Bel Air woman learns outdoor leadership skills in trip to New Zealand

Hiking with a 50-pound backpack for the better part of a day is physically demanding, but doing so up the side of a mountain is exhausting. Wendy Cirko found that out the hard way.

She could have been sitting on a couch in her Bel Air home, watching TV, she said. But as she grabbed tufts of grass to help her on the steep ascent, all the while trying not to think about how far she could fall if she weren't careful, she couldn't help wondering what she had gotten herself into.

All this came on just Day Three of her 77-day National Outdoor Leadership School program, a three-part trip through New Zealand that included about 40 days of backpacking, about 30 days of kayaking and about 10 days aboard a 40-foot sailboat. Unsurprisingly, the expedition presented physical challenges, but Cirko learned quickly that tests of fitness were not the only trials awaiting her.

"It was totally worth it, and you realize that at the time, but you're just like, 'Why am I doing this?'" said Cirko, 21, a senior environmental studies major at Salisbury University who also is minoring in outdoor education and philosophy. "A lot of it was kind of almost scary situations, because you're out there in the wilderness, so a lot of it was overcoming challenges, whether it be physical ones or mental ones."

Marathon days

Even as the course challenged her and other participants — at one point driving someone in another group to leave the program early — Cirko pushed forward, motivated by the encouragement of instructors and the other nine members in her group.

A steep climb above the tree line on the third day was particularly difficult for Cirko, who hadn't encountered anything as physically demanding by that point in the trip. Trip participant and friend Susan Farrell, a freshman at Princeton, was similarly strained.

"It turned into, I think, a 12-hour day of hiking, and my body had just never gone through something like that before with a pack that heavy and slopes that steep, and [I was] just literally holding on to this mountainside for dear life, fearing I would fall off, and it just seemed like I totally couldn't do it," Farrell said. "And that happened on the third day."

Jeanne O'Brien, PR and partnerships manager for NOLS, said trip participants go through a screening process that ensures participants are fit enough to handle the course.

Cirko's group struggled later in the trip to reach the top of a switchback mountain, but she said the effort — and decision to take a detour to see a waterfall and pool of cold water — made it easier to appreciate the panoramic view.

"So on the same day that we found a waterfall, we climbed up above tree line and then just stayed in this hut, where we could kick back and we read and we caught up on all our things we had to write, and we had a picnic," Cirko said. "Seeing two super-cool things in the day and then just relaxing, we were like, 'This is great.' It gave us the opportunity to sit back, I guess, and kind of appreciate how cool that it was that we were up in this hut in the middle of the mountains."

Learning leadership

Trip instructors had control over much of the decision-making early in the program, but each participant had opportunities to be a leader for the day, working with one other leader to take responsibility for developing travel plans for the next day and then executing that plan, O'Brien said.

When it was her turn to lead, Cirko and her group made their way to their destination, only to discover that there was no water available. Food was supplied in 10-day increments, but the hikers needed to find freshwater they could treat. She faced a choice: hike 2 kilometers back to where they knew there was water or go an additional 7 kilometers forward to make the next day's hike shorter.

Cirko and the other leader of the day decided to go forward, and some participants pushed themselves a bit too hard, she said, suffering strains but no serious injuries.

Farrell said Cirko adopted a good leadership style that was not too aggressive and that allowed group members to excel. Cirko was her "partner in misery," Farrell said, and was there to talk and be supportive whenever needed.

Still, Cirko said the decision to go the extra 7 kilometers carried risks that became apparent when one participant had to leave for part of the backpacking section before returning for the kayaking section. Her knees were giving her problems, and Cirko thought they might have been made worse by the extra-long day.

Taking to the water

The kayaking portion was similar to the backpacking, Cirko said, although each day's travel time was shorter when kayaking. The sailing portion, however, forced five participants and one instructor to live in close quarters with one another on one of two boats that were fully stocked with water and food.

"We were used to being able to wander; we would travel far distances and we would exercise movement. And when we were on the boat, it's just like you're on the boat," Cirko said. "You can walk laps around it, but that's about it."

Because she is on her college's sailing team, Cirko was already familiar with most of what the instructors taught on the boats, but she said the experience served as a good transition back to "post-trip life."

Cirko, who took a semester off to participate in the program, said she doesn't know what she plans to do after graduating in May, but she wants to make sure she can carry her love of the outdoors into her future.

After an entire semester of adventuring through New Zealand, that much is clear to her.

"Being off trail especially, you never know what kind of challenge you're going to face, but the fact that when we get to camp at night we could all look back and laugh about it usually was really cool," Cirko said. "Because you just bond over that hard challenge that you faced earlier and you're like, 'We all made it. We're all good.'"