Leslie Frances Teresa van den Barselaar was born in Boston, Massachusetts on Jan 23, 1952 and grew up in Dorchester, daughter of Arie van den Barselaar and Edith Leslie. It was not an easy childhood for Les and her younger sister, Susan. The family struggled with health and money issues and coped by denial, telling the kids everything was fine.
From the beginning Les was more than any category you could put her in. She adapted by becoming a voracious reader and student at home, where nobody would bother her when she was reading. She and Sue could leave the house for sports and they both became great athletes. Les swam, played basketball and softball, and was the Boston area champion in candlepin bowling. In the summer she went to Rainbow Girls’ camp in the country where she learned to shoot, ride and sail.
Les’ academic abilities led her to being accepted to Girls’ Latin, a publicly funded prep school for advanced placement students. She did well there and also convinced the very traditional school that they should pay more attention to physical education. From there, Les went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst as a competitive swimmer and captain of the varsity basketball team. As usual, none of the traditional categories could contain her interests so her major was “Bachelors Degree with Individual Concentration” and she focused mainly on natural history and exercise physiology.
Les was on track to become a Phys Ed teacher in Massachusetts when a classmate suggested that she might be interested in this new outdoor school in Wyoming that he had heard about. Paul Petzoldt offered Les a scholarship, U Mass came up with the rest and accepted the college credit, and, as happened to so many of us, her life was forever changed.
Les was a student at NOLS East, then came to Wyoming for the Instructor’s Course. There were not a lot of female NOLS instructors at that time. Les’ IC evaluation was summed up with “not bad for a gal,” which was meant as high praise. As usual, Les defied categorization. She was a damned good NOLS Instructor period, no qualifier required nor accepted. Fortunately Paul was not big on categories himself, preferring to simply give people opportunities and trust them to succeed. Les thrived in this environment and became one of the great role models for women in outdoor education.
In 1974 she was Patrol Leader (second in charge) on a 35-day Wilderness course in the Uintas. The Course Leader was David Kallgren, a young Instructor just back from a climbing trip in South America, and they were briefed to keep the two “patrols” separate due to course size regulations. As it happened their planned route was consumed by a major forest fire, so the two groups stayed together in order to respond to the developing situation. By the end of the course Les and Dave were themselves a developing situation and they were partners from then on.
Les and Dave taught many courses together, taking turns at the CL role, and alternated that with simultaneously working separate courses so each could earn CL wages. Even so, it was hard to get by. After subsisting on Food Stamps for the first winter (they bought a month’s worth of food and skied across Yellowstone), they were able to supplement their NOLS earnings by working for Inberg Surveying, which consisted mostly of using a Brunton compass to mark a straight line through remote and rugged terrain all over the Western U.S. This also involved challenging off-road driving and often helicopter support. Les was a crew chief and survived a helicopter crash in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
Les and Dave married in Lander on November 12, 1976, during the lunch break of a NOLS strategic planning meeting. They then headed to Bolivia with their survey earnings. After climbing Illimani, the newlyweds hiked across the upper Amazon, living off the land with a fishing line and a single shot .22 rifle. It was never a traditional marriage but it was tested and proved durable.
At NOLS, Les taught hiking, mountaineering, caving, and winter ski mountaineering courses from the Lander headquarters, and at the Pacific Northwest branch she taught mountaineering, including the first women’s mountaineering course. From ’79 to ’81 she and Dave were co-directors of the NOLS Kenya program, which involved everything from government relations to auto mechanics while teaching six semester courses in two years. It was there that her interests in birding and natural history really blossomed. After Kenya she and Dave did several long treks in Nepal and then were itinerant NOLS instructors teaching sea kayaking in Alaska in the summers and in Mexico in the winters, visiting their house in Lander briefly en route.
In 1986 they became co-directors in Mexico and lived on their little sailboat anchored in front of the headquarters in Coyote Bay for 14 years, staying in their house in Lander only during the really hot months of summer. Les adopted a cat there and Feo became famous for, among other talents, riding the bow of her sea kayak as she commuted to and from work. Les was instrumental in getting Mexicans involved with the NOLS program, yet another example of her refusing to be constrained by artificial boundaries. It was her idea to create the current expedition-based sailing program with Drascombe Longboats. More than anything Les was known for the inclusive and caring community she fostered in what was then a very isolated outpost. For several years the only reliable communication with the NOLS HQ in Lander was via short wave radio, and Les was Ham operator N7UPD.
Les and Dave resigned as co-Directors in 2000 in order to have time to devote to being in the field on NOLS courses, primarily horse packing in the summer and sailing in Mexico in the winter. They were also able to build a house on land that Les had located near Lander years earlier. She was finally able to devote more time to her horses and equine massage, to her Zen practice with Charlotte Joko Beck, and to diversity and inclusion work with her partner Debra East and the National Coalition Building Institute.
It gradually became clear that something was going on with Les’ health. Her knees were shot from basketball and years of carrying a heavy pack, but the doctors told her that as long as she could stand the pain she really couldn’t do further harm so she carried on teaching NOLS courses until it was clear that there was something else going on, eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Les retired from teaching field courses and took a job in the office for the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute and also continued to teach communication skills and inclusion.
In 2008 a colonoscopy revealed that Les had stage 4 rectal cancer and she began a long and rigorous treatment involving chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries. The doctors and staff at Rocky Mountain Oncology and at the Huntsman Cancer Institute became friends and Les became very knowledgeable about her treatment options. She utilized alternative treatments as well, if they were reasonable and evidence based, sometimes advising her doctors about new clinical trials. Part of this work was painting watercolors, which joined her passions for wildlife observation and meditation. Les maintained a positive attitude and was determined to stay active and able to ride her horse. She far exceeded anyone’s predictions or expectations. Acuhealth Acupuncture and Sagewind Health in Lander provided valuable support and she especially credited her time working out at Elemental Fitness with sustaining an active, engaged lifestyle. She was very proud to have recently been able to deadlift 180 pounds, describing herself as a “badass disabled athlete.”
This spring a PET scan of her lungs happened to reveal a new tumor in her breast. To most people a diagnosis of breast cancer would be devastating; to Les it was no big deal, only stage 1A and easily treatable. She had a lumpectomy and continued her workouts, horseback riding and plans for more winter game watching in Yellowstone. Les had followup appointments at the Huntsman on Monday and Tuesday, where she was judged to be doing remarkably well. On Wednesday evening, Oct. 28, Les collapsed suddenly at home. Dave reached her and lowered her to the floor, but she was unresponsive and had no pulse. Despite continuous CPR Les was pronounced dead at Sage West Hospital.
Leslie was open and honest to an unusual degree. She was extremely sensitive to the feelings of others and could not ignore or deny the existence of problems. She was fearless about confronting and resolving conflict. This could be intimidating at first for those not used to communicating that honestly, but the results were exceptional. Leslie was able to reach others in a very deep and meaningful way and many of us, including her many students, are better people today for having known her. She is deeply missed.
There will be a celebration of her life at 2:00 pm on Saturday, November 14 at the WMI campus at 222 Red Canyon Road.
Travel east on US-287, approximately 8 miles to the Rawlins Junction (US-287/Wyoming 28). Continue straight on Wyoming 28 (toward Farson) for approximately 1 mile, then turn right on Red Canyon Road. You’ve missed the turn off if you pass over the Little Popo Agie River. After turning onto Red Canyon Road, drive for about 2 miles. The campus will be on your right.
Parking at the campus is limited so we suggest meeting in front of the NOLS office at 3rd and Lincoln at 1:30 for ride sharing.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to either:
The LvB Diversity and Inclusion Fund, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), 284 Lincoln St, Lander, WY 82520, http://www.nols.edu/alumni/giving/.
Leslie van Barselaar memorial, Wolf Research Fund, Yellowstone Park Foundation, 222 East Main St. #301, Bozeman, MT 59715, http://www.ypf.org, donate memorial gift.