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Cornell Wilderness Term - 2008

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Panorama of Low Lake from the Wilderness Field Station (credit: David Kesler)
Banner photo: Hegman Pictographs (credit: Heather Axen)

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. CWT courses are advertised each year in the TERM TABLE. 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. Click on details for further information about expenses, weather, and what to bring.

Courses Offered in September 2008

Note: All classes begin on campus. Students and faculty will travel together to the Wilderness Field Station at the end of the first week of Term I and return at the end of the third week.

BIO 209
Plant Morphology

Prof. Marty Condon

Plants are amazing organisms. Like animals, plants choose mates, have sex, provide parental care, forage for nutrients, compete against each other, form partnerships with other organisms, and defend themselves against parasites and predators. Some plants even act as parasites and predators themselves.

Unlike animals, plants do not have nervous systems; yet, they can detect and respond in specific ways to variation in light, touch, and chemistry in their environments. How? What are the structures and mechanisms that allow plants to live such extraordinary and diverse lives? How do environmental variables and ecological interactions affect the evolution of those structures and mechanisms? How do plants affect the behavior and evolution of animals? Those are some of the questions we address in BIO 209.

Before leaving for the Wilderness Field Station, students will study plants’ structures and functions, with an emphasis on carnivorous plants. At the Wilderness Field Station we will study several different species of carnivorous plants. Students will design their own projects to test hypotheses. Projects could replicate Darwin’s experiments (Darwin wrote an entire book about carnivorous plants), test ecological hypotheses (pitcher plants have become “model systems” in contemporary community ecology), test biomechanical hypotheses, or explore other areas of the plants’ biology. To prepare for projects, we will explore the habitats where the plants live. We will hike and canoe to reach bogs where sundews and pitcher plants live. While canoeing, we will also search for bladderworts, which are aquatic plants with amazing and intricate traps that capture aquatic invertebrates. Students may carry out projects individually, or we may decide to work as a group on a project designed by the entire class. (Laboratory Science)

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

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 important 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.

Our class will examine the applicability of an important ecological theory, Island Biogeography Theory (IBT), to island tree communities in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). During a canoe trip into the BWCAW we will gather data from the many islands in the vicinity of Crooked Lake. We will then use these data to test the predictions of IBT with respect to the number of tree species found in island communities. This project will require both that we learn about canoeing and canoe camping in the wilderness and work together for a common goal. Our canoe trip also will provide us the opportunity to observe and interact with a wide range of organisms including white cedar, black spruce, jackpine, pitcher plants, northern pike, loons, bald eagles, river otters, moose, wolves and bear. (Laboratory Science)

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

ENG 347
Modern American Literature: Encountering the Wilderness, American Literature and Photography

Prof. Leslie Hankins


Low Lake, Sepember 2007

From Thoreau to Hemingway, from the f/64 group of wilderness photographers to the contemporary wolf/wilderness photographer Jim Brandenberg, encounters with the wild have shaped American art and culture. What better way to study those encounters than within the wilderness that inspired the writers and photographers? Therefore, the class will journey to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, to the Coe College Wilderness Field Station, 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. The course 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/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 study photographers Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and others who created art from their encounters with the wilderness. We will study Thoreau’s foundational essays from Walden and the vibrant journals and paintings of Emily Carr, the Canadian wilderness writer and painter of the first half of the 20th century. We’ll read fiction and essays by a variety of American writers and discuss them over campfires and dinners, and by the lake. While at the Wilderness Field Station, depending on the class size and staff availability, we may do a canoe trip and camp for a few days at compelling sites of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or we will stay at the Field Station on lovely Low Lake and do day trips. You may be a seasoned camper, a neophyte, or something in between, but the class will all work together to make the course and our trip, memorable. We may learn to portage, canoe, recognize trees and wolf scat and flora and fauna of the area 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 iPods. But it is a worthwhile trade, because you gain 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!”) (Humanities) Illustrated Course Brochure

Prerequisites: writing-designated course (W), liability waiver and permission of the instructor.

POL 371
Wilderness Politics

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 702 designated wilderness areas totaling more than 107 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.

Morning Moose in our Lake Insula Camp, 2006

Camping on White Pine Point, we can hear Basswood Falls, 2004

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. (Social Science)

The Berry Center for Economics, Business and Public Policy has established two need-based scholarships of $300 each to assist students enrolling in this course.

Prerequisites: POL 262, liability waiver and permission of the instructor.

The details of the course will be similar to those described in the 2006 COURSE SYLLABUS. Current and historical syllabi for most Politics Department courses can be found here.

The Cornell
Wilderness Term

The Boundary Waters
Canoe Area Wilderness


Maintained by: Craig W. Allin Last Update: July 15, 2008 8:40 am
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