SARANAC "I've always been into hiking, running and being outside," 22-year-old Ben Rush said of himself. Rush ran for Saranac during his high school years, and it was during those years, while surfing the net, that he came across a website that would change his life. The website was coolworks.com, a site that posts jobs in various National Parks. Rush made obtaining a summer position in a National Park, where he could get out and explore during his free time, one of his goals.
Rush met that goal the summer after his freshman year at Fredonia State. He landed a job in Glacier National Park in Montana. "It turned my world upside down," he said of the experience. "I worked with a super positive group of people who were super physically fit and they were always going out to do something." With plenty of great hiking companions Rush logged 800 miles of hiking, which included some scramble climbing and a close encounter with a grizzly bear.
Rush hoped for more of the same when he sought a position the following summer in Alaska. He was hired at a lodge in Cooper Landing, AK, however his coworkers were more interested in fishing for salmon in the Russian and Kenai Rivers, one of the top salmon fishing areas worldwide. Although Ben enjoyed some awesome salmon fishing, he was left yearning to explore Alaska, and began planning a return trip.
Rush wasted no time. Once again, surfing the net, he stumbled onto another website that would change his life. He discovered NOLS, The National Outdoor Leadership School. NOLS is accredited through the University of Utah and offers a summer semester in Alaska for a small group of adventurous students. The students earn 16 credits in wilderness leadership and survival, environmental studies and ethics, and biology. Rush applied immediately and before Sept. 2006 ended he had a notice of acceptance from NOLS in his hands.
The program began on May 24 at NOLS headquarters in Palmer, AK, and ended there on Aug. 7. The program was divided into three parts, 23 days of sea kayaking, 23 days of backpacking, and 23 days of mountaineering on the glaciers.
Rush, the 2 NOLS leaders, and the 10 other students were brought to Whittier, on the Prince Edward Sound, and set out in kayaks. Their destination was Valdez, 196 miles away. Rush had never even been in a kayak before. After his first day of kayaking he could barely walk. To make matters worse, it rained for the first 14 days. "I learned that all those things that are supposedly waterproof really aren't," he said with a laugh. "I became well educated on how to keep dry. With the temperatures averaging only 40 degrees and seawater that was only in the mid 30s, the students lives depended on staying warm and dry.
The abundance of wildlife more than made up for any discomfort. Several times the group kayaked through a pod of Humpbacked Whales. "They were breeching on both sides of us," Rush commented. "Another time were in the midst of them when they were bubble netting. That is when they swim in a circle exhaling air. The plankton get caught in the bubbles and then the whales scoop them up. We could hear them communicating to each other under the water too," Rush added.
Other wildlife highlights in the sound were the Orca whales and tons of sea lions. "The sea lions were show boats,"Rush commented with a smile of remembrance. "They would come up close to our camp and show off." Unfortunately, sea lions are sometimes aggressive, a discomforting thought since they can weigh up to 1,200 lbs. One day a male sea lion trailed one of Ben's friends. Every time his friend turned around to see if the sea lion was still there, it would bare his teeth at him and growl!
Rush found the tide water glaciers in the sound to be spectacular. "We had to stay about a half mile from the glaciers because when pieces of them broke off and fell ( an event called calving), huge waves were created," Rush explained. He witnessed several calvings. "It sounded like loud thunder," he said.
Upon arriving at Valdez, the NOLS group was bussed back to headquarters for a days rest. The next day they were bussed up the Denali Highway and dropped off on a dirt road with all of their backpacking gear. The group hiked up into the Talkeetna Mountains where they would spend the next 23 days, each carrying about 50lbs. of gear and food. Every 6 to 10 days bush pilots flew them out more food rations.
"The mountains were phenomenal," Rush said. "Some of them were so green, while others were bronze or red because of all the different ores in the rocks." Wildlife abounded in the mountains as well. "We saw tons of caribou which are a huge staple food supply for the natives."
The last four days of backpacking was an independent student lead expedition. The group was split in two and a leader was chosen by peers to lead each group. Rush felt honored to be one of the two chosen. He was responsible for mapping out a route for the 4 day trip and ensuring that all in his group reached the destination point safely.
"It was awesome to lead a group of friends in completely trailless country. It was a big responsibility. I had to fill out daily logs that would serve as legal documents should something go wrong," Rush said.
One day of the expedition included 3 hours of navigating through a mountain pass in complete white out fog. On the last night Rush and his group summitted a peak at midnight. "The sun was still high in the sky and to the west it was really cloudy. Then all of the sudden the clouds cleared and all the Alaskan high peaks came into view," Rush remembered. "Mt. Denali (also known as Mt. Mckinley) was so close. We just hung out on the summit for an hour."
With the second session completed the group was bussed out to Mt. Nalsheena Glaciers for 23 days of mountaineering. "The mountaineering turned out to be my favorite session," Rush said, "because you needed to use so many skills."
Rush and his group hiked 25 miles before reaching the toe of the glacier, which is the place where the glacier touches the ground. They carried about 75 lbs. on their backs as climbing the glacier would require extra technical gear. Rush was surprised to find that due to grit and dirt on the glaciers surface, much of it had a stable hiking surface and could be traversed with nothing more than a good pair of mountaineering boots. They encountered many crevasses on the dry glacier ( the part of the glacier not covered with snow). "Basically, the rule of thumb was not to step across any crevasse that is wider than your body plus pack," Rush explained. The crevasses were so deep that you could not see the bottom of them, just black nothingness. The group was able to descend part way into some of the crevasses and climb back out using their ice climbing gear.
Most of the time on the glaciers the temperatures ranged from almost 60 in the day, to below freezing at night. The group rose each morning at 4:30, pulling on frozen boots. "That was the most miserable part," Rush said. The early start allowed them to take advantage of the harder snow surfaces which tended to get mushy as the day progressed.
When they reached the wet glacier, the part covered with snow, they needed to use ropes. At this height all that could be seen was snow, ice and jagged rocks, and intense wind was a constant companion. They had to dig up snow and build wind walls around their camps. Sometimes they encountered snow storms. Rush was greeted by one on the morning of his 22nd birthday. The biggest danger on the wet glacier was crevasses masked by the snow. The group had to take turns probing through the snow for hidden crevasses.
Their goal was to reach the summit of Mt. Fafner, a completely technical glaciated peak with an elevation of 10,600 feet. With so many crevasses, navigating a safe path to the summit was like figuring out a maze. At 9,600 feet the group leaders determined that there was no safe passage at this time to the top. Perhaps if they had done this session earlier in the summer, there would have been some safe snow bridges over the now uncrossable crevasses. Even so, the expedition was a success because the group learned and mastered so many mountaineering skills. Rush discovered that he loves ice climbing and he is looking forward to ice climbing in the Adirondacks during his winter break.
Last week Rush journeyed back to Fredonia University for his Senior year where he is earning a Bachelor's degree in Archeology. Fredonia is devoid of mountains, a fact that Rush says is "Brutal!" But in May he will graduate, and then who knows where he might go or what he might do. Look out world, here comes Ben Rush!