The birth of a wilderness program

The first Wilderness Education Course participants, 1978, in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness of Wyoming. Drury is in the top row, second from left. (Photo provided)

By 1972, I had completed my bachelor’s degree in Recreation Education from SUNY Cortland and had two transformative experiences — taking a National Outdoor Leadership School wilderness leadership course, and climbing Denali.

A couple of years later, I completed the NOLS Instructor’s Course. Those four events told me one thing: I wanted a career where I could educate folks about the outdoors and how to be outdoor leaders.

Maybe I could work for NOLS? Nah, I didn’t want to live in Wyoming.

Maybe I could become an outdoor guide? Again, nah. In 1972 there was no demand.

Maybe I could work for one of the new wilderness programs for “at risk” youth? Well, I did that for two seasons, but realized I was becoming an ersatz therapist, not an outdoor leader.

The first NCCC Wilderness Practicum, 1979. (Photo provided)

Finally, I thought maybe I could run a college-level wilderness leadership program. And that’s what I pursued.

I made an appointment to meet with Bill Rutherford, the dean of forestry at Paul Smith’s College. I thought that with their variety of forestry programs, and the college’s namesake’s history of hiring guides, it would be a natural place to have a wilderness leadership program.

I gave him a brief description of my vision and he immediately lectured me on why such a program was not something Paul Smith’s College would ever offer.

“Recreation is what students learn on their own free time,” he said, “it’s not something to teach.”

It was the only time I’d been verbally thrown out of an office, and I slunk away to lick my wounds.

I had no luck generating any interest in my vision until I met Doug Kelly, director of the Malone campus of North Country Community College. He immediately offered me a one week-canoe trip and a one-week backpacking trip to teach that summer. His support also triggered similar course offerings at the Saranac Lake Campus.

I gained some wonderful teaching experience, was honing my craft, and earned just enough money to stay below the poverty line.

In 1977, Doug offered me a one-year job as a jack of all trades at the Malone campus. It was located in an old bank building on Main Street, where my office was the vault. Assisting Doug in every way I could, I did everything but wash the windows. But best of all I taught a hiking class and a three-credit Outdoor Leadership class.

That December, I got word that Paul Petzoldt was traveling to the northeast promoting a new organization called the Wilderness Education Association, a nonprofit affiliating with colleges to train outdoor leaders. I thought if I could get him to visit the North Country it might help me get a wilderness program going.

So, who was Paul Petzoldt? Petzoldt had an outdoor resume longer than Rapunzel’s hair. In 1924, at age 16, he ascended the Grand Teton wearing cowboy boots. He told folks the only reason he didn’t die of hypothermia was that the word hadn’t been invented yet.

Amazingly, he did a double ascent of the Matterhorn in one day. Why the double ascent? Because once he traversed it, the hut he was to stay at in Italy was so dirty he and his companion decided to climb back over the mountain to Switzerland.

In 1938, Paul was a member of the first American team to attempt to climb K2, arguably the world’s most challenging mountain. Although the group was unsuccessful in summiting, Paul set a record at the time for the longest stay above 20,000 feet, over two weeks.

His early climbs of the Grand Teton led to his creation of a guide service and eventually to partnering with Glenn Exum to create Petzoldt-Exum Mountain Guides.

In 1962, he became the chief instructor for the first American Outward Bound School in Colorado. His work with Outward Bound convinced him that you could find great rock climbers, great fishermen and great campers, but rarely great outdoor leaders. That caused him to start the National Outdoor Leadership School in 1965.

After 40 years the plain-speaking, rough-and-tumble mountain man had become the ultimate outdoorsman. He was even featured on the quiz show “To Tell The Truth,” where a panel tried to guess which of the three contestants was the “real” mountaineer. No one guessed Paul.

In 1969, while I was attending the University of Wyoming, I saw a big barrel-chested man with bushy-white eyebrows eating at our cafeteria. I didn’t recognize him, but someone mentioned that he was the famous mountaineer, Paul Petzoldt. It turned out that at the age of 61, having recently started NOLS and giving lots of presentations, he decided to take some public speaking classes. A few months later I heard him speak about his new school in Lander, Wyoming.

“How do you deal with all the discomforts of the outdoors?” someone in the audience asked. “When I think of being outdoors, I think of being cold, wet, getting blisters, and being miserable.”

He answered, “We believe if you’re uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right.”

That answer made a lifelong impression on me and made me want to learn how to do it right.

Fast forward a decade. When I heard he’d be in the northeast, I called and invited him to the Adirondacks — he eagerly accepted. After Paul arrived in Saranac Lake, I kept him busy for four days with a talk at the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 5 Headquarters, a presentation to the Rotary Club, an evening lecture at Paul Smith’s College, and a couple of presentations at NCCC.

The most important event, however, was a breakfast to which I’d invited a group of NCCC faculty and administrators. Upon finishing breakfast, Paul stood up and in his booming voice said, “The Adirondacks is the perfect place for a wilderness leadership program.” Then, to my complete surprise, he said: “I think NCCC should start such a program, and Jack Drury is the perfect person to lead it. I want him to come to Wyoming this summer and help me teach one of our new Wilderness Education Association courses.”

I was beyond pleased because Paul barely knew me. We’d crossed paths only a few times during my NOLS experiences, but the previous few days that I’d spent with him must have made an impression.

That summer I went out and participated in one of the first WEA courses and made a half-dozen lifelong friends, including Petzoldt.

At the end of the summer I returned, and as I was sitting in the old bank vault one day, I got a call from Paul’s assistant, Sandy Braun. “Paul wants NCCC to offer a WEA course next summer,” she said, “He wants to know what dates you could do it.”

I told her I’d have to get back to her because I had no idea whether the college would support it. Feeling that this might be my big break I immediately called Larry Poole, the college’s academic dean.

“Larry, remember that wilderness fellow we had breakfast with last April, Paul Petzoldt?”

“Sure,” he said, “A very interesting and charismatic guy.”

“Well, I said, “His secretary just called.”

“Yeah?” Larry said.

“She told me Paul would love for NCCC to offer a 33-day wilderness leadership course that’d be certified by the Wilderness Education Association.”

Larry said, “Really?”

“She asked me if I could give her dates for next summer.”

“Well,” he said, “did you give them to her?”

So, after seven years of knocking on the door, NCCC had at last let me in. The college’s Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program ran its first 33-day wilderness practicum in the summer of 1979 and accepted students into the A.S. degree program that fall. When I left NCCC in 1995, the program was bursting at the seams with nearly 70 matriculated students.

I thought NCCC and the Wilderness Recreation Leadership program was a great place for students to learn wilderness leadership skills. And I still do.


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