St. Lawrence University students get outdoors immersion during Adirondack Semester
By Betsy Kepes, all photos by Mike Lynch
Arcadia, a yurt village on Massawepie Lake, is hidden from the rest of the world. It’s tucked into a bay, 10 miles west of Tupper Lake. Twelve St. Lawrence University students are living in Arcadia for the semester, but first they had to get there.
The students begin their semester in August at a university-owned camp on Upper Saranac Lake. After meeting their professors and taking a Wilderness First Aid class, the students hop into canoes and paddle toward Arcadia. Seven days later, after paddling through rain and sunshine, carrying their loads over muddy trails and dragging boats through shallow water, they reach Massawepie Lake. As they steer toward the dock at Arcadia, alums cheer, welcome them and treat them to a feast prepared in the kitchen cabin.
The Adirondack Semester began more than 20 years ago as a part of St. Lawrence’s Outdoor Studies program. The mission is still to enrich academics with direct experience and “to foster a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the natural world, to create a vibrant living and learning community at Arcadia, and to cultivate a strong connection to the Adirondack region.”
Outside of Paul Smith’s and the ESF Ranger School, colleges outside of the park have courses that use the Adirondack Park as a touchstone, but the semester on Massawepie Lake is the only program that immerses students in the park for most of a semester. (After the Thanksgiving break the students do internships with Adirondackers and live in or near the homes of their mentors.)
Mark Sturges drives from Canton once a week to teach his class “Writing the Adirondacks,” a course with assignments of reading contemporary Adirondack writers. He asked me to be a guest when the topic was environmental journalism. The students would be discussing articles from Adirondack Life and the Adirondack Explorer, including a couple of mine.
On a warm September day, Arcadia seems an idyllic place to live. Yurts are scattered among towering cedars and white pines on a broad peninsula. The sauna has a path that leads directly to the lake for a cooldown swim. Even the massive Clivis Multrum composting toilet, “The Clive”, has a majesty to it, with stairs leading up to two stalls with inspirational sayings posted on the plywood walls.
We sit outside around a big picnic table, the lake sparkling around us. Each week a pair of students must prepare a “long web feature” that will be posted on the Adirondack Semester website. When two students read aloud their website assignment it shocks me into the 19th century to see them turning the pages of their carefully handwritten essay.
These students voluntarily give up their cell phones, iPads and laptops for the semester. Most of them tell me it surprised them how easy this turned out to be. When Ruby Bashant, a Conservation Biology major, admits they used to spend an average of four hours a day on their phone, I am back in the 21st century. But now I understand how this group of students, bonded into a caring community, can spend hours playing board games or rock in hammocks and look at the stars. By giving up their technology, they receive the gift of time.
On a break, students disappear and return carrying plates filled with wedges of fresh watermelon, part of their weekly Community Supported Agriculture delivery. Mark picked up the order in Canton and at the lake we loaded the boxes onto the barge that connects Arcadia to the end of a dirt road. Students learn about local food systems as well as land use management, natural history of the Adirondacks, woodworking and the philosophy of nature.
Callie Richards, an environmental studies major, told me she thought that school would be easier at Arcadia than on campus, but it is not. Cathy Shrady, who was the director of the Adirondack Semester for twelve years, laughs when I tell her this and says that’s a common misconception. She says the students are kept busy with their many classes, most of them emphasizing experiential education. The new director, Jacob McCoola, spends a couple of nights a week at Arcadia and is teaching his version of Shrady’s class, an exploration of the concept of “nature.”
More to Explore
Hear from two people who went through the Adirondack Semester and shared their experiences with us on the Explorer’s community forum, the Adirondack Almanack:
Some students knew they wanted to take the Adirondack Semester because they already liked to hike or canoe. For others the activities are completely new. Darlenne Cazarin Berrios grew up in New Haven, CT and wanted to try experiences she wouldn’t have access to as a person of color from an urban area. Like many of her classmates, she finds the classes interesting but has found the most joy in being part of a tightly knit community.
As we sit around the picnic table and eat the sweet watermelon, I see the easy way the students interact. They seem relaxed and confident, laughing and teasing each other. No one has a phone to crouch over. No one has a laptop to sneak away to and watch a movie. I wonder how it will be for these students when they return to campus in January.
“It was really difficult to come back,” says 2014 alum Caitlin Kelly. “I had culture shock”. After the Adirondack Semester, Kelly knew she wanted to live in the Adirondacks, and she wanted to live as much as possible the way she had at Arcadia. She’s worked as the caretaker at Johns Brook Loj, Marcy Dam and Lake Colden, jobs that allowed her to be outside in remote places.
David Pynchon also found joy in sharing space, meals, and conversation when he was an Arcadian in 2011. Since he graduated, he has continued to live in a community and shares a converted carriage house in Troy with friends.
For other alums, the Adirondack Semester strengthened their passion for outdoor education. Kim Covill lived at Arcadia in 2003. She wasn’t sure of her career until she participated in the Adirondack Semester. She returned to Arcadia as an assistant director for four years and now works for the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire.
It’s time to compost watermelon rinds and get to English class. The students are boasting about how well they will do in the weekend triathlon—a swim, canoe and run on the property. Students who don’t want to race will be timers. A pair with upcoming website assignments suggest writing about the triathlon. The response is positive, and the students brainstorm perspectives: maybe with two narrators, one of them enthusiastic about the race, the other one not at all. Ideas fly around the table.
I look out at the paths that connect each yurt. Abhainn Bajus, an English major, told me: “My world has shrunk to my immediate surroundings, and it is truly delicious.”
Don’t miss out
This article first appeared in a recent issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
Subscribe today to get 7 issues a year delivered to your mailbox and/or inbox!