3 Things I Learned in Alaska

3 Things I learned in AlaskaAs you may or may not know, I have been absent the past 25 days due to a 3-week sea kayaking expedition in Prince William Sound, Alaska, courtesy of my college prep program, the Student Expedition Program (STEP).

Alaska blog post

Basically, I spent three weeks in the middle of nowhere in Alaska with only what fit in our nine kayaks. We spent the evenings through early mornings camping and eating, and the days on the water. We travelled between six and fourteen nautical miles (1.15X a land mile) per day we travelled, to a total of 130 nautical miles.

We endured relentless rain, raging wind, thick fog, rough seas, and only having the bare necessities. Yes, that means I didn’t have any access to phone or internet for three weeks. Crazy, right?

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Having  put myself through this experience makes me feel a bit insane. But, I’m so glad I did it. To be completely honest, I hated it for a while. Everything was cold and wet the entire first week, leaving us stuck on a beach in Entry Cove for six days straight. It took me about a week to get daily things down, and another week to be comfortable and start actually enjoying the experience. Do not mistake my expedition for a vacation – it was far from it. It was 21 days of hard work and survival.

All-in-all, it was a great and valuable experience for me. I definitely learned a lot and came back with many things I want to change about myself and in my life, as well as a renewed sense of confidence in myself and my abilities. Heck, if I could survive this, what couldn’t I do?

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To save you the trouble of going to Alaska for three weeks to find these things out yourself, I’ll share with you the top three takeaways I have from the expedition:

1.) Leadership – learning to turn Vision into Action through Communication and Having a Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty

On the expedition, we learned a new model for leadership that they teach in the National Outdoor Leadership (NOLS) curriculum. This model has 7 components:

  1. Communication
  2. Judgement and decision-making
  3. Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty
  4. Competence
  5. Self-Awareness
  6. Vision and Action
  7. Expedition Behavior

While we worked intimately both conceptually and practically with all of these ideas, I’d like to focus on the three that were the most important to me: vision and action, communication, and tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.

Vision and Action: When trying to accomplish a goal as either a leader or an active follower, I learned how important vision and action is. You must have a vision for how you will accomplish the goal, and then you have to actually do the thing – you have to act on the vision. Without vision, you are acting haphazardly and inefficiently. Without action, the vision is nothing but a daydream. A great example of this was when we were putting the kayaks away on the beach. If we don’t have a vision for where each kayak will go, we will be wondering around carrying this very heavy kayak for longer than we have to. If we don’t act on where the kayaks should go, they won’t be put away safely.

Communication: Now, in order to have a leader turn their vision into action, they need communication. As an entrepreneur with a lot of vision, my most important tool to inspire action in others and to move my ideas forward is communication with my team and audience. Out in Alaska, with so many people with so little knowledge, we had to learn how to communicate new things. Trying to describe the best way to cook the food when asked, or navigate the waters, or pitch the tarp to those around me required descriptive words, patient tones, and specific wording so the other person would understand what vision you had in your mind, so that they could then act on that vision. This ties into expedition behavior, which has to do with helping others out but not routinely doing their work. You are doing the other person a favor by using communication skills to teach them how to do something, like tying a knot, on their own.

Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty: Well, we had quite a bit of both to say the least. The harsh conditions, wet socks, rocks in the food, dirty-tasting water, many layers of clothes, bug bites, occasionally bad meal, lack of technology, soreness from sleeping on the ground, hours upon hours kayaking, getting up early, hiking in order to poop, never feeling really clean, etc. was a series of adversity that was not easy to tolerate. But, we had no choice. Once we landed on that beach, you could complain and negatively affect those around you and yourself, or you could tolerate it and try to make the best of it. The latter decision was the only good option. The uncertainty piece was probably even more difficult for me to manage. You all know me – I’m the planner. I like to have everything set and known. Out there in the field, we didn’t have that luxury. You never know when the winds are going to change, a huge ship will pass by producing a wake, or the rain will pick back up. Learning how to adapt in the face of uncertainty was not easy, but taught me a very important lesson: whenever you are executing a plan, you need to evaluate each step of the way whether or not your next planned step is the correct one to take; if you don’t take changing conditions into account, you may make things harder on yourself and end up somewhere you don’t want to be. This was a very literal concept out on the water. If your predicted wind direction was not the same as reality, and you’re crossing a bay, you need to adjust your heading, otherwise you will land off-course.

2.) How to make Decisions as a Leader and Individual 

We learned another great model in the field that explains a system of decision-making with 5 different styles that looks like this:

Alaska - decision

As someone who will be leading several clubs this next year, this way of thinking about decision-making will be something I’m constantly keeping in mind. I would have never thought of it this way, but it makes so much sense.

3.) How to Know Whether or Not to Take a Risk

This is another NOLS model I would not have thought of on my own but is genius. It’s a matrix for deciding whether or not to take a risk. As a business owner and someone who will soon be making some risky decisions (what college to go to, whether or not to seize certain opportunities, etc.) in the near future, this is another model I’ll keep in mind going forward.

Alaska - risks

I wanted to make this post pithy, and it was really hard to distill it down to these three things. I learned so much during my expedition in Alaska – everything from tying knots to kayaking to having patience to cooking back-country nutritious meals. I can’t thank STEP, NOLS, and all the people who donate to STEP enough for giving me this experience. It was by far one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Moving forward, I am not the same person I was when I got on the plane in the Phoenix airport. I feel much more confident, independent, and enlightened as an individual, leader, and active follower. Thank you to everyone who made this experience possible.

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I’ll be back in a couple weeks with another update giving you a more sensory and specific idea of what life was like in Alaska, once I have all the pictures compiled.

❤ Alicia

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