said. "We quickly learned what was essential and what wasn't. By the time we got into the canyons, we had our packs pared down to the 45- to 50-pound range."

A sizable chunk of that weight was water. In arid climates, hikers need about 6 liters of water a day to stay hydrated -- a point that got driven home painfully during Rugeley's last seven days in the canyons.

"It was during our independent student group expedition, when we elected peer leaders and went out in small groups for seven days without instructors, completely on our own," he recalled. "My group had a pretty easy time of it until the last three days, when we ended up going 39 hours with very little water.

"We had found this pool of terrible, terrible water. I don't think it had ever seen the light of day.

We broke the ice with our boots to get to the water, and the smell that came out was horrible."

The stench prompted the other three members of Rugeley's group to fill up only three-fourths of their water containers. They figured they'd eventually find a better supply.

"I was the only one who filled up all my containers, mainly [because] we were headed into a place called 'Dry Wash,'" Rugeley said. "We made camp that night, and the next day we moved to a place called Comb Wash because we'd been told it was wet. It was bone-dry. In fact, there hadn't been water there in a long, long time. We kept coming across the bones and carcasses of dead animals.

"By then we were getting dehydrated because we didn't want to drink this bad water we had. We only had 8 liters among the four of us. That evening, we ate some cheese and chocolate-covered raisins and had a scoop of peanut butter apiece. I told everyone to put their water containers in their sleeping bags so it wouldn't freeze.

"I was the only one who did. That night it got down close to zero degrees, and their water froze solid. So did the cheese and the peanut butter. After that, we were down to maybe four liters of water."

After eating some trail mix for energy, the four trekked on in the general direction of a highway, operating on the assumption they could flag down a car if they got desperate enough.

"We were within about half a mile of the highway and completely out of water when we saw a small side canyon with two or three finger canyons converging at a single spot," Rugeley said.

"A place like that is usually a good place to look for water, so we headed that way. By then we were really dehydrated and starting to cramp up, so we sort of limped up the canyon.

"We looked ahead and saw what looked like a streak of mud. It turned out to be a crystal-clear flowing creek that sank into the sand of the canyon about 20 feet from where we were. We dropped to our knees and started drinking that water. No one cared if it was purified or not."

Rugeley called the water misadventure "both the high and low points" of his wilderness experience.

"It was one last test of us really toughing it out," he said.

Now in school at the University of Kentucky, Rugeley said he often calls on lessons learned at NOLS.

"Before, I'd be like, 'Oh, I've got all this homework.' Now, it's like, 'It's homework -- let's sit down and get through it.' Things that used to seem like problems aren't problems anymore.

"[NOLS] definitely changed my perspective on things. I came back a lot more confident, with a much better idea of who I am. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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