Outdoor Education

What I Learned From My WALI Gap Semester

By Wilderness Adventures August 21, 2023
Person paddling on Yellowstone Lake in the sunrise.

My Wilderness Adventures gap semester experience was a unique one. I added myself to the waitlist on a whim, and got a call just a few days before the start of the program: “Someone dropped. Are you in?” I had only the brief length of the phone call to decide, and admittedly, after a bit of hesitation, I made up my mind. Within 2 days, I packed my backpack, dusted off my hiking shoes, and suddenly found myself up at 3am, unloading kayaks from a trailer and paddling out into the Yellowstone backcountry at the crack of dawn, with a group of people I’d just met who seemed to know infinitely more than me about pitching tents, purifying water, tying knots, proper layering techniques, and just about everything that involved being outside. I knew I loved the outdoors, but I felt intimidated. Everything around me was unfamiliar; my comfort zone was stretched, like a muscle I didn’t even know I had: sore at first, uncomfortable, stiff. I leaned into the long days and soon that muscle formed. The process was certainly not without growing pains, but the reward was greater than I ever could have imagined, and is still paying off today in ways much larger than the world of outdoor recreation. Here are just a few things I took away from my WALI (Wilderness Adventures Leadership Institute) Gap Semester:


After 15 years of classrooms and homework, 6 months of Zoom and isolation from nearly everyone I loved, I was disconnected in all the wrong ways. Being immersed in this unique community of people, away from the overwhelming plethora of information that our generation is exposed to on a daily basis was a breath of fresh air – this semester grounded me and truly brought me back to life. I learned to be present, and that taking care of those around you is a big part of taking care of yourself.


Collaborating in small groups to accomplish things like meal planning, finding the way with a map and compass, delegating tasks around camp – these skills translated into something more that I’ve been able to apply in countless other circumstances, whether that’s navigating roommate relationships, workplace dynamics, or finding the confidence to make my way through a new city or trail on my own. Despite all the extracurriculars and jobs I’d held before my gap semester, I’ve noticed that the most growth in my leadership skills has come from those 9 weeks spent with WA.

Expanding My Comfort Zone

As mentioned earlier, my choice to join this gap semester was made hastily and without much of a chance to prepare. This in itself was a test of my limits, but it didn’t end there. The long days of backpacking (for my very first time) were not only physically demanding, but tested me mentally as well. In the words of one of my students this summer, “what you think you can do is only 50% of what you can actually do.” Don’t let fear or uncertainty stop you from taking that leap of faith.

Reconnecting With Nature 

There’s no comparable feeling to the complete awe that comes from, say, a day on the Lower Salmon, floating down between the rocky cliffs, knowing that there’s not another person for miles. Maybe you saw mountain goats or wild stallions; maybe you swam through a rapid; maybe you had a dance party in a 70mph windstorm while the rafts threatened to blow away; maybe, while you’re drinking your tea before bed and accepting the fact that the sand is a part of you now, you look up, and for the first time you see the entire Milky Way. The raw and immersive backcountry experience of a WALI Gap Semester will make you feel that you’re a part of something bigger than you could ever imagine. This sense of wonder never goes away; I find myself seeking it out as much my daily life will allow.

I encourage anyone interested in this program to seize the opportunity. It’s unlikely that anything like this will come along in the future, and what better time to take advantage of such an opportunity than right now? In an ever changing world where you’re living through the aftermath of a pandemic, a constantly developing political landscape, and constant news of climate change, it can feel terrifying to be on the brink of adulthood, not knowing which direction to turn. Too often we feel this pressure, this sense of urgency, to be the most productive and impactful we possibly can. Let go of that. Allow yourself to lean into this experience. I promise you won’t regret it.

By Katherine Held, WALI Alum and WA Trip Leader