Hi. My name is Shelli. I’m 43 years old. I have been married to Jerry for almost 20 years and we have three young sons, Wolf, 11, Hayden, 9, and Finis, 4.
This is a post about a wife and mother’s longing. It is also a post about a once-in-a-lifetime “epic” experience that I will never forget. It is also a post about gratitude. To be a wife and mother who was supported and encouraged to have an experience like the one recalled in this post is a gift for which I’ll be forever grateful. (With Thanksgiving approaching, now is a good time for me to thank most of all my husband, Jerry, who is my biggest champion, and who encouraged me to embark on this adventure while “holding down the fort.” Also, a big thank you to my parents, who helped with the boys while I was away, and to all who provide friendship and support to me.)
It was taking seemingly forever to get our expedition started. I was in The Last Frontier, headed to The Far North, to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in Alaska’s Brooks Range. I had looked forward to this adventure for months and was ready to get the party started. But as I was finding out, it takes a long time to get away from civilization.
After a night in a Fairbanks campground, we boarded a small airplane and spent a couple of hours flying to Coldfoot. After landing, we loaded into a van and spent three more hours traveling north before, finally, we were dropped off along the side of the road.
I was on my way to spending 12 days backpacking and exploring, while learning wilderness travel, outdoor skills and leadership from the world’s premier teacher, the National Outdoor Leadership School.
The experience I was about to embark upon was a dream come true. Actually it was two dreams come true.
Up until my departure for this trip, I had just one regret in my life, and that was that I had never taken a NOLS course. I was raised in Lander, Wyoming, where NOLS is headquartered. During my formative years, my parents would have supported my enrollment in a NOLS course and had offered as much. Unfortunately, I was more interested in my social life and basketball. But that was then. Now, I am an outdoor enthusiast. I love everything NOLS stands for, and I take pride in the fact that my town is home to the organization.
In recent years, when my regret for having never enrolled in a NOLS course would surface, friends who work at NOLS would tell me, “You know, it’s never too late.” But I wasn’t quick to agree. After all, I am a mother of young children. It felt selfish to think of embarking on a 2-week adventure. So, enrolling in a NOLS course was no small deal for me. It was a dream that had been hard for me to “justify.”
The other reason the NOLS course would be a dream come true for me is because of its location. I travel the country in search of the most epic scenery. In my mind, no place embodied epic better than Alaska’s Brooks Range. It would be a dream come true for me to get to intimately explore such an epic place.
Alaska is huge. Situated in the northwest extremity of the North America, with Canada to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, Alaska has a larger coastline that all U. S. states combined. Occupying 586,000 square miles, it is the largest U. S. state. And yet, it is the least populated. To put it in perspective, there is one person per square mile.
It’s vast, unpopulated and extremely wild, complete with grizzly bears. For all of these reasons, the NOLS Brooks Range Hiking course was perfect. Like I said, the things dreams are made of.
Except for one problem. It would come with some longing –– some serious longing.
Here is a clip of photos I captured and printed to be included in letters and cards a neighbor mailed to Jerry and boys for me every day while I was away:
Due to one of NOLS’ policies, which I understand, appreciate and support, I would have no communication with anyone outside of our course. That’s right, two weeks of no communication with my family.
The farther north we traveled on the Dalton Highway, the more excited I became. And yet at the same time, the farther north we traveled, the more heart sick I became as I realized the scale of this region and its distance from my family.
I should mention that traveling and being away from my family is not unusual for me. I travel frequently. When I am away, I miss them very much and, as a result I limit and select travel with great care. Typically I’m away for no longer than 1-3 days, and I can start and end each day in conversation with all of my sons. In a way, I can be there for them even though I’m geographically not there.
During my NOLS course, I would not be there for them. And, they would not be there for me.
I have many friends who are terrific role models as parents, who travel much more than I do. In the weeks leading up to my NOLS course, I looked to them for support. Their input was helpful. They told me things like, “This is good modeling for your sons. You want them to choose girls/women who are adventurous and brave.” And: “Think of the special gift you’re providing by leaving them to have these two weeks of special time with their father.” And: “Think of the country you will see and the tales of adventure you will get to share with your family upon your return.” And: “This is a dream of yours. It’s not a vacation, but an expedition. It will grow you. The knowledge and experience you gain from it will enable you to have a greater impact on the lives of your children, and future clients.” It all made perfect sense.
“Video Love Notes” I captured for Jerry and our sons during my NOLS Brooks Range Hiking course:
I worried aloud about not being here for my boys for two whole weeks. To this, some of closest friends reminded me that children are resilient and that although my sons love me, they probably wouldn’t miss me as much as I think they would, or as much as I would miss them. While hearing this was not exactly comforting, it was honest, and therefore helpful as I prepared to long for my boys.
Being away from my boys, with no ability to hear their voices and know how their lives and days were going, would – hands down – be the most difficult part of my NOLS experience. This much I knew.
The rain and intermittent snow, hiking through spongy tundra, and tussocks and through alders and across rivers and up steep, loose, exposed mountain ridges with a heavy pack on my back was easy compared to enduring the longing I had for my boys. The longing for my boys was at its worst at the end of each day when we all retreated to our tents. I would lie there and yearn to hear their voices, to smell their hair, to hold their hands, to “dog-pile” with them, and just to be in their presence. I was emotionally tender during these times. I literally had a heart ache.
When I sign up for something that is hard, I grow. My NOLS Brooks Range course was hard, all right. But, it was also, truly, an experience of a lifetime.
Despite the longing, I made life-long friends with my eight course-mates and our two wonderful instructors. I was blown away and inspired to new levels by the sights and scale of Alaska’s Brooks Range. I experienced the best leadership training, ever. I grew. I returned more, and better, than I was before. Part of this is due to the longing I experienced. Because my NOLS course meant sacrificing time and contact with my family, I participated in the course and experienced the Alaska tundra to the absolute fullest. As a result of all of these things, I cannot imagine a richer experience. And, I am quite certain that I returned a better mother and wife.
Photos I captured during my NOLS Brooks Range Hiking course for Jerry and our sons:
For all of you considering a NOLS course, I cannot recommend it enough. Please feel free to contact me to ask more personal or extensive questions about my experience.
This “self interview” captured on my final day in the Brooks Range says it better than my written words:
In closing, here are some things I did before my departure to ensure my boys would be touched, and reminded of my love, on a daily basis, despite no real-time communication with them, as well as some things I did for them during my absence.
I am a life/leadership coach. Services include on-demand coaching and consulting, with an option that includes an epic outdoor adventure. I also provide nutrition and personal branding consulting. Please email me if you’re interested in learning more about this.