“They become their own pioneers”

“I can remember my first backpacking trip,” says Marshall Nicoloff, AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) coordinator in New York City. The hike was in southern Vermont, and Marshall was doing it with his Boy Scout troop. “It was two miles in. I think I was nine. My backpack was entirely too large, an adult-sized external frame pack. My sleeping bag was rolled into a trash bag and lashed to the outside of the frame. The whole thing was probably as tall as I was.”

Marshall remembers how exhausted he was at the end of the hike and how cool the lake felt when he went swimming.

Nearly twenty-five years later, Marshall can say that he’s been working with youth in the wilderness “pretty much all my life.” His youthful hiking experiences led to guiding trips as a college student, working with summer camps, then running a day camp in Massachusetts, and to his current work with AMC.

He thinks that spending time in the outdoors helps high-school students develop character, independence, leadership, and self-confidence. He’s especially interested in leadership development. In his groups, “Everybody has a job or responsibility, everyone takes on a different piece of leadership,” including such jobs as navigator, “soul patrol,” “hydration station,” and Leave No Trace guru. He also establishes “leaders of the day,” who are in charge of the whole group. “It gives them practice in how to talk to others,” he says, and helps them develop assertiveness and take responsibility for their actions.

On wilderness trips, the simplest of activities can be opportunities to practice such skills. Take backpack cooking. Marshall teaches the teenagers how to use a stove and basic recipes. “Most teenagers don’t cook at home,” he says. He likes to watch them move to greater complexity as they start to think about adding spices, managing portion sizes, and planning menus.

Marshall describes a current student whose experience illustrates the difference that outdoor programs can make. The young woman became involved in a YOP-supported program as a freshman in high school. Like many teenagers, she’d arrived at high school without much success in the traditional areas of academics, sports, and music. Marshall has seen such kids “fall into the abyss.” After four years of outdoor adventures, that young woman recently graduated at the top of her class, and received several scholarship offers. He thinks that being involved in outdoor education gave her “a chance to excel.”

“The extra ingredient,” Marshall says of outdoor education, “is adventure, that sense of the unknown. The teenagers become their own pioneers. The experience creates memories. They can tell you everything about those first trips.” The same as a young man who remembers carrying a pack as tall as he was, with a sleeping bag stuffed into a trash bag.

Marshall met his wife, Kari, also a teacher and outdoor educator, through his work with the Appalachian Mountain Club. They have a little hiker on the way. No surprise, someone’s already given them the baby’s first backpack.


AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) provides urban and at-risk youth with outdoor experiences by offering training and support to the groups (schools, non-profits, and other organizations) that take young people on outdoor adventures. Each year the program reaches more than 10,000 young men and women.

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