Into the wild: 12 volunteers sign on for a taste of nature

Students go down to the woods for back-to-basics teaching and learning. Jon Marcus reports

October 21, 2010

Credit: Tara Freeman

Catherine Shrady, professor of geology at St Lawrence University in Canton, New York, is on her way to class. To get there, she must drive down a two-mile dirt road, hike another half a mile along the side of a glacial esker and through a forest of pine trees, then paddle a canoe across a lake.

Her destination? A secluded campsite where each autumn a dozen undergraduates take part in one of the most unusual semesters in American higher education. For four months, they largely fend for themselves while living deep inside the largest protected wilderness in the continental US.

From mid-August to mid-December, the students live in yurts in a remote part of Adirondack Park, a sparsely populated 6-million-acre site in upstate New York near the Canadian border. There they take classes from faculty who hike and paddle to the site, and try to get by without such 21st-century essentials as television, mobile phones, cars, internet access and email.

"It is sort of an odd idea, isn't it?" said Kelly Muedeking, a student from Baltimore, who underwent the experience last year. "But being disconnected was almost a privilege. You are not entirely living on the land, but you are trying to get back to that sort of lifestyle."

In fact, the Adirondack semester is so popular with students that competition for places is intense - despite the fact that, in addition to forgoing technology, participants must also abstain from those campus mainstays, drugs and alcohol.

"We have to act as adults and rely on ourselves," Ms Muedeking said. "But we are adults, and on campus that idea is sort of lost. A lot of things are done for us. Out there, if we don't do something, then it doesn't get done."

The 10-year-old programme is modelled on study abroad, but instead of living in a foreign culture, students are immersed in the natural world.

They chop wood, carry water and maintain their village, Arcadia, which is situated on the shore of Lake Massawepie.

They also learn outdoor skills such as rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, camping, first aid, mapping and woodwork, and take classes in everything from marine biology to philosophy.

Most of the Adirondack participants are interested in environmental studies or conservation biology, but one plans a career in environmental law and there are also artists, writers and aspiring educators.

"They are really fascinated by this unobstructed, unrestricted, deeper learning about their surroundings," said Brad Baldwin, associate professor of biology at St Lawrence and a member of the programme's faculty. "Most of them have woken up to all these natural phenomena going on around them.

"The thing I'm able to do with these students that I can't ask of kids on campus is that I can assign them to observe the natural world almost 24/7."

Dr Baldwin is also responsible for supplying Arcadia with food - organic and locally grown, of course - which he ferries there on a raft that he propels by pulling it along a rope suspended between trees.

"It reminds me of things I've read in old stories," he said. "I've always been 'outdoorsy', but this is pretty novel even for me."

An experiment of sorts

Other faculty share those sentiments. "Going to the camp puts me in a different head space," said Mary Hussmann, associate professor of English at the university, who teaches creative writing at Adirondack. "You don't have the on-campus distractions. You are more wholly there, rather than thinking about who's waiting for you in your office or answering your emails."

In addition to their yurts, which they share with two staff members from the university who live at the camp, the students have a kitchen, an outhouse and a wood-fired sauna - not necessarily for luxury, but for bathing. A solar panel provides electricity and there are kerosene heaters, plus a satellite phone in case of emergencies.

"It's an experiment in a way, too," said Dr Shrady. "Can humans be happy living more simply without all the technology and by having a small carbon footprint? We get all our water from the lake, for example, so the students think about where their water comes from. They can learn in a really different way."

Students are allowed to leave periodically to do their laundry in a nearby town, and they get a week off in November. By December, the weather turns cold.

"You sleep in all of your layers - and then you keep them on all day," Ms Muedeking said.

The students do occasionally get on each other's nerves, living cheek-by-jowl in close quarters and in such small numbers, she admitted.

But "we are on a huge amount of acreage. On campus, to escape you go to the student centre or the library, or hope your roommate isn't in. During the Adirondack semester, you can just wander off into the woods."

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