October 30, 2005
Serious upward mobility
Special to The Seattle Times
CHRIS AGNEW / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Lara McCluskey was 700 feet up a 1,000-foot climb up a rock wall, leading two students on their first such excursion.
The clouds began to build, and then it started hailing. There was a flash of lightning and six seconds later, a clap of thunder.
The storm was very close. McCluskey knew staying put wasn't safe. She had to decide between clambering to the top, where they could hide under the trees, or rappel down into a steep, snowy gully.
She remembers thinking, "I know what to do. I just have to do it," before taking the students up to the cover of the trees.
Making judgment calls that can have life-or-death consequences is part of the job for 27-year-old McCluskey of Seattle. She is an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a dream job for quite a few in a field where there are few openings.
McCluskey recently moved to Lander, Wyo., to take a 10-month job at the NOLS headquarters, setting up sites around the West for the school's mobile outdoor education program.
In Seattle, she had been working as a part-time outdoor instructor for NOLS, but was looking for a full-time job. There weren't many of them, even for someone as experienced as McCluskey.
"I am really excited about the position. Although Lander is not exactly the cultural hub that Seattle is, I am looking forward to the opportunity and experience," McCluskey said.
McCluskey has taught for NOLS for two years. "I love working with people and love the wilderness," she said.
NOLS started in 1965 in Wyoming by offering monthlong trips into the Wind River Mountains.
Want to teach outdoors?
Demand: Not so great. There are many more people who would like to do the work than there are openings.
Pay: You won't get rich, either. Starting salaries generally are $40 to $60 a day. With a couple of years' experience, you can make $80 to $120 per day.
Skills needed: First-aid training; the 18-hour Wilderness First Aid or 80-hour Wilderness First Responder courses are common requirements. Personal experience in the areas you want to teach also is required, be it day hiking or high-altitude mountaineering.
Now the school offers everything from semesters in Patagonia to two-week raft trips on Alaska rivers, from hiking trips in Idaho for young teens to sailing expeditions in British Columbia for students over 40.
Since 1999, NASA has arranged NOLS trips as opportunities for flight crews to work together as a team on an Earth-based expedition before heading into space.
For the past two years, the Naval Academy has been sending midshipmen to NOLS for leadership and group-building experience.
NOLS tends to hire instructors with extensive experience. It is considered one of the top schools in outdoor education.
Many students graduate ready to work for other outdoor programs.
Outdoor instructors teach a curriculum, McCluskey said, that includes lessons in leadership, outdoor skills, communication, environmental studies and ethics, safety and judgment, and natural history.
Summer work is the entry for most people working as outdoor educators.
Year-round work often requires unusual skills, or commitment to an organization by doing tasks such cooking, driving or administrative work.
Programs for at-risk youth, for example, have a steady demand for outdoor educators, but the work isn't for everyone.
After a few years, year-round work and worldwide travel are possible. More stable options would be running high-school and college outdoor programs.
Of the 520 NOLS instructors, only 36 work the 25 weeks a year that is counted as full-time employment, so like many outdoor educators, McCluskey pieces together contract work.
Working contract to contract means taking on a degree of personal and financial instability that, for many, is hard to comprehend. But to McCluskey, it is an adventure.
People approach working in the wilderness differently. McCluskey says her longtime partner, Chris Agnew, who also works for the school, "is very focused."
He reads Alpinist and Climbing magazines and Accidents in North American Mountaineering, an annual handbook about climbing.
As for herself, McCluskey says, "I am more all over the place. I might pick up a climbing magazine, but I might watch 'Def Poetry Jam' on TV instead."
During college, she studied cultural anthropology and Spanish. She worked for the college's outdoors center doing a little bit of everything until she was eventually leading trips.
"Friends in college did courses with NOLS; I always wanted to, but couldn't swing the money," she said.
She learned by getting everyone to teach her what they could.
She did a basic course with The Mountaineers. She led trips for Adventures Cross Country in California, did office work for Passages Northwest and worked as a cook for NOLS before becoming an instructor.
Beyond the adventure, the wilderness as a classroom drew McCluskey to the work.
"There are fewer distractions. And the ones that do exist are real. If there is a storm or some conflict in the group, you have to deal with it."
McCluskey is excited to work with students as they learn by doing.
"Teaching a class gets concepts into a student's head, but then actually building [a rock-climbing anchor] they discover it's more challenging than they realized."
Like any teacher, McCluskey finds herself learning.
"Each time I go out in the wilderness, I come back with measurable change," she said.
Even adversity leads to something of value.
"Sometimes I'll be miserable and cold in a tent, with mosquito bites all over my body, feeling very far away from my family."
But those moments ensure she appreciates the comforts of home as well as the confidence that teaching outdoors has brought her.
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