Learning, Adirondack style
SARANAC LAKE — When people think of college education, thoughts of crushing debt, library study sessions and raucous parties may come to mind. But one local college turns those ideas on their heads by throwing students into the wild for a 30-day stretch twice a year.
Students at North Country Community College’s Wilderness Recreation Leadership program spend their first of two years at the campus in Saranac Lake learning the basics of outdoor recreation, such as planning trips and wilderness first responder medical treatment. But after their first summer they, are then thrown to the wolves. Or maybe the coyotes and foxes, depending on your thoughts of wolves in the Adirondacks.
First thing in the fall, after the summer break, students in the WRL program come back to campus and start planning the practicum, which takes them out of civilization and into the woods for a month.
But the practicum is not just a glorified camping trip for college credit. Students get pushed out of their comfort zones, forego technology and learn to work together, whether they want to or not. The point is to put them in a real-world situation that will not only help them get jobs in the outdoors field, but to give them skills that will transfer to all aspects of their lives.
To this end, WRL Director Jimmy Cunningham and a bevy of instructors have the students teach each other throughout the trip, often after they’ve spent the day working hard and setting up camp.
“Throughout that time period, students are waking up pretty early in the morning,” he said. “Usually followed by a lesson or two that they might teach or one of their co-students might teach.
“Then they travel from point A to point B for the day, all the while kind of learning [from] teachable moments as you come across them.
“Really what it is, it’s their chance to practice the skills that were taught to them in the classroom the previous year,” Cunningham said. “The point is to kind of hone those skills while they’re out there by traveling through the Adirondack Park.”
The fall practicum started out with a 15-day canoe trip beginning in Blue Mountain Lake. After those two weeks, the students were resupplied with food and began backpacking in and around the High Peaks.
Tarah Schlueter, who moved to New York a few years ago, said she chose this particular program because of her upbringing in the outdoors in Colorado.
“[I] always enjoyed outdoors living. I just want to be outside. I don’t want to be stuck behind a desk,” Schlueter said. “This program is just so unique in that sense, that it’s so hands-on.
“You can read a book about all this stuff, but to have actual experience in all of that, I thought that was awesome.”
Schlueter, whose boyfriend is a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger, said she thinks her work in this program will transfer to whatever she decides to pursue, but she added that being a forest ranger was not high on her list of potential careers.
“When he gets called out at 3 in the morning, I still get to sleep in,” she laughed.
Schlueter said, and Cunningham echoed, that one of the biggest benefits for students are the interpersonal skills they gain by working together in adverse conditions for such a long stretch.
“It wasn’t just learning how to survive in the backcountry,” Shlueter said. “It’s not just camping and having fun. All of us had to teach lessons out there. You’re doing homework, you’re doing journal entries, and you’re writing, and you have to use a different part of your brain.
“You get a whole toolbox of information when you’re on it, and that’s awesome.”
Cunningham, who is himself a graduate of the program, said the practicum leaves a mark on the students, one that likely feeds back into the school’s student ranks.
“We have that kind of attractive program that we can market on social media, and word of mouth seems to be one of the biggest ways students are finding out about this program,” he said. “They go home to Central New York, to Western New York, to the Capital Region, they tell their friends about it. I see friends of friends coming through.”
Cunningham said students who complete the practicum come out changed, often for the better.
“They’re way more likely to step in front of the group and voice their concerns,” he said. “They’re way more likely to have their voice heard, [and] their technical skills are awesome. They’re able to make really good decisions as far as risk management is concerned, and they’re able to envision themselves getting into that facilitator role rather than that follower role.”
The students, while led by guides and instructors, mostly define what the practicum will look like.
“I always find that in the beginning of an expedition like that there’s a bit of storming until the group gets to the point where they have to hash out a really big decision,” he said. “People are coming from all different backgrounds, so that really teaches them to have that active listening piece [and] have their voice heard.”
He also said that although class after class completes the practicum, each year the trip is different.
“We have to cater the expedition to what they want to get out of it,” he said. “Is this a group that is really physically fit and wants to do 10 46ers? Is it a group that wants to just practice interpersonal skills while sitting around the campfire?
“And sometimes we have both where it gets a little tricky.”
Mike Woolheater, who hails from Remsen, near Utica, said the practicum was a new experience for him.
“I enjoyed a lot of it,” he said. “It’s different being away from society. I’m used to talking to my parents; we have a really close family.
“It made me think a lot more. It was relaxing to not have to worry about stupid stuff all the time. So that was nice.”
Woolheater said finishing the practicum led to a little bit of societal shock.
“I was just like ‘wow,'” he said. “Because when you’re out there it felt so long. Then when I was home in bed, I was just like, ‘I can’t believe that whole month is over.'”
Woolheater said he sought out the NCCC program because he likes hiking, but found the paddling portion of the practicum the most enjoyable.
“I really enjoyed the canoeing portion,” he said. “We did close to 80 miles — starting in Blue Mountain Lake and ending in Little Clear Pond [in Lake Clear]. I love paddling, but I’ve never done overnight paddles like that, it was crazy.
“[But] it feels good to be cleaned up,” Woolheater laughed.
Cunningham said that students who knew each other from their first year in school really become a more cohesive unit during the month.
“It’s essentially kind of moving as this family group from point A to point B,” he said. “Learning from each other and pushing comfort zones and pushing boundaries and kind of absorbing along the way.
“No matter what, I’m really hoping that they can take the skills that they’ve learned and apply them to multiple situations. That’s really the goal because we can’t say that every student is going to do this or that. Not every student is going to become a guide. Not every student is going to become a forest ranger.
“But if they end up in a professional setting, I would hope they take the skills that we’ve learned in the program and apply them in any venue.”