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 johnmc...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.