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Jessica Shapiros great Alaskan adventure

Lakeridge High grad finds she has the right stuff on epic wilderness trek

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Jessica Shapiro is now ready for anything after her 75-day experience in the Alaskan wilderness. She came out of the experience as a much more confident outdoors woman.

It is great to go through an experience and find out you are even better than you thought you were.

Happily, that happened to 19-year-old Lakeridge High School graduate Jessica Shapiro when she went on a 75-day journey in the Great White North. The McKenzie Brothers were quite outclassed by the brave and resourceful teenager who heard the call of the wild and answered it. Call her Jessica Shapiro, outdoors woman first class.

“This was something I always wanted to do,” Shapiro said. “The whole trip was like one giant anecdote. It was a surreal experience.”

At the beginning of the trip, however, Shapiro did not think she was in for many magical memories. Especially when she stared into the abyss for the first time.

“The most dangerous thing was crossing the crevices,” she said. “It was a complete surprise. I was not confident about doing it. I had to be coached step by step. I’m not very good with heights. It was a complete black abyss for hundreds of feet.”

This experience in the mighty wilderness started when Shapiro, a sophomore at the University of Montana, signed up for the National Outdoor Leadership School. Shapiro and her 10 friends spent their semester in Alaska, first sea kayaking on the rugged coastline of Prince William Sound, then traveling through mountains for an intense crash course on surviving outdoors, glacial travel skills, leadership, risk management, chart reading, marine hazard navigation, wildlife spotting and also how to be a good steward to the land.

Of course, nothing can prepare you for walking over a glacier covered with black ice, but the wish for such an experience had been in Shapiro’s heart for almost her entire life.

As a kid growing up in Lake Oswego, she spent a lot of time dreamily staring out of the windows of her classrooms at the outdoors. She came by her love of nature naturally from dad Doug, brothers Danny and Matt, and especially her mom, Michele, who kept all kinds of pets (including a noisy parrot) around the house. Michele imparted to her daughter a love of animals, the outdoors, gardening, birding, hiking, skiing, backpacking and exploring. After the family moved to Oregon, Michele Shapiro volunteered for the Tualatin River Natural Wildlife Refuge as a naturalist. She didn’t raise her daughter to sit around the house playing video games.

“I think, for Jessie, seeing me walking around with a Great Horned Owl on my arm was probably one of the most inspiring moments for her,” Michele Shapiro said. “As a parent you never know what will light that spark and inspire your child. If I’ve done that for Jessie then I’m very lucky we can share that.”

Of course, Jessica Shapiro wanted a career in the wilderness, so going to the University of Montana, with its outstanding outdoors curriculum, was a natural choice. She is studying to become a wildlife biologist, so she jumped at the opportunity to spend two-plus months in Alaska.

Still, the expedition had plenty of hardships, and even such an experienced outdoors lover as Shapiro was challenged to the highest degree. It took a while for the magic to kick in for Shapiro and her student comrades (six males, five females, plus three instructors) as they traversed the Wrangell Mountains, Horseshow Plateau, Mount Gordon and Mount Jarvis.

“It was hard to adjust,” Shapiro said. “It was total culture shock. I got really sick on the first day. I had always loved the outdoors, but I had never been out for 75 days in the wilderness. The mountaineering section really pushed my limits. It was freezing cold and I couldn’t go to sleep. It took us 20 hours to ascend Mount Jarvis, then we had to ski 5 miles to the next ration stop.”

The menu for the travelers was tedious.

“We had hashbrowns, rice, pasta, oatmeal, pancakes, cheese and nuts,” Shapiro said. “We got one special dessert a day, like brownies or apple bread.”

Modesty was nonexistant.

“There was no personal space,” Shapiro said. “At the end we were pooping within 10 feet of each other, and it didn’t matter.”

Meanwhile, her mother was back home worrying in Lake Oswego.

“We really couldn’t stay in touch,” Michele Shapiro said. “The scary part was when Jessie was in the mountains for three weeks and I got no calls from her. By the end of the third week I was very tense. I knew that anything could happen. There were routes that even the instructors didn’t know about. I didn’t know she would be jumping into crevices. I guess ignorance is bliss.”

In the end, Michele could rejoice in the fact she had raised one tough, smart kid who was made of the right stuff.

“The sights were absolutely amazing,” Jessica Shapiro said. “I couldn’t believe where I was. Civilization was a dream.”

But even the natural wonders Shapiro experienced took a back seat to the human relationships she formed.

“The people I met are my lifetime friends,” she said. “I felt like I went on an expedition with my best friends.”

Coming back to Lake Oswego for Thanksgiving really brought home to Shapiro how much the wilderness expedition had meant to her. She is a different person.

“I’m now a competent wilderness traveler with good leadership skills,” Shapiro said. “I learned a lot about myself. I now think I can do anything.”

For more information about the National Outdoors Leadership School go to the website nols.edu.

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