Eric Bostwick (behind second boat from front) heads down a river in the Amazon with his instructor Brooke Retherford (front) and the other students on the expedition. 

photo/Jim Chisolm

Eric Bostwick (behind second boat from front) heads down a river in the Amazon with his instructor Brooke Retherford (front) and the other students on the expedition. 

photo/Jim Chisolm


Eric Bostwick isn’t one for thinking small. 

A 23-year-old student at Oregon State University (OSU), Bostwick sought a study-abroad opportunity that would provide for more than just a cultural and academic exchange — one that would make him a leader.

Bostwick, whose parents live in Madison Park, stumbled upon the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), through which he took an 80-day backpacking trip to the Amazon last fall. 

Bostwick has not been the same since.

“I learned how to be a better citizen of the world,” he said.


Backcountry blazing

At the start of the trip, Bostwick and his fellow expedition mates flew to Cuiabá, Brazil, then traveled to their home base at Chapaba Dos Guimeras. After learning first aid and preparing food rations for the following three months, the group spent 33 days canoeing approximately 217 miles on the Juruena River. 

Bostick’s team spent the subsequent six days backpacking throughout the rainforest.

“We bushwhacked our way but left no trace,” Bostwick said, who noted the program’s emphasis on keeping nature 100-percent intact.

The group then spent time on the Roosevelt River, living with the locals.

“We helped them farm and learned how to fish and cook local food, all in the middle of nowhere — dispersed among families within the different communities,” he said. “That was amazing.”

Over the next 19 days, Bostwick’s team backpacked throughout the Cerrado grasslands. 

For the last week, Bostwick’s peers and instructors selected him to lead one of the two six-student backpacking trips. As leader, Bostwick said he learned the oral communication and listening skills needed to get the job done.


A different kind education

Based in Wyoming, NOLS provides wilderness expeditions that foster leadership skills, technical outdoor abilities and environmental ethics.

“We’re looking for folks who are physically fit and are up for something physically challenging,” said Bruce Palmer, director of admissions marketing at NOLS, regarding the type of students the school attracts. “You need to be motivated and want to learn. You don’t have to have outdoor experience, though.” 

NOLS states that it offers skills that cannot be learned in a traditional classroom or on a city street. The backcountry environment provides an ideal setting for acquiring leadership skills and learning the importance of taking responsibility for life.

Courses are offered in Alaska, the Amazon, Australia, East Africa, India, Mexico, New Zealand, the Northeast United States, the Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, the Southwest, Teton Valley and the Yukon.

Students pick what type of skill they want to focus on: backpacking, canoeing, fly-fishing, lightweight backpacking, river, sea kayaking, wilderness medicine, river backpacking, caving, horse-packing, mountaineering, river kayaking, skiing, climbing, rafting, sailing and snowboarding.

Course range from one day to a full academic year.

Many NOLS graduates reenroll for other courses, especially the younger students. 

“Ten to 15 percent of students in NOLS courses come back,” Palmer said. “We frequently see that with younger students — 14 or 15 years old — who want to learn a different skill.” 

Admissions to NOLS requires an application and interview. NOLS denies admission to applicants who are unable to meet the physical, mental and social or safety demands of the courses. NOLS is not appropriate for individuals dealing with behavioral, motivational or rehabilitation issues.


Lessons learned

Every morning during the expedition, after Bostwick and his fellow students got up, one student would be assigned “student of the day.” That student would be in charge of getting people’s feedback on their fatigue, desire to slow down or speed up and then decide where to navigate and camp that day.

“The student also made sure people stayed out of the sun, remained safe and gauged appropriate risk of the activities,” Bostwick said.

In addition to the physical demands of the trip, students attended classes about the local culture, habitat and biology, taught by the NOLS instructors. Every student was responsible for leading one 30-minute class at some point during the trip.

For Bostwick, the education — both in the classroom and in the wild — was powerful.

“I had an unexpected cultural experience with some of the locals in the Amazon,” he said. “We got really close with these people and developed an incredible relationship with them, while learning a lot about the area and the culture.”

Bostwick gained not only leadership abilities but also an appreciation for making commitments, communicating effectively and collaborating with others — skills he didn’t previously have. 

“With this trip, I wanted to do something I’ve never experienced before,” he said. “I felt NOLS offered everything that I was looking for: learning new skills, leadership, outdoor living techniques, backpacking, canoeing.”


An enhanced life

Bostwick’s week of living with Amazon residents changed his perspective on day-to-day life, including commodity consumption. 

“I came out learning about changing parts of my lifestyle regarding how much I consumed. I’m more conscientious about overconsumption,” he said. “I do what I can to be better at being green.”

Bostwick was able to get college credit for the trip.

NOLS awards academic credit to students who make arrangements with their colleges. More than 400 colleges and universities have teamed with NOLS.

Currently, Bostwick is a senior at OSU, where he is majoring in tourism and outdoor leadership. After graduation, he plans to work in marketing at an outdoor clothing or gear company.

“The Amazon is a pretty incredible place, and it’s deteriorating relatively quickly,” he said. “I think all my expectations for this trip were surpassed.”


For more information about NOLS, call (800) 710-6657, or visit its website at