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#47 Lessons Learned Leading Wilderness Ventures

November 3, 2010

#47 Getting to and from the trailhead is frequently half the battle.

Here’s the fourth of fifty installments on “lessons learned leading 35 years of wilderness ventures.” Please feel free to leave a comment. It greatly enriches the discussion.

I apologize for the nearly four week delay in providing another “lesson learned”. What can I say; it is hunting season after all. Now that I have a deer in the freezer I can get back to writing. I may skip another week once the rut is in full swing. 🙂

Disclaimer – I don’t claim that these are necessarily profound or original. They are what came to mind when, in preparation for a presentation titled: “20 Years of Adirondack Wilderness Expeditions,” I scanned a couple of hundred 35mm slides of the trips I have led. It was only after I had provided the title and description of the presentation that I realized it was more like 35 years of leading Adirondack ventures and that I’m getting older than dirt.

Over the years, in order to travel to the start of my wilderness ventures, I’ve walked, hitchhiked, flown in float planes, ridden boats, a train, bicycle, motorcycle, car, mini-van, cattle truck, school bus and most commonly, the ubiquitous college 15 passenger van. Believe me, getting to the trailhead IS half the battle.

When I directed the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program at North Country Community College we were rarely able to have professional staff drive us and usually used volunteers. I remember learning, after the fact, that one of our volunteer drivers scared students with his lead-footed driving style. It wasn’t easy scaring WRL students. I quickly realized it was time to look for a new volunteer driver!

Students and the ubiquitous 15 passenger van - 1987

On one winter trip, our volunteer driver was going to ski in and spend a night with us and I explicitly told him to park the vehicle and leave it at a point where the road left public property and became a private road. The Rockefeller families own the unpaved road, and in the winter only drive it with a Bombardier Snowcat. My volunteer driver saw the road, saw six inches of snow on it and figured he could easily drive on it with the college’s 15 passenger van. Two miles down the six-mile-long road, after going down a steep hill, the van got bogged down in the heavy snow and got stuck. When the driver skied to find us and told me news of the stuck van I not only got angry like I rarely get, but I also was at a complete loss as to how we were going to get the van out. Given the rugged terrain the road travels through, the heavy snow, and the van’s poor ability to drive in such conditions I was at a loss. How the hell were we going to get the van out? Nothing short of a 4-wheel-drive tow truck would have any chance of getting it out and I wasn’t convinced even that would be able to get the van up some of the steep hills it had gone down to get in its snowbound predicament. As I skied out with dread, I got to where the van was stuck and lo and behold, there was no van in sight. There were tractor tracks and tire tracks but no van. As we skied toward the point where the road became public and was well plowed, we encountered the caretaker driving the snowcat. The caretaker for the Rockefeller family used his Caterpillar tractor to pull the van the two miles back to the property line where there was a parking lot. He wasn’t as angry at me as I was at my volunteer driver and just said, “I had to tow it out as the Rockefeller’s are coming up this weekend.” Thank you Mr. Caretaker! Once again it was time to find another volunteer driver.

For my first NOLS course in 1970 we traveled from Lander to the trailhead by cattle truck. We didn’t think anything of it. We stood up in the back of the truck and traveled more than 20 miles. With liability issues they way they are today it would be impossible to do that now. It worked fine for Paul Petzoldt, though.

When I climbed Mt. McKinley (Denali) in Alaska we took the train from Anchorage, where we outfitted, to McKinley National Park. Now that was traveling in style. It was a great way to start and end the trip.

Traveling on the Alaska Railroad is traveling in style! - 1971

If you are a professional outdoorsman like I was for many years then the 15 passenger van is the vehicle you most commonly used to transport your clientele. From what I was able to gather for this article it still is. If you use something else please leave a comment so I can see what the current practice is.

When I started teaching at North Country Community College in the 1970s reliable transportation was hard to come by. The college owned two vans but they were used by the entire college community and they were kept much longer than their useful life dictated. Eventually the College Association (the arm of the college responsible for athletics among other things) started leasing vans. That made our lives much easier as well as much safer. At one point our hockey coach found a great deal on an old school bus. It was painted NCCC blue and looked great but didn’t run as well as it looked. The other problem with having a school bus is that we needed a bus driver, someone with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). In our case the hockey coach was the only college employee with a CDL. If he wasn’t available, which was often as he was also an admissions counselor and spent much of his life on the road, we couldn’t use the bus.

The North Country Community College school bus - 1984

I used to tell my students that getting to the trailhead was the most dangerous part of the trip. Unfortunately some high profile fatal college van accidents have proven me correct. Some interesting statistics, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, “Of the nearly 11 million passenger car, SUV, pickup and van crashes in 2002 (The most recent year I could find statistics) only 3% involved a rollover.” On the other hand rollovers accounted for a third of all deaths from passenger vehicle crashes. The majority, not surprisingly, were not wearing safety belts. It is no surprise that SUVs, pickups, and vans are more susceptible to rollover as they have higher centers of gravity. Not surprisingly it comes down to driver experience. Driving vans is a different animal than driving sedans. Preston Cline (once a participant on a WEA Professional Short Course I co-instructed) wrote an excellent article a number of years ago analyzing the 15 passenger van issue. You can find it HERE. Unfortunately the article is nearly a decade old and I was unable to reach Preston to see what the latest information regarding vans is. My anecdotal observations are that vans are still very much in use. Institutions however seem to be much more careful about who drives them and what kind of training drivers have.

Winter trailheads are not always plowed - 1988

There is a bill that has been bouncing around for a while (S. 554: Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2009) that would make it even harder for outdoor programs to transport students. For more information visit Rick Curtis’ bog entry:

Bottom Line:

When traveling to and from the trailhead via motor vehicle you should follow these guidelines:

  1. Have everyone wear a seatbelt.
  2. Consider using Mini-Vans instead of 15 passenger vans. They are less likely then 15 passenger vans to roll over in the event of an accident and younger drivers grew up in them so, if they are driving, they are more familiar with how they handle.
  3. Avoid using a roof rack and move toward a support vehicle or trailer to keep the center of gravity as low as possible.
  4. One alternative for 15 passenger vans to make them safer is to simply remove the back seat and require that not more then 9 people ride in a vehicle at any one time. You’ll defeat the purpose of removing the seat if you fill the space up with gear. The idea is to reduce the weight in the vehicle in order to make it handle more safely.
  5. Finally, hire experienced 15-passenger van drivers and spend at least a full day, if not more, training your staff to drive a 15-passenger van that is fully loaded.

Let me know what you do for transportation in your outdoor program.

To visit Lesson Learned #48 click HERE.

Bibliography: (2008) (2009) (2002)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. jim glover permalink
    November 4, 2010 1:24 pm

    Most interesting, Jack, including the attached articles and vid on science and education.

    Setting aside the science question (what really IS science, how does the IDEAL of it differ from the INSTITUTIONS claiming to practice it, etc. etc) — the big education problem is, I think, to reconcile what’s been called the “socialization” function of it, which fosters conformity, with the important business of also fostering the ability to think for one’s self.

    And the other big challenge would be to teach kids NEVER to write such a long, loopy sentence as the one I just wrote. It’s disgusting.

  2. Doug permalink
    November 4, 2010 3:39 pm

    If I recall correctly, PSC went to 11 passenger vans awhile back due to the problems with 15 passenger vehicles. Removing the back seat is a good recommendation and reduces the load to 11. Check out – as a reference.
    I remember the van ride to Minnesota, 11 people in a 15 passenger van with all that gear was crowded. I recall being the default mechanic on that trip. Of course there was also the overloaded mini van trip to the Buffalo National River that we somehow survived despite the tornados. It should be noted that many mini vans do not have adequate brakes for their passenger capacity. If mini vans are used, buy the heavy duty brake package.

    • jkdrury permalink*
      November 4, 2010 4:03 pm

      Good feedback Doug. Especially about the min-van brakes. I remember we almost burned out yours coming down that hill to the river ford.

      • jkdrury permalink*
        November 4, 2010 4:04 pm

        I forgot – that is a good link also!

  3. kerry newell permalink
    November 8, 2010 3:52 am

    Thank you for these articles to date and projected.
    When is it the indivicual responsibility of the participant to know the departure/finish point, date, and time and assure that they meet the travel requirements to and from that spot as a requirement of participation?
    I am looking at the new GM/Chevrolet all wheel drive 15 passenger van with trailer as group travel equipment for next summer’s Yukon and Stewart River canoe race expedition/excursions where each paddler gets to Whitehorse but I will still have responsibility to get the boat to the start line and boat and crew from the finish lines back to their flight out.

    • jkdrury permalink*
      November 8, 2010 3:08 pm

      Good question Kerry. I believe it is always the participants responsibility to be at the right place at the right time. I constantly tried to drill into my students, “It is my responsibility to communicate clearly, what you, as the student, need to do. It is your responsibility to do it.” I think this holds true in this instance. When a van is to leave, particularly from a remote area and when a long distance from home as in your case, the question arises, “How long do we wait?” I would argue that we always have to use judgment (i.e., there are no hard fast rules), but I would tend to sticking to timelines. Otherwise the message you send is that time is not important, deadlines aren’t important, and we will always rescue you from your irresponsibility. I think the key here is clear communication followed up by consistent behavior.
      Sounds like fun up on the Yukon. A group of colleagues and I had a great two-week paddle on the Thelon River up in that part of the world this past summer.


  1. #48 – Lessons Learned Leading 35 years of Wilderness Ventures «

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