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Abroad in the Adirondacks


By Lawrence Biemiller

Massawepie Lake, N.Y. -- The canoes waited at the end of a pine-shaded, half-mile trail along a low glacial ridge, six red and green hulls resting on their sides against a tree. Arriving in twos and threes after a midterm exam on a chilly Adirondack mountaintop, a dozen chattering, laughing St. Lawrence University students carried the boats down to the water and stepped carefully in. Soon their impromptu flotilla stretched halfway across this little lake, heading for a dock on the opposite shore.

There, after ducking under the low boughs of an evergreen, they came to the simple camp where they're spending most of this fall. It's a semester of waking to crisp, cold dawns, of learning about ferns and mushrooms on afternoon hikes, of crossing the lake in mist and in moonlight -- a semester far from cellphones, Internet connections, television, running water, and friends back on the campus. The students, seven women and five men, live in canvas yurts set among eastern hemlocks and white pines. On warm days, they attend classes on the dock or on a pair of outdoor benches made of split logs.

They follow paths defined by fallen branches so they're not compacting any more of the needle-cushioned forest floor than necessary. They have a two-stall composting toilet that they maintain themselves, and a shower in which a hand-cranked pump fills an overhead bucket with three gallons of propane-heated water. In the evenings, they study and write papers under lights powered by a solar array at the lake's edge.

"It's a semester abroad, and the study country is nature," said Karl McKnight, an energetic associate professor of biology who runs the Adirondack Semester. The goal, he said, is to live as lightly as possible on the land while taking a full load of courses.

Mr. McKnight teaches "Natural History of the Adirondacks" and throws in a little astronomy, because he can't resist. It was his midterm for which the students wrote their essays atop the mountain; they had to identify 38 different trees, ferns, and mushrooms while hiking up and back. The students are also taking "Philosophy and the Environment," "Creative Expressions of Nature," "Cultural History of the Adirondacks," and "Modern Outdoor Recreation Ethics."

St. Lawrence's faculty created the Adirondack Semester three years ago, said Mr. McKnight. He was initially against the idea because he thought it might entail little more than writing poems in the woods, but another faculty member persuaded him to get involved as a way of assuring rigor in the program. One book that has been particularly influential, he says, is Evan Eisenberg's The Ecology of Eden (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). "It argues that for 6,000 years people have been trying to find a middle ground between civilization and the wilderness," Mr. McKnight said. "It's the tower versus the mountain."

"The Greeks called the perfect middle ground Arcadia," he continued. "But we cannot go very long into nature and not change it into the tower. In the Adirondack Semester, we create an Arcadia and try not to live in it too much."

The students began the semester with a brief orientation, during which they learned things like how to care for their hiking boots and their feet. After three days, they headed off for a 12-day trip in New York's High Peaks region, taking only what they could carry on their backs. Then they settled in to a schedule of lectures, labs, demonstrations, and field trips at the lake, the centerpiece of a 4,000-acre Boy Scout camp that the university rents for the fall. It lies within easy driving distance of the university's campus, in Canton, N.Y., so faculty members can visit the camp to teach.

The courses are only one aspect of the students' experience, Mr. McKnight said. They must also forge a community that can handle daily chores and occasional crises, as well as deal with the strains of living in close quarters and ever-colder weather. "We intentionally select some students who are really good -- who can eat bark and are real crunchies -- and some frightened kids from the Bronx."

Rick Richter, one of the two assistant directors this year, said "the most important thing is team-building." He and Julie Versteeg, the other assistant director, have led the students in team-oriented activities like rope-climbing and even a mock search-and-rescue mission. "It's a little more planned out than the students realize," said Mr. Richter.

So is life in the camp. The yurts sleep three and are coed, in an attempt to minimize gender issues. "Within two days, they learn how to dress modestly, how to create a safe space for each other," Mr. McKnight said later, midway through a tour that began a two-day visit. Students have almost no privacy, but they can take tents into the woods or across the lake for a night if they want to get away, with others or by themselves.

Alcohol and mind-altering substances are forbidden, and everyone changes roommates once a month. Students can bring music, but they can only play it through headphones. No one has a computer. Sunday mornings, the students drive into Tupper Lake, where some go to church and others do laundry, including that of the churchgoers. A meeting every Thursday offers a chance to discuss community issues -- "like someone snags all the coffee at 2 in the morning and doesn't tell the cook in time to order more," Mr. McKnight said.

The students seem to have only two complaints: that Mr. McKnight has crammed too much into their schedule, leaving them little time to study and write papers; and that the mail is slow. Other than that, "the whole way of life is really great," said Tim Gallivan, a junior majoring in English and writing.

Mr. Gallivan and other students report that they're getting along well -- an assertion supported by hilarity at meals, by singing in the vans on a field trip, by rounds of inside jokes that have evolved to an astonishing level of obscurity. They're also going to bed earlier than usual and sleeping longer. "I actually feel less stressed here," said Jean Walker, a sophomore. "Climbing mountains with Karl is so much better than going to the gym and staring at a TV screen."

"I'm really amazed at how we all came together," said Katie Brauns, a junior. "It surprised me so much how much I love everyone."

"The biggest challenge," Mr. Gallivan added, "is going to be going back and upholding the ideals of this semester -- simple living, trying to live in harmony with your surroundings. And it's going to be super-super difficult to find something like this community."

Although Mr. McKnight spent much of the summer at the camp with a work crew, he said some problems still need to be fixed. One is disposing of "gray water" from the kitchen and the shower. "Last year, we invented and destroyed about six gray-water systems," he said. This year, the shower is drained in the woods with a hose that is moved periodically. Kitchen water is filtered five times and then carried away in buckets to be dumped in a different spot every day. (It is considered proper, even environmentally beneficial, to lick your plate clean.)

But heat was the issue that worried Mr. McKnight one chilly afternoon earlier this month. Last year, he installed forced-air propane heaters in the yurts, but he said they were "a disaster -- we froze to death." This month he finally installed another set of new stoves that do a much better job. "In November it gets cold," he said. "It snows two times a week. The temperature gets down to 15." After Thanksgiving, he said, the camp would be too cold for studying, no matter how well the yurts are heated, so the last three weeks of the semester will be spent in Arizona. The students will study the dry Southwestern ecosystem and compare it with what they've studied here, and then take their final exams.

The camp's one luxury is its cook, a good-humored and ponytailed 2000 graduate of St. Lawrence named Rocky Crockett. He turns out three meals a day, many in both vegetarian and nonvegetarian versions, in a yurt equipped with a stove, a refrigerator, a restaurant-grade sink, and a big table. Lasagne, chili, and cream-of-chicken soup with pasta are typical entrees, but the students are still talking about Mr. Crockett's two Indian feasts. "We have a live-in cook so the students have time to study," Mr. McKnight said, but he also said that a difficult experience with a vegan predecessor of Mr. Crockett's made it clear that hiring the right cook is critical to everyone's happiness. The students like Mr. Crockett so much, Mr. McKnight added, that they "voted to coerce me to take him with us to Arizona."

Mr. McKnight is the first to admit that even in Arcadia, "disasters happen about a quarter of the time," he said. "That's okay." When they don't, the camp can be idyllic, the lake almost magically beautiful. After dinner and a dessert of homemade gingerbread, Mr. McKnight left the students and the softly glowing yurts and headed to a canoe for the trip back to civilization. The day's last light silhouetted trees in the distance, and a crescent moon rose over the still water, and by the time the canoe reached the far shore, the remains of color had been bled out of the evening, and stars were appearing overhead.

Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published November 1, 2002.