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Into the Wilderness

Students who traversed the Boundary Waters wilderness area in northern Minnesota last summer learned – among other things – how to think about equity in their surroundings, understand a mining controversy, and explore the nature of nature itself.

Three students who spent time in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters last summer shared their experiences at Beloit & Beyond, a day set aside in November to showcase and encourage students’ off-campus experiences.

In the Boundary Waters, students learned how to do applied research and navigate without internet... In the Boundary Waters, students learned how to do applied research and navigate without internet or WiFi service.
Credit: Pablo Toral
Environmental studies major Amy Ward’22, from Golden Valley, Minn., enrolled in an environmental justice course at the Coe College Wilderness Field Station in the Boundary Waters. Beloit partners with Coe in offering the course, which Beloit College Professor Pablo Toral has taught over the past 10 years. The station introduces students to applied field research techniques and wilderness education.

Within the environmental justice framework, Ward chose “the adventure gap,” for her research topic, a term describing how few people of color are in wilderness spaces and outdoor recreation areas.

To put the issue in perspective, Ward said she saw approximately 200 people while there, but only one woman of color. “People don’t realize there is an ‘adventure gap’ until they see it for themselves,” she said.

Students in Pablo Toral's Environmental Justice course at the Wilderness Field Station in the Bou... Students in Pablo Toral's Environmental Justice course at the Wilderness Field Station in the Boundary Waters. Ward is shown third from the right.
Credit: Pablo Toral
This was Ward’s first opportunity to do applied field research. She said she appreciated being able to select her research focus and felt like she demonstrated her passion for addressing difficult topics.

She gained additional skills by having to fend for herself as a member of a small group in the wilderness. For instance, she learned to lead and delegate as the group struggled to prepare meals outdoors as darkness loomed, and she found that making collaborative decisions, like choosing a campsite, requires listening skills and good communication. She discovered more about the importance of teamwork, too, especially while carrying a canoe for a mile along with a heavy load of beans and rice in her backpack.

“You learn to trust yourself and your teammates,” she said. “There’s no way you could do this yourself.”

Noah Joerin’23, an international relations major from Elgin, Ill., also enrolled in the environmental justice course at the Field Station. Joerin looked into the roots of the controversy surrounding sulfide mining in Ely, Minn., the town that provides a main entry into the Boundary Waters.

Joerin examined the two primary narratives for and against mining by observing signs and posters in Ely and interviewing people on both sides of the issue.

He said that spending a month in the wilderness after Covid helped him reset both personally and academically, and that doing applied research helped him develop confidence in creating research questions. His only regret was wishing he had more time to survey residents and to talk with additional people involved in both sides of the mining conflict. Opponents to copper sulfide mining are concerned about water pollution in this pristine area. 

Adrian Hughes’21, a creative writing and philosophy major from Herndon, Va., visited the wilderness while enrolled in a creative writing summer course taught by Beloit College English Professor Chris Fink.

Students enrolled in the Writing Wilderness course pretend to warm their hands over an imaginary ... Students enrolled in the Writing Wilderness course pretend to warm their hands over an imaginary fire. Campfires were not allowed in summer 2021 because of drought. Adrian Hughes is shown at far right.Fink took five students into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. “Writing Wilderness” was the only non-science class held last summer at the field station near Ely.

Hughes said the class focused on taking in natural and historic sites, making close observations, writing three poems and three essays about their experiences, and adjusting to not having an internet connection. Solar panels provide the only power at the field station and WiFi and cell phone reception are unavailable. “You learn to be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “There’s no way to look anything up, so you need to pay attention.”

Students and Professor Fink fished, paddled canoes, identified plants, practiced navigating their way around without technology, and pondered the very definition of wilderness.

They took two excursions by canoe — a three-day trip and a seven-day trip. Although he was far from civilization, Hughes credits the experience with teaching him about community, about how to live among and respect other species and to be a part of the human community. “[In the wilderness] if someone has a problem, it affects everyone,” he said.

Susan Kasten
December 27, 2021
  • In the Boundary Waters, students learned how to do applied research and navigate without internet or WiFi service.
    Pablo Toral

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