To Get My Feet Wet, or To Not Get My Feet Wet? Lessons in Leadership from the Arctic

Last August I experienced two weeks of backpacking in Alaska’s Brooks Range and Arctic National Refuge. It was epic.

Greetings from Alaska's Brooks Range.

By epic, I mean the experience was life changing and unforgettable. It was beyond scale. The scenery was epic – truly, out of this world. The people with which I shared the experience – who started out as strangers and would become some of my dearest friends – are epic. The experience of learning outdoor leadership, and wilderness travel skills from the world’s best teacher, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), was epic.

But by epic, I also mean the experience required, at times, heroic effort. The weather was variable, ranging from blue sky with warm sunshine, to falling snow and high winds on mountain passes, to cold and torrential rain, for hours at a time.

The terrain could be unforgiving. We ascended very steep slopes to pass over mountains six times during the two weeks, and planting our feet firmly on layers of loose rock on top of loose rock – rock that was often made even more slippery as a result of being wet from rain – was mentally trying and physically exhausting.

If not over mountain passes, then we hiked on the Arctic tundra, which included large sections of tussocks. These are like “balls” of vegetation that are connected to each other and deeply rooted. The best way I can describe hiking in tussocks is each step you take sinks deep into a sponge-like surface. This foot then feels like it’s been trapped/entangled in the plant. When you pull out each foot to take another step it feels as if somebody underground has his hands around your ankle, determined to not let you have your foot back. (BTW, there should be a Dr. Seuss book written about tussocks if there isn’t already.) According to my research, there are five trillion tussocks in Arctic Alaska. Not wanting to embellish, I would suggest we hiked through about 2.5 trillion of them. :)

If the tussocks weren’t challenging enough, we also hiked through alders. Imagine hiking in and out of, and through, thick, sharp brush that is about eye-level, for miles. It was slow going, laborious, and had the effect of getting poked and stabbed by a stick several times over. (Thankfully, the scenery was fantastic.)

Finally, there were rivers. We crossed and hiked along river valley bottoms for much of our adventure. While easier than hiking through tussocks and alders, river hiking presented its own challenges. Specifically, it often meant wet feet.

One of NOLS’ core curriculum components is the “leader of the day.” During an expedition, on a particular day, someone will be assigned leader of the expedition for that day.

Two days into our expedition, we divided into two separate hiking groups. Each day, the two groups would choose their own routes and we’d meet up at the end of each day to set up of camp, eat, learn and rest before continuing the next day.

At the first chance, I offered to be a leader of the day. (I am not sure this was the brightest thing to do. After all, we still didn’t know each other very well. We wouldn’t know each others’ personalities, strengths or weaknesses, etc., until later in the course.) But I was eager to experience the role of leader of the day to see what I could learn.

I should mention here that one of my goals during the NOLS course, which I shared with our group at the outset of our expedition, and indicated on my application, was to learn to be more experienced and confident at crossing rivers. In my personal wilderness endeavors, as well as in the business I’m building, I will occasionally be required to lead people across rivers. When I showed up for my NOLS course, I was very uncomfortable around rivers. I was hoping this course would change that.

The day I was “leader of the day,” there were no mountains to climb, but we had about nine miles to hike. While we had options for how we’d get to our next campsite, the route would pretty much follow the river bottom. Well, as leaders know, leaders don’t do all the work. In fact, the best leaders delegate, and share responsibility of the mission. At the start of our day’s trek, I assigned various tasks and responsibilities to the members of our group. I asked Antonia (“Toni”) to take point, which meant she would make micro-route decisions and lead us on our way.

Right away, Toni led us through the rocky bottom of the river, and across the river. And back across the river again. And, across it again. (Repeat several times.) Along both sides of the river, were tundra and/or brush through which to hike. Antonia was choosing to stick to the river bottom. It made sense that she would want us to avoid hiking in squishy tundra or through poking, harsh brush.

Antonia was my tent-mate, and the night before she had explained to me that despite all the research and what most other people say, she rather prefers having wet feet during her hikes. In fact, in her previous NOLS course, wet feet actually served her. As we continued criss-crossing the river, at times getting our feet wet, I started getting anxious, especially as I recalled what Antonia had told me about the value of wet feet.

An experienced long-distance day hiker, I didn’t agree about the wet feet. Every time I had ever hiked with wet feet, it was problematic. Wet feet meant blister-damaged feet. So the prospects of wet feet, at the start of what would be a pretty long day of hiking, was not sitting well with me. Furthermore, we had 11 more days of hiking. Our feet were important assets. Blistered feet can spoil a trip.

So, about a mile into our hike, I called a quick huddle and voiced my concern about spending so much time in the river and stated that I was concerned about having wet feet and the prospects of blistered feet. Antonia presented a good argument for continuing, pointing out that it was easier travel than the tundra, and that in fact, wet feet can be refreshing and restorative.

But, determined to want to change course and follow the tundra right alongside the river, I pressed on. The team obliged. (It meant a lot to me for my team to support what I was suggesting and asking for, despite the fact not all of them agreed or felt the same as I did.) I was grateful – and relieved.

So, out of the river we went. Antonia chose a game trail alongside the river. During the minutes following, while hiking single-file alongside the river, I reflected on how my “leadership” was going so far. Something didn’t feel right. I felt as if I had just micro-managed. I had delegated Antonia point, and yet almost immediately I questioned her route decisions. I began questioning my leadership ability and the “executive decision” I had just crafted to get us hiking outside of the river.

As I was reflecting on all this, I was noticing that the tundra was passable, but miserably so. The writing was on the wall. It became clear that the best route was through, and back and forth across the river. Antonia had been right.

But, then, returning to my thoughts, I was very confident in my belief that protecting my feet – and the others’ feet – was critical. We had barely started what could be a 60-mile hike. I reasoned that taking steps to ensure our feet were not wet and blistered was wise. Furthermore, as leader of the day, I was responsible for our group and ensuring we carried out the day’s mission. If I were to become handicapped due to blister-damaged feet, then I would become a liability. Liabilities don’t make good leaders. I felt quite compelled about all this, so as we walked in the spongy tundra, it offered some comfort to me.

But… Then… I remembered something: That one of the reasons I enrolled in this course was to become more comfortable crossing rivers. Damn.

I asked myself, was this re-routing about me not wanting to get my feet wet (literally), or was it about me not wanting to get my feet wet (metaphorically)? Of course it was both, but in fact, what had driven my decision to press for getting out of the river was more the result of my discomfort of being in and near rivers – exactly the thing I was in the Brooks Range to confront and overcome. Upon this realization, and as the spongy tundra was getting increasingly frustrating, I concurred with Antonia’s original choice for our route, and, back into the river bottom we went.

Antonia did a stellar job of leading. Our feet survived. I grew as a leader because after reflection, I chose to do the uncomfortable thing, and in doing so, I improved my outdoor skills as well as my confidence around rivers. Another reward for hiking through the river bottom, which we would not have enjoyed had we chosen an alternative route, was one of the most amazing sights of the expedition – a huge formation of blue ice that covered a portion of the river. (See photo below)

The day and our mission was a success. In addition to making it to our campsite in good condition, we saw our first caribou of the trip, indulged in wild blueberries, discovered fresh bear tracks, and cool moose and caribou horns along the way.

It was all upside. I am grateful to my Brooks Range NOLS peeps, to our instructors (Lauren and Amy), and to NOLS for my experience and the leadership development that occurred for me.

Note: I feel so strongly about using the wilderness, and an epic expedition, as a platform from which we can practice doing the work that living our most epic life requires, that I founded Epic Life, a life and leadership coaching business that offers guided epic adventure to those who interested. I’m currently enrolling for the” target=”_blank”>2014 Epic Women program, and am taking on new coaching clients.


Antonia and JJ, checking out a spectacular blue ice formation that covered some of the river.

Instructor Amy Davidson, pointing out a fresh bear track.

My team.

Me, trying a horn on.

Checking out a cool caribou antler.

A lighter moment: Chris, getting poked by an antler-wielding instructor named Amy.

Our other half, approaching camp.

Shelli Johnson is a life/leadership coach. Her business, Epic Life, offers coaching, consulting and an option for a guided epic adventure. Email her if you’d like more information.

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9 responses to “To Get My Feet Wet, or To Not Get My Feet Wet? Lessons in Leadership from the Arctic”

  1. sara

    Get the great information on travel sites great blog

  2. lewis johnson

    It looks like you guys had a quite amazing adventure! Im so jealousm can’t wait to plan mineas well

  3. Holly Copeland

    I have to smile at this post, having crossed many rivers with you in the Winds these past few summers, knowing your trepidation, and watching you grow through this experience. Way to go!!! Holly

  4. Jim Harbour

    Very Impressive! The internal dialogue must have been difficult to listen to but you moved past your “Flinch”. (If you haven’t read “The Flinch” yet, please do so. And, it is FREE!) I have to re-read it to get some of the points ingrained in my head as I make habitual flinching decisions. More leaders need to post what you posted about your realization of what choices do (micro-managing even when delegating) to the group. Thank you for your bravery to share your insights with us! ~Jim

  5. Kathy Swanson

    You’re awesome, and as you know, I totally relate to the discomfort of crossing deep rivers and with miserable blister experiences and comprehend your strong desire to avoid both. Great job overcoming that and learning. Kathy

  6. Marty Vondrell

    Nice post Shelli! Good learning and experience.
    Keep up the good/fun work!

  7. Brock - Backpack With Brock

    Sounds like a challenging expedition! I’m glad you got a lot out of it in the end. Including some amazing pictures!

  8. Jean Leggett

    Talk about jumping in with two feet and splashing around – you were able to look at what you were resisting and realize it was the biggest thing you wanted to embrace. How magical. Thank you for sharing this with the world! I’d follow you anywhere!

  9. Pat

    Great post, Shelli! I empathize with the personal deliberation we all, or at least I, went through to build up the confidence to break down our personal barriers and ultimately feel stronger as leaders in the outdoors.

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