BY BOB BAIRD
After a semester hiking, sailing and ocean kayaking in the vast New Zealand wilderness, Thomas Sullivan says walking away from a traditional college program doesn’t have to be a step back.
On the contrary, the New City resident says for him it was many steps in the right direction.
After graduation from Clarkstown North High School, he went off to college in New England to major in biology. But after freshman year he realized spending his days behind a desk, whether in an officer or a lab, wasn’t for him.
That’s why he now works the fields at Cropsey Farm, operated by the Rockland Farm Alliance. “I’d rather be outside,” he says, while he charts his future.
He ran cross-country in high school and for a bit held the school mile record. “I’ve always liked putting my body under stress, pushing my limits,” he says on the deck of his family’s home.
He attended Rockland Community College and worked for a year, trying to figure out what the next test would be.
He learned about the National Outdoor Leadership School, known as NOLS, after a Clarkstown North acquaintance was mauled by a bear during one of their programs in Alaska in July 2011.
He soon realized other acquaintances had taken programs through NOLS and while Josh Berg’s experience was sobering, Sullivan found the wilderness challenge intriguing.
Although he had never gone camping, Sullivan looked into NOLS, headquartered in Wyoming, and settled on a semester in New Zealand. That there are no bears in New Zealand cinched the choice over Alaska, he says, adding with a chuckle, “Location, location, location.”
Sullivan calls his cousin Katie Fox, an assistant forest ranger in Catskill, N.Y., “one of my biggest inspirations and motivators.” Despite urgings from her and NOLS, Sullivan didn’t really train or plan particularly well before heading for the adventure of his life.
New Zealand, he would find, was vast, beautiful and filled with the personal challenges he hoped for.
The Marlborough Sounds region at the north end of New Zealand’s South Island is a mix of still waters and open ocean dotted with islands, tall peaks and deep green valleys. It was the kind of place of wonder he had read about in “Lord of the Flies,” and now he would be trying to survive there much like the boys in William Golding’s novel.
Arriving in February, Sullivan and eight other students would hike for 35 days in Kahurangi National Park. They spent another 25 days ocean kayaking and another 10 days sailing the seas in nearly 40-foot sailing ships.
There were originally 10 students, Sullivan says, but one who arrived with a back problem soon found hiking with an 80-110 pound pack too painful. Sullivan and another student carried his gear and helped him retrace 10-11 kilometers back to their starting point. While they were doing that, the group forged on, so Sullivan and his partner had to hike the return distance, have a quick meal and then catch up with the rest.
The participants carried their own food and had to make it stretch for up to a week as they hiked, climbed peaks and then hiked again to reach “ration spots,” strategic locations where they could replenish their provisions. Along the way, they would locate suitable campsites or stay in huts that dot the park. They also had to search out drinking water as they went, often having to boil or treat it with chemicals to make it potable.
Sullivan says he’s always had an environmental awareness and that NOLS built on that, using a “leave no trace” approach, which meant no littering, no feeding the animals – like two-foot tall ground parrots – and carrying all their trash to the ration spots.
“The experience isn’t for everyone,” Sullivan says. “There’s a lot of responsibility on you for what happens,” like making your food stretch, especially when weather or rough water kept them from reaching a ration spot on schedule. That happened once during sea kayaking, when they encountered 30-knot winds.
During the sailing portion of the program they would wake at 5 a.m. to check maritime weather forecasts. They once heard a tsunami warning and had to sail through rain driven by 60-knot winds to reach a marina. “The rain was like needles hitting your skin,” he says.
If someone is looking for what he calls a “more handheld program,” NOLS isn’t for them, he says. “We had GPS for emergencies only and had to use a compass and maps or charts. He sums up the NOLS philosophy as, “It’s up to you, but you’re not alone,” even when instructors may be a kilometer or two ahead or behind the group. “It’s not easy,” he says. “There is risk, but the memories and life experiences make it totally worth it.”
Occasionally the group would encounter New Zealanders or other tourists from around the world hiking or climbing. There were no bears, but they once had a standoff with six angry, territorial billy goats.
The group, six males and three females, came from all walks of life all across the U.S. One had trained as a wilderness EMT, but another worked for a bank and owned a photography business. Others, like Sullivan, wanted the personal challenge, although he says the experience – the beauty of the territory, the personal growth and the feelings of camaraderie – has helped set his future course
After 77 days in the wilderness, he welcomes running water and says when he opens the refrigerator, “it’s like hearing a choir of angels.”
He’s home in New City now with his parents, Patrick and Terry Sullivan and siblings, Kathleen, 17, who will be a senior at Clarkstown North and Devin, 19, who will be a sophomore at the University of Maryland and who recently made the 4K For Cancer Run Across America from San Francisco to Baltimore. Another sister, Lauren, 25, has left to teach fourth grade in Arizona.
For the fall, Sullivan will take some evening courses, still working days at Cropsey Farm.
But come next spring, he’s hoping to take the credits earned at Providence College, RCC and 18 credits in subjects including biology, environmental studies, leadership and risk assessment earned during the NOLS semester to work on a degree at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Expeditionary Studies program.
He’s hoping that can lead to a career as an expedition leader, perhaps after an internship as an instructor for NOLS, a giant leap out from life behind a desk or microscope.
Unlike typical college courses, he says, with NOLS, “you’re learning exponentially because you’re living it. It’s very real and the consequences are very real.” At times he thought, “I’ve never gone camping and here I am, taking my turn leading a group and having their lives in my hands.”
Now he says, he’s ready for more challenges, like climbing in the Adirondacks later this week.
“You can live a reserved life and look back and wonder what it was all worth,” he says. “If you don’t find gratification in your work, what’s the point?”
We are pleased to introduce the newest contributor to the Rockland County Times, the great Bob Baird. Baird is a former long, longtime Journal News columnist and executive editor, dating back to the days when the newspaper was Rockland-based. He announced his retirement in 2012, and after letting his pen get dry for two years, Baird is ready to get back into the writing habit. Bob has been deeply involved in the Rockland community, sitting on numerous boards. In 1993 he was among a group of volunteers who organized Challenger Little League in Rockland County. In 2002 he founded Touching Bases, a league for adults with disabilities, which now has about 230 players annually. Welcome back to the fold-ed pages, Bob!