The Cornell Wilderness Term (CWT) is an off-campus program comprising courses in the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. Courses are taught during the first term of the academic year at the Wilderness Field Station on Low Lake in the Superior National Forest. The Field Station is within walking distance of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, described by National Geographic as "paradise found" and one of the "50 greatest places of a lifetime."

CWT provides students with unique opportunities for field, laboratory and other creative work, and for reading, writing and reflecting in a wilderness setting. Co-curricular activities—such as camping, canoeing and evening seminars—enable cross-disciplinary sharing of ideas. Participation in the program entails additional costs that are not covered by regular tuition or financial aid, and include transportation, room and board, and use of Wilderness Field Station facilities. 

Cornell Wilderness Term courses

Ecology—BIO 321

Prof. Andy McCollum

Ecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environment and how these interactions determine the distribution and abundance of organisms. We will examine a broad array of topics including:

  • Interactions between organisms and the physical environment
  • Life histories
  • Population growth
  • Population genetics and adaptation
  • Interactions between individuals of different species, such as competition, predation and mutualism, community ecology and biogeography

Our investigation of these topics will include consideration of fundamental ecological theories and mathematical models as well as natural history exercises near the Wilderness Field Station. Students will gain hands-on experience with many of the plants and animals of both terrestrial and aquatic habitats of the southern boreal forests.

During a backcountry canoe trip, we will gather data to test the predictions of ecological theory.

Last year's class examined how well the number of tree species on islands in the vicinity of Crooked Lake conformed to the predictions of Island Biogeography Theory. We may continue that work or select a new project, but this year's class project will again require that we both learn about canoeing and camping in the wilderness and work as a team toward a common goal.

Our canoe trip also will provide us the opportunity to observe and interact with a wide range of organisms which might include white cedar, black spruce, jack pine, pitcher plants, northern pike, damselflies, loons, bald eagles, burying beetles, river otters, moose, freshwater sponges, wolves, bear and the always awe-inspiring toebiter. 

Prerequisites: BIO 141 and 142, and permission of the instructor.

Modern American Literature: Encountering the Wilderness, Literature and Photo-Writing at the Boundary Waters—ENG 347

Prof. Leslie Hankins

Encounters with boundaries on the wild have shaped the boundaries of art and culture. What better way to study those encounters than on the boundary of the wilderness that inspired the writers and photographers? Therefore, the class will journey to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, where we will immerse ourselves in the glorious September outdoors, study journals, literature and photography and consider the interplay between our own encounters with the wilderness and the artworks about the wilderness that we study.

We will reflect upon art and meditation as ways of relating to the wilderness; to capture our own responses to the wilderness, we will keep journals or portfolios of projects involving writing, literary analysis, meditation, and photography (including a one-photo-a-day project inspired by Brandenberg’s works).

The class will consider photographers Jim Brandenberg, John Daido Loori and others who created art from their encounters with the wilderness.

We will study the vibrant journals and paintings of Emily Carr, the Canadian wilderness writer and painter of the first half of the 20th century, and read fiction and essays by a variety of American women writers and discuss them over campfires and dinners, and by the lake.

We will canoe around the Field Station on lovely Low Lake. You may be a seasoned camper, a neophyte, or something in between, but we will all work together to make the course and our trip, memorable as we interact with other courses at the Field Station for the Cornell Wilderness Term. The Field Station is primitive, rustic, and rather raw. Be ready to embrace the absence of electricity, laptops, cellphones, and the rest of the tech-distractions from full attention to being.  We gain immersion in breathtaking beauty, stunning silence, physical challenges of hoisting and canoeing, and moments of sublime revelation—plus camaraderie. (“Wake up! Are those wolves howling?! There must be fifty of them!”)

Prerequisites: writing-designated course (W).

Wilderness Politics & Policy-POL 371

Prof. Craig Allin

When Europeans first arrived in North America, they viewed it as a continental wilderness populated by wild men (Native Americans) and wild beasts. By the late 19th century the continent had been tamed, and Euro-Americans were increasingly interested in preserving vestiges of their wilderness past. The purest expression of that impulse has been the political movement to preserve and protect large tracts of undeveloped federal lands in a National Wilderness Preservation System.

Today there are 757 designated wilderness areas totaling more than 109 million acres. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota is among the oldest. It is the largest wilderness area east of the Rockies and the most heavily visited in the nation. It has been the object of more legislation and more litigation than any other wilderness area. As such, it is the ideal venue for an exploration of the politics of wilderness preservation and management in America.

The course explores the wilderness concept and the wilderness itself. We will study the history of wilderness preservation in the United States, the impact of wilderness designation on national parks, national forests, and other public lands, and the host of controversies that inevitably arise when government agencies are directed to "preserve natural conditions." What is wilderness? Is preserving wilderness possible? Is wilderness preservation a waste of resources? Should land managers interfere with natural forces? Should forest fires be allowed to burn? Should predatory animals be reintroduced? What is the appropriate place of people in wilderness areas? Should we try to make the wilderness safe for visitors? Should visitors be regulated to protect wilderness? Should concessions be made to Native Americans whose ancestors once called these "wilderness areas" home? How does the division of authority between federal and state governments influence how these decisions are made? Science is indispensable to thinking seriously about many of these questions, but ultimately the choices to be made are political choices. We will try to understand who is making these choices and why.

We will study the laws, regulations, court decisions, and management practices that govern the use of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We will meet with wilderness managers, and we will participate in wilderness management, measuring visitor impact at de facto campsites in designated "primitive areas" where there are no official campsites. We will spend the majority of our time in Minnesota on a wilderness canoe trip, collecting impact data, visiting areas of historical and management interest, and observing the influence of fire, wind, and visitor behavior on the wilderness resource. 

Prerequisites: POL 262 or 282, and permission of the instructor.