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Hanover Grads Take Unique Journey to New Zealand

Nate Choukas' National Outdoor Leadership class rests on an island in New Zealand's Pelorus Sound last fall. Choukas, of Hanover, spent 80 days on a wilderness expedition in New Zealand with the school during a gap year before college.  Courtesy photograph

Nate Choukas' National Outdoor Leadership class rests on an island in New Zealand's Pelorus Sound last fall. Choukas, of Hanover, spent 80 days on a wilderness expedition in New Zealand with the school during a gap year before college. Courtesy photograph

Nate Choukas and Guilia Alexander certainly picked an adventurous way to spend their “gap year” before heading to college.

The pair, classmates who graduated from Hanover High in 2013, eschewed typical classroom environments last fall for a semester immersed in the outdoors of New Zealand with the National Outdoors Leadership School (NOLS). Choukas and Alexander embarked on 80-day wilderness expeditions exploring and studying the New Zealand landscape, through its seas, forests, mountains and glaciers. They each were part of a separate group of about 10.

Accompanied by a pair of instructors, the groups split their time amid three sections: mountaineering, sea kayaking and backpacking. With food rations arriving via helicopter when necessary, the groups cooked together, set up outdoor “classrooms” with a tarp and rope, and delegated tasks to practice leadership and cooperative skills. They learned to read topographic maps and navigation instruments and had virtually no electronics, including no cellphones or computers.

That might be considered extreme for anyone — and especially for teenagers freshly out of high school — but both Choukas and Alexander said they enjoyed the change.

“For me, it was a nice break,” said Alexander, who’s bound for the University of Pugent Sound in Tacoma, Wash., this fall. “I decided to take a gap year, which I think might have been harder if I had the ability to go on Facebook all the time and see what all of my friends were doing that were entering college. It was a nice experience, to get outside my comfort zone.”

Choukas said all the camping, climbing, paddling and hiking helped him develop a fresh perspective. “It was just so much simpler, being away from the everyday little things that can eat away at you,” said Choukas, a former Marauders hockey player and golfer who’ll play on the golf team at Trinity College (Conn.) beginning this fall. “I kind of have a ‘less is more’ mentality now. I feel like I’ve matured and I’m a lot more laid-back.”

Choukas’ group was comprised of nine males, while Alexander’s group of 10 was split with five females and five males.

Choukas didn’t mind being situated with “just the guys” for nearly three months.

“We got along real well. I became good friends with a lot of them,” said Choukas, who for now is living outside Philadelphia and working as a golf caddy at Lookaway Golf Club. “One of them stayed with me in Hanover when he came to look at Dartmouth this spring. Another one lives in New Jersey, about an hour away from where I am now, and I’m going to be visiting him within the next week or so.”

Alexander also enjoyed her group dynamics, saying tasks were delineated evenly and fairly between genders.

“There weren’t any situations where the boys were expected to carry more (than their share) because we were girls or anything like that. Everything was really equal, which was great,” she said. “The instructors (emphasized) that. We all carried 80 percent of our body weight, I think is what it was.”

After departing on Sept. 13, Choukas’ group’s first section was sea kayaking, while Alexander’s set out for mountaineering. It was the coldest week of the journey — not ideal conditions to be paddling in the South Pacific Ocean’s Pelorus Sound. Fortunately, the waves were calm. “It was probably mid-40s (Fahrenheit) and the weather was really variable. The sun would be coming through and then it would be raining moments later. It was chilly, but there were no huge waves, maybe 3-4 feet during some of the wider crossings, which were up to about two miles wide. But we spent a lot of time near the shores of islands.”

Alexander’s group was responsible for identifying five plant or animal species each week and presenting their observations to the class. Local ecology and marine life were part of the curriculum.

“We saw a lot of sea lions, baby blue penguins and jellyfish,” said Alexander, who is considering studying environmental science at Pugent Sound. “Getting used to kayaking was a little bit tricky, because I had never been, but it was probably the most beautiful section. You’re in the sea and there’s all of these mountains and glaciers all around you.”

By the time she was in the water, Alexander had already explored some of that distant territory as part of the mountaineering section, where she journeyed more than 42 miles for 22 days while learning to use an ice axe, practice safe river-crossing techniques and negotiate snowy and rocky terrain in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

Choukas’ group entered the Alps for his second section, running into difficult weather while camped on McCoy Glacier.

“We were stuck in a hut for about nine of the 20 days because it was pouring rain,” he recalled. “We had to do a river crossing after we left, and the rain was so heavy there was no way to cross. There was kind of a lack of stimulus during that time, but we still found plenty to do outside, practicing different outdoors techniques and things like that.”

The third and final section for both Choukas’ and Alexander’s groups was backpacking, exploring high-altitude of forests and meadows in separate national parks.

Choukas’ group — which by now had been depleted by two due to injuries — ran into one moderately hairy situation after deciding to deviate from a trail by following footprints to a large ridge.

“Four of us, including me, decided to go up and over it and the other three decided to go around. We got up the ridge OK, but going down was just a little too sketchy,” Choukas said. “Basically, we realized we could tumble to our deaths. So we ended up stuck up there for about an hour and a half, until we saw (the trio that had gone around the mountain) at the bottom of the ridge and yelled down to them to come back up and help us.”

Both groups concluded their trips without instructors, Choukas’ spending nine days on their own and Alexander’s five.

Choukas and his comrades bowed out a bit early, shelling out $40 each in order to take a water taxi across Lake Rotoroa.

“For some reason, we all had our wallets on us, and we decided to go for it,” Choukas recalled. “So we ended up spending two days instead of one at a hut waiting to get picked up (by National Outdoor Leadership School staff), but it was worth it. We had been hiking for so long at that point.”

Alexander didn’t stop her adventures this spring, as she joined the Florida-based “Seamester” company for three months studying oceanography in the Indian Ocean.

While Alexander enjoyed her time at sea, she’ll remember her time in New Zealand as being the most adventurous.

“The biggest difference was that, with NOLS, I was really cut off from the outside world,” she said. “The Seamester was also really cool, but we spent a lot of time on the shore where we had Wifi and computers. NOLS was kind of an excuse to get out of your comfort zone. It didn’t make me want to change my lifestyle, but it was a nice break.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.