Albion College student learns how to live in the wild

March 6, 2023

Sarah Lindner, ’23, has no problem getting out of her comfort zone. Choosing a college 3,660 miles from her hometown of Two Rivers, Alaska, wasn’t a problem, and Lindner had expected to go even farther abroad during college.

COVID, of course, changed her ideas about where she might go.

“Traveling abroad just seemed too complicated,” said Lindner, a senior majoring in geology at Albion College.

She may not have left the U.S., but Lindner spent this past fall semester in places few Americans have seen. While canoeing, hiking and climbing, Lindner traveled the most remote parts of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. She saw black bears and bobcats from her canoe, visited ancient Anasazi dwellings, cooked over a campfire and learned how to “read” river currents.

It was more exercise and less showering than with a “typical” off-campus semester, but for Lindner, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was ideal. The program’s academic coursework in environmental science, geology, and risk management were taught by instructors who canoed, hiked, and lived with the students. The semester also included a 90-hour Wilderness First Responder certification course, something Lindner had wanted to do for several years.

Lindner notes that the learning wasn’t confined to the materials covered by the coursework. Skill-building –how to load a canoe, tie useful knots, navigate with a map and compass and assess the stability of rock faces – was equally vital.

“So much of the learning is based on your basic needs and totally non-optional,” she said. “If you can’t fix the stove, then there’s no food; if you don’t pack the right gear, then you’ll be cold and miserable. Sometimes it was a tough way to learn stuff, but ultimately so rewarding.”

She and her fellow explorers also learned lessons about what was and wasn’t important. Privacy – at least behind walls – wasn’t worth the effort.

“We mostly slept on the ground, because if you don’t put the tent up, you don’t have to take it back down,” she explains. Toilet paper? “We couldn’t leave it behind, and I wasn’t about to carry it out,” she recalls.

The phones left behind at base camps were another story. “We went for weeks without knowing what was going on in the world,” she said. “But we all missed our music so much. As soon as we got back to where the van was, we’d turn on the radio. We’d listen to anything.”

The experience confirmed Lindner’s interest in a career in a primarily outdoor setting – anywhere, she says, from a national park to a summer camp. It’s not a goal shared by many of her Albion peers, but Lindner nonetheless feels that Albion has provided support in pursuing her goals.

“Albion has given me confidence in my ability to be confident going into new environments,” she said. For a person from rural Alaska, “Albion was a big town, but I found ways to connect with people and things to appreciate about a very different environment than I was used to. That was integral to this past semester,” she said. “Being able to be excited about new things rather than nervous was really helpful.”

It was also during her first college summer that Lindner worked at a camp serving kids from Chicago. “A lot of those kids had never been in a place where they could see the stars,” she said. “If kids don’t get a chance to be outdoors, they’ll grow up without knowing how to navigate in the natural world. I want to do something that helps people feel comfortable being outdoors. The bonus is that I get to be outdoors too.