By Mike Lynch
Fog lifted from the still pond as a handful of outdoorspeople from North Country Community College’s wilderness recreation program gathered at a waterside campsite for breakfast.
The group—three students and two college staff members—was in the midst of a month-long backcountry trip. The expedition started in early September with a two-week paddling excursion through the St. Regis Canoe Area and ended with a backpacking trip in the High Peaks Wilderness.
Called the fall practicum, the 28-day journey is one of two major backcountry trips offered through NCCC’s wilderness recreation program. The other is a 10-day winter trip.
The itinerary on this day was to climb Long Pond Mountain, a roughly 1.5-mile hike to a summit of 2,530 feet that offers great views of the nearby ponds. When a trip leader asked if any students wanted to be the navigator for the day, 19-year-old Mike Compo volunteered for the assignment. Soon, Compo and Jimmy Cunningham, director of the program, started poring over a map, discussing specifics about distance and elevation.
The conversation moved to prepping for the day. The students needed to make sure they had the necessary gear, including headlamps, food, water, a first-aid kit, a group tarp and rain gear. The students spread out, putting away their gear and hanging food and toiletries a few hundred feet away in the woods—safe from bears—before packing their bags.
During this trip, each activity is a lesson. They learn about Leave No Trace principles, backcountry navigation, how to set up a proper campsite and other essential outdoor skills.
But the practicum is about more than outdoor skills. The students learn to be leaders, and about group dynamics. They get a better understanding about the concept of wilderness. They take turns leading the group, which means they are responsible for planning and making decisions. They are also responsible for preparing several lessons for the group on the trip and writing journal entries on subjects ranging from the natural history to expedition behavior.
Tyler Merriam, a practicum leader in recent years, said students progress—not necessarily in a linear fashion—from trip participants to educators to guides over the course of the month.
“By the end instructors don’t have to do anything,” he said. “The students run the show.”
Saranac Lake resident Jack Drury gets credit for the program’s focus on leadership and wilderness ethics. He founded the program in 1979 and directed it until 1996. When the program started it was an affiliate of the Wilderness Education Association, which was started by Paul Petzoldt, a famous mountaineer who founded the National Outdoor Leadership School and was one of Drury’s mentors. Drury is a proponent of using the outdoors as a classroom.
“I’ve always been an advocate of extended expeditions for a bunch of reasons,” Drury said. “One is for just understanding what wilderness is. To me, you don’t get a sense of wilderness on a weekend basis. … You want to get a sense of wilderness, spend at least two weeks, ideally spend a month out there.”
One of the biggest challenges students face on the long trip is that they don’t have contact with family or friends, and they aren’t allowed to bring mobile phones. Kim Hurst, who is from the Syracuse area, missed communicating with her boyfriend, who is in Korea, and with her dad. Her dad introduced her to the Adirondacks, and inspired her to hike all 46 High Peaks.
“This trip, too, is making me think of everything he has taught me, and it’s definitely making me appreciate his presence in my life a lot more,” said Hurst, who is the first environmental studies student to take the fall practicum.
Hurst also said she learned to appreciate the skills of other people on the trip. Often students have to learn to live among other people who have different interests and approaches to the outdoors. They learn from each other and learn to accept each other’s interests.
While Hurst grew up a hiker, Compo grew up in Lowville, just west of the Adirondack Park, hunting and fishing in addition to hiking.
The aspiring hunting and fishing guide impressed the group with his deep knowledge of fishing and his ability as a camp cook. Early in the trip, he landed a couple of frogs and cooked them up.
“They’re pretty good if you know how to cook them and catch them, so it’s a nice break from the powdered food we’ve been eating,” Compo said. “A little bit of real substance goes a long way.”
Hurst was dead set against eating any of the frog legs, but she relented. “It was actually pretty good,” she said, adding it was a little “meaty.”
More than 800 students have taken the college’s wilderness recreation leadership courses over 40 years, with about half of those taking the fall practicum. Another 300 or so have completed the winter trip. More than 225 have graduated the program, according to the college. In recent years, there have been 10 to 25 people enrolled at a time, with five to 10 generally taking the practicum. The student numbers were down to three this year (and only Compo and Hurst completed the month in the wild), but Cunningham said the numbers should go up in the future. He already has 15 applicants for the program next year.
Cunningham said students who get the two-year wilderness recreation leadership degree can move on to get a four-year degree at a State University of New York school or at Paul Smith’s College, where they can continue to pay discounted rates on their four-year degree through a special agreement between the colleges.
A few of the people on the list who have graduated the program are Bookstore Plus owner Marc Galvin, forest ranger Dan Fox, Upper Saranac Foundation lake manager Guy Middleton, and Grace McDonnell, who organizes the 90-Miler canoe and kayak race with her husband, Brian, a former interim wilderness program director and trip leader himself.
Mark Simon founded the wilderness education program at SUNY Potsdam 20 years ago, modeling it after the one at NCCC, where he graduated in late 1980s. He recalled how learning under Drury helped shape his career in the outdoors, including learning how to turn adverse situations into positive experiences. He recalled getting soaked in freezing rain for multiple days while bushwhacking in the Ouluska Pass and Seward Range in the western Adirondacks.
“I can just remember being soaked, but still getting up every day and bushwhacking,” he said. “You learned not only to survive but thrive in that weather.”
Saranac Lake resident Zoe Smith is deputy director of Paul Smith’s College’s Adirondack Watershed Institute and ran the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack program for years. She said her experiences with NCCC outings as a trip leader and student changed her life, even though she ultimately got a different degree. As a student on the outings, she met her husband Jason, who now owns Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters on the trip. She also developed group dynamic skills she still uses as a leader today.
“It’s a life-changing experience for people,” Smith said. “You’ve just gone off to college. You’re no longer living under your parents’ roof. You’re a young adult. You have these new responsibilities.
“You have this exciting vision for the future and then you’re put in this pretty intense situation.”