Wilderness Field Station Memories

Canoeing in the Boundary WatersLearning beyond the classroom and gaining real-world experience is a pillar of the liberal arts approach at Coe College. One of the college’s most unique and memorable opportunities for hundreds of alumni is the Wilderness Field Station (WFS). 

Originally operated by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) and located at a lumbering camp on Basswood Lake Island, the first classes were offered during the summer of 1962. 

Mary Walter, an alumna of Ripon College and field station attendee during that first summer, remembered the anticipation leading up to their arrival. “Everyone piled into the bus that bumped and rattled northward where adventure and discovery, mosquitoes and blackflies awaited us,” she said. 

Another Basswood attendee, Ken Zichal ’71, recalled it was home to “pristine beauty, clean air, silence, solitude and the most ravenous mosquitoes in North America.”

The field station was moved to Low Lake in 1977 after the federal government established the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), which encompassed the Basswood site. When the ACM decided to close the field station after the summer program of 2002, Coe College assumed its operation with Professor of Biology Emeritus Harlo Haddow as director. In 2016, the WFS shifted once more into the hands of Associate Professor of Biology Jesse Ellis as the new program director. A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Ellis’ summers growing up involved spending time in various parts of Northern Minnesota, including the Boundary Waters, and the environment contributed to his scientific interest of studying the ecology and behavior of birds and other animals. As program director, he was excited to share such a place with students, and to continue doing so in the summers since. 

Located about five miles north of Ely, Minnesota, in the 2.5-million-acre Superior National Forest, the WFS program offers two month-long sessions of classes each summer, where students take one course at a time and focus on content in the context of exploring the wilderness. 

“As a biology and chemistry major, the WFS was the best experience of my liberal arts education! Taking classes at the field station taught me beyond the classroom,” said Wendy Ochi ’82. She remembers the daily routine of living among nature: “Portaging a canoe, carrying a backpack and canoe that were the weight of me, fishing bass and trout and eating the catch for breakfast, picking fresh blueberries in the early morning then later having blueberry pancakes.”

Appreciating the great outdoors as one’s classroom was an enduring sentiment across the decades of alumni who have spent time at the field station.

“I loved the ability to be outside, almost all day, every day for an entire month,” said Ann Virden Balvanz ’08, who took an ornithology course in June 2004. “I was able to study a family of hairy woodpeckers in a tree for hours during the course and to this day, I still stop and watch woodpeckers when I see them.”

One hallmark of the WFS experience was canoeing — a lot. Groups could paddle directly from the field station to the edge of the BWCAW in about two hours and to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park in about eight hours, adding 2 million more acres to the field station “classroom.” Most classes required an extended, eight- or nine-day trip into the Boundary Waters as a centerpiece of students’ time at the field station.

Classes at the field station also instilled useful skills of how to conduct fieldwork across a variety of disciplines. In any given summer, students sampled water quality to study aquatic ecology, executed social science research methods, implemented nature writing techniques, tracked mammals and birds in the woods, measured phytoplankton populations and more. These practical applications directly contributed to future experiences, and even careers.

Marshall “Mort” Mortenson ’66 spent both sessions of the 1964 summer at the field station. “It was a wonderful experience that had a major impact on my life. I became a biology, environmental and earth science teacher at a junior high school for 13 years, and into high school for 24 years. I was able to incorporate techniques learned at the field station into many of the classes that I taught,” he said.

Alex Michaud ’05 likewise took advantage of the opportunities the WFS provided. “I had the joy of taking a mammalogy class, leading incoming first-year student trips, working as the program assistant and teaching an environmental microbiology course at the WFS. Each provided a different experience, but they were all of great importance to my growth as a person and scientist,” said Michaud. He currently serves as an assistant professor at Ohio State University in the School of Earth Sciences and the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. He started this position earlier this year after studying marine sediments for a season in Antarctica.

Beyond developing technical skills, the Northwoods were also the setting behind lifelong friendships and intense personal growth for many WFS alumni.

“As a field station leader, I saw many people become a truer version of themselves after going to the WFS,” said Kyla Tripp ’11. “Also, there’s no quicker way to find best friends than to stick them in a canoe together for eight hours.”

For Mitch Moon ’14, his experience up north was precisely this life-changing nature. “The Wilderness Field Station, and the Boundary Waters in particular, helped me overcome major grief and tremendous challenges and has shaped me into the man I am today,” said Moon.

Since stepping into his role as program director, Ellis was continually impressed by just how much students change during their time at the station. “Students might arrive nervous, not knowing what they’re getting into, with no canoeing or camping experience. By the last week, they’re going out for night paddles to look for stars, or aurora borealis,” he said. “They’re getting to experience things I myself haven’t seen, and I get to see that growth every session, twice a summer.”

The students and the station exhibit the resilience and determination emblematic of Coe. Ellis described experiencing a derecho at the field station during the summer of 2016. Similar to the derecho that passed through Coe’s own campus in summer 2020, the community of students, staff and faculty joined together, helped out and kept going. The forest has already recovered significantly during the intervening years.

Whether Kohawks spent a month, a summer or multiple at the field station, the wilderness environment allowed the time and space to pause, breathe and take in nature to the fullest extent.

For some, that included rare encounters with wildlife. “It was easily the best summer I ever had during college. I met a lot of great people and saw some incredible wildlife, both during classes and on my own excursions,” said Tanner Brossart ’16. “One of my favorites was when we saw a great gray owl perched along the river one morning, though our instructor wasn’t with us. He spent the next week out in the woods at night trying to lure it out with owl recordings!”

For others, it was connecting with water and the sky, untarnished by excessive human involvement or light pollution. “The companionship of sharing this field experience was wonderful. I remember lying in a canoe one night, staring at the stars in a very dark summer sky,” said Donna Oetjen Farley ’65.

For most, the beauty of the field station was rejuvenating and inspiring. “I have never felt more at peace and connected to the earth than I did in the Northwoods. It was an unforgettable experience that I would recommend to anyone in love with learning or nature,” said Palmer Hoegh ’14.

Those who love learning and nature continue to find the WFS, as they have for over 60 years. “The way that we’ve been doing these programs is really valuable, and we’re trying to replicate the experience many of our alumni had,” said Ellis. “We’re getting students out there and into the woods, and they’re learning a lot from it.”

Ellis looks forward to continuing to develop the program, from making the station as sustainable as possible to becoming more present in the various communities surrounding the area. No matter how the Wilderness Field Station has shifted throughout the years, one takeaway remains for all who take the journey: it will change your life.

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