|Rick's Right hand man, Saylor Flett, checking out the falls.|
"Slow is smooth, smooth is fast"
"You wouldn't worry so much about what people think of you if you knew how rarely they did"
The Feather River Outdoor Recreation Leadership Program(ORL) has been at the epicenter of outdoor leadership training in Northern California for at least a decade now. Students of the program have travelled the world, including Russia and Chile, and are generally amazing skiers, kayakers, leaders, workers, and people.
The program is run out of Feather River College, a community college in the vibrant and somewhat hard to leave town of Quincy, which is 90 minutes north of Tahoe. In the winter the valley is surrounded by snow capped peaks that offer quality backcountry skiing. The spring gives locals some of the best and most convenient whitewater in the state and the summer and fall have the opportunities of rock climbing, river releases, and beautiful hiking and swimming. The town of Quincy is lucky to have such a great school to support local skills and stewardship of the backcountry.
The philosophy of the program seems to be summed up in "Get 'em out there", and though the implementation is more complex than that, it has worked. People come out of this program with hard earned skills, and a much deeper sense of who they are and where they want to go than when they arrived.
There are a few adages I heard in my time there that have stuck in my mind:
"Tell me I will forget, show me and I will remember, let me do it and I will learn"
"Whether the weather is cold or whether the weather is hot, whether the weather is sunny or whether the weather is not, we’ll whether the weather whatever the weather, whether we like it or not"
People in ORL gain experience through days in the field, a lot of days in the field. During a year there are at least 100 days of class that are oriented towards skill building, and those are scheduled days. If you do any recreating yourself, you will hardly have time to unpack one trip for the next. People experience enough to see the mistakes they make and are able to adjust to the wild by correcting those mistakes. They also have conversations with a variety of experienced leaders during these outings, and not just the full time faculty. The program has a culture surrounding it that Rick Stock, the Program Coordinator refers to as "The Legacy".
Past students, people who have gone on to guide in West Virginia, Idaho, Alaska, Chile, Canada, as well as many other places often make a special pilgrimage back to their old stomping grouns to be guest instructors on trips. This gives students the opportunity to hear differing opinions on how to manage risk, what techniques are most useful, and generally reminds them that the program they are doing really leads to powerful and life-changing outcomes. People have a few major opportunities for this learning: The winter trip, the river trip, and the land trip.
The winter trip is a five day winter camping trip that, depending on the year, seems to either be dumped on, or struggling for snow. I remember the first snow cave I built, soaked with sweat, and thinking "How the hell am I going to stay warm now?". It certainly is a struggle to manage all the little things when you are out there: Cold feet, cold hands, hunger, food, exertion, attempting tele turns, pooping, cantankerous stoves, cheese that freezes, oh man... the cheese always freezes.
Students are not afforded the luxury of lethargy. Once the snow trip is over, it is onto the river. Rick, the program leader, does not believe in keeping boats pumped, so for all those raft guides grown indolent due to a top off pump, get off your butt. Every day those boats go out they are pumped by hand, a chore of love. When I went there, I reveled in it, I went rafting almost thirty times in the month of March during my time there, pumping and deflating the raft each time. I only grew lazy after becoming a raft guide. To top it all off(pun intentional) the raft guide school typically is spent in the snow, and if you haven't rafted while it snows then I can't really call you a rafter. This guide school builds character as well as skill.
ORL does not spare anyone the experience of real adventure. People are put face to face with problems, and they are expected to solve them and take care of themselves. If you walk away from his program with passion then you are on your way to a lifetime of recreation, if you don't then I would posit that perhaps the outdoors really is not where you should be anyway, because everything you experience there is just the beginning. Soon you will be hiking out of gorges, dealing with broken skis and poles 10 miles into a ski, and trying to manage injuries and helicopter landings if you continue on the path. It is not due to chance that success in his program leads to success in the profession.
|Rick demonstrating one of the qualities of a leader, a loud voice.|
You have to admire a program that lets you face the world, that allows you to safely fail, to reach deep within yourself to make the changes you must in order to survive, and beyond that, thrive. We all need that in our lives, a dose of reality, with all its nuance, pain, and joy. I have never had as much fun as when I was in the program, never felt so passionate, and have been profoundly impacted by the experience that I had there as a student.
The price tag is no deterrent either. With NOLS courses going for approximately $25,000 for an equivalent course, the price tag of less than $1000 for in-state tuition is a no brainer. This program will continue to produce stellar athletes, stewards of the wilderness, scholars, and inspire people to take this life and make it meaningful. My hat is off to the Feather River Outdoor Leadership program for their influence on the whitewater community, as well as the larger outdoor community. Check them out if you ever want to be invigorated. They have had student as young as teenagers and as old as people in their sixties(my parents). It is never too late to learn.