Above the Arctic Circle: what 14 days in the wilderness taught me about life & leadership

by | Aug 30, 2018 | Self-Leadership, Strategies and Tips

Imagine a place without a single trace of human disturbance. A place where the sun never sets and is so vast and majestic, your existence there seems unreal. While in this same place you encounter bitter cold, piercing rain, ravenous mosquitoes, charging grizzly bears, snow, hail, and even the occasional rainbow all in the matter of a day. Now imagine that you are in this place with 11 strangers whom you are dependent on for survival.

Evan Marie Allison, Sanger Associate Director

North of the Arctic Circle is one of the most remote and least-disturbed wilderness areas in North America. Over 126 million years old, the mostly uninhabited Brooks Mountain Range in Alaska spans 700 miles and reaches elevations over 9,000 feet. This magical yet harsh environment was the location of a 14-day backpacking expedition I completed through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)—an international program leading in wilderness leadership education.

Over the course of two weeks, 12 of us backpacked 50 of those 700 miles. Each mile revealed what seemed to be a new world beyond our own that brought new challenges, life lessons, and unparalleled magnificence. It is hard to articulate the full magnitude of how inconceivably awesome—awesome in its fullest of definitions—and intense the journey was. However, what I can say with certainty is that it was a truly transformational experience.

Nature is the most austere of teachers. She is forthright, assertive, abrupt, and brutally honest. The conditions of her classroom can strip away all sense of comfort and quickly expose every layer of your raw and authentic self. Yet, these attributes also make her the most effective of teachers. The classroom of the Alaskan wilderness taught me a myriad of lessons. Here are some that I found to be most important:

1. Stay Positive: I’m telling you!

Each day, our group would huddle to review our travel plan and divvy up leadership roles. One role was the Master of Morale—the individual responsible for encouraging the group to stay positive. Our teammate Eric was so great at this role that he was asked to take it on every day along with a partner. Eric would often hang in the back of our hiking group to cheer on and encourage the team from behind. In a big shout, he would command, “Staaaay positive! I’m telling you!” And it worked! Smiles would spread across the team and we would chuckle in reply and repeat, “I’m telling you!”

Alaskan camping

We camped in a different location each night. Photo credit: Eric Mak

I found the entire group’s ability to stay positive during the most challenging and uncomfortable of times completely remarkable. Think about all the little things that may frustrate you as you go about an average day. Think about how they impact your mood and performance. Yet, there we were hiking into the unknown through relentless rain, ankle-rolling tussocks, feet-numbing glacier-fed rivers, and swarms of ferocious mosquitoes with smiles on our faces.

Our group’s capability to remain positive and encourage one another for the duration of the journey was by far one of the most important keys to our success. I’ve carried this new perspective with me back into my everyday life. As a result, my stress tolerance is far greater than it has ever been. I can take on new challenges with a novel sense of calm while under pressure.

2. Don’t get stuck in failure.

I failed so many times throughout the trip. Whether it was when I incorrectly identified where we were on the topography map, struggled to tie a tundra knot to secure our tent, or when I delayed the group (several times) by being the last person ready to resume hiking after a break. Mid-way through the course, we gave and received feedback with our teammates. In my personal reflection, I shared that I was self-conscious because I felt like I was often slower and less efficient than others. One of my group members chimed in and shared that she felt the same way and that my perceived weaknesses may not be weaknesses at all. We were all in the struggle together. 

Teammates overlook the summit of a mountain pass.

There are a lot of firsts when you embark on a new experience in a place you have never been before. I’m sure many incoming students can relate. That being said, failure is an inherent part of the process. Getting stuck in it does you no favors. Instead of letting failure immobilize you, embrace it, reflect, improve, and move on. With this approach, you will have the confidence and competence to cross finish lines you never thought were possible.

3. You are capable of far more than you think.

A group of determined individuals is able to achieve far more than they think they are capable of. On our second to last day in the field, we were still roughly 12 miles away from our destination. We knew we had a difficult day ahead of us. Reaching our final pick up location on time required scaling a 1,500-foot mountain pass and hiking 12 hours with freezing, water-logged boots.

There were several times during the course when we would reach a cliff or a waterfall and I would think, “There is no way we are climbing down that with our 45-pound packs on our back.” Then, 10 minutes later we would be on the other side pushing on. When it was time to ascend the mountain pass, every time we thought we had made it to the summit, we saw that it was still above us. We had to keep on climbing not sure of how far or long it would take. When we finally reached its peak, it was an emotional accomplishment for the team. When spirits were at their lowest and the task at hand seemed impossible, together, we prevailed.

Our journey reminded me that we are far hardier and resilient than we believe ourselves to be. This experience has redefined what is possible for me. What impossible things are around the corner for you to achieve?  Realizing your potential is a life-changing gift.

Snow on the mountains

Snow on the mountain peaks.

4. Don’t just count your blessings: recognize your privilege.  

Spending two weeks living on only what you can carry on your back has reminded me just how little we really need to get by. It forces you to become much more resourceful with what is already available to you. In the field, who needs a sponge to clean dishes when you have an abundance of tundra moss? Do you really need 30 pairs of socks? Additionally, my experience has provided me with a whole new appreciation for things that might otherwise be taken for granted: personal hygiene, dry clothes, and space for silent reflection. Intentionally putting myself in a situation where I would have to thrive with only limited resources was an extremely effective way to check myself, foster gratitude, and gain humility.

I want to acknowledge that having the means to choose to learn and grow in this way, let alone in such a breathtaking setting, is an incredible privilege. Just as having access to higher education is an incredible privilege. Not everyone is so fortunate to learn this way by choice— knowing that they can return to a life filled with so many modern-day comforts and luxuries. I am forever grateful for the opportunity, the numerous life lessons I’m still digesting, and the incredible bond that I now share with my 11 comrades.

Prior to the trip, I told the Sanger team that I hoped to gain insights to help me become a better leader, teammate, and person in general. With enthusiasm, I look forward to putting these lessons to the test and living out that aspiration. The bottom line is: unless you are willing to push yourself outside your comfort zone, take great risks, and face the unknown, you’ll never know what new definition of possible is achievable for you.


Team at peak of mountain

Our team of 12, celebrating reaching the top of a summit.