Someone told Kenneth Nicholls recently that he was “either a well-preserved 95-year-old or a big fat liar,” because no 56-year-old could pack as much living into life as Nicholls has done.
But Nicholls is indeed 56, and he really has helped found a school for street kids in Ontario, fought Apartheid with the African National Congress, used teams of horses to farm in Guatemala and Canada, and led at-risk youth on wilderness trips on five continents, among many other jobs and adventures. This week he heads out on his latest unusual task, managing a 30-person scientific field camp on Cape Espenberg, Alaska.
“Life for me has been too short to have jobs sequentially,” said Nicholls, who tends to hold down three or four positions at once. He also uses several simultaneous first names — going by his birth name of Kenneth in Europe and South Africa where people tend to be more formal, by Ken with family and North Americans who like nicknames, and by Kenet with his indigenous friends who often have trouble pronouncing the “th” sound.
Nicholls grew up in southern Ontario, and as a teenager did the “classic Jack Kerouac type thing” of traveling North America by hopping freight trains and hitchhiking. At 18, he came back home and helped found a school for street kids.
The next year he took a group of boys from the school on a month-long, military boot camp-esque, “tough love” retreat in British Columbia. Nicholls saw the impact the wilderness had on the teenagers who changed their attitudes and took responsibility for their own actions in ways they wouldn’t at home. The experience led to more than three decades of leading youth wilderness trips.
Nicholls spent six years in the 1970s splitting his time between the school, called Twin Valleys, during the school year and leading wilderness trips with a company called Educo Adventure School over the summers in British Columbia. During this time, Twin Valleys expanded and bought a farm next door. The Amish farmer who lived there taught Nicholls to log and farm using teams of draft horses. Nicholls integrated this work into the lessons with street kids, who “had to check their bad attitudes at the barn door” because horses didn’t tolerate disagreeable workers.
At the same time, he was living in a communal house with South Africans and became interested in that country’s history and its struggle with Apartheid. He decided he wanted to experience the place firsthand.
After a few years of trying for a work visa, he was granted one in 1981 when he was 29. He took a job with a company that had hotels in Vancouver, outside London and in Cape Town. His task was to get all three onto the same food and beverage system. He planned to spend six months in England then six months in South Africa. That went according to plan until he got to South Africa and ended up staying 10 years.
Nicholls reconnected with his South African friends who had moved back home and were working with the African National Congress. While working for the hotel, setting up an international arm of the Educo guiding company and establishing his own wilderness leadership development company, he helped the ANC set up schools in black townships around Cape Town. After a few years, Nicholls, who is white, started volunteering as a negotiator for one of the country’s first black unions.
It was a time when Apartheid was causing violence across the country. His friends started disappearing, his apartment was firebombed and his friends, who understood the consequences, strongly recommended that he leave the country.
“The secret police of South Africa did not take kindly to liberals,” he said. So in 1991 he left for England. But his connection to the country was strong and he returned in 1994 to work with friends connected to Nelson Mandela’s presidential campaign and to run more youth trips in the wilderness of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. He soon became the international program leader for Educo and was doing training for the company around the globe.
In 1999, Nicholls moved to Educo’s office in Colorado to be closer to his aging parents in Canada. But, true to form, he didn’t sit still for long. In 2005 he went into semi-retirement and moved with his then wife to the farm she had carved out of the jungle in Guatemala. There he revived his horse skills and used them and oxen to work the farm, which he expanded to include a bed and breakfast.
When the economy soured, the life of a Central American farmer became untenable and he came back to the states in March. Friends who work at the South Pole suggested he use his wilderness skills in science support and told him to contact Polar Field Services about work. That led to his eight-week job as the field camp manager for a team of archeologists headed up by John Hoffecker from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
With support from the National Science Foundation, Hoffecker is investigating what caused indigenous communities that lived in the area from 800 to 1,400 AD to disappear and whether it was linked to a climate change at that time. The camp will include students from several universities as well as about a dozen Inuit elders and high school students who will visit the site. At its peak in mid summer, there will be about 30 people living in the tents along the bluffs of the Chukchi Sea.
Marin Kuizenga, PFS’s Alaska science manager, said Nicholls’ resume immediately jumped out at her.
“What has this man not done?” she wondered. His combination of background and skills will make him an excellent camp manager, she said.
“It’s clear that he can handle remote situations, conflict resolution, and large groups of people. And he could cook,” she said. “He’s a nice, steady, capable person.”
Nicholls has been in Alaska only two weeks, yet he said he liked the place and the people immediately. He’s hoping he’ll find a reason to stay in Alaska after the Cape Espenberg job ends.
“When I find a place that strikes me, I look for 100 other ways to stick around,” he said. “I don’t want to come and go as a tourist. I want to plant roots.”—Emily Stone