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.