Summer course for adventurers

For avid hikers and campers, Alaska summers mean adventure. Thanks to a wilderness exploration course, nature buffs have the chance to earn college credit this summer while still spending it in a tent.
The Alaska Wildlands Studies program is a seven-week outdoor exploration course through Alaska’s backcountry. Half the time is spent trekking through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in the country, while the other half is based out of the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska, a small mining town that serves as the program’s headquarters.
This summer the program will celebrate its 27th year. Jeremy Pataky, executive director of the Wrangell Mountains Center, said the course is an opportunity for students to do intensive summer fieldwork in a wild landscape while earning upper division credit. The credits are awarded by California State University Monterey Bay Extended Education and are transferable to UAA. Pataky, who has worked as a guide in the area for two years, is very familiar with the territory.
“I certainly have felt my life be changed by that place and by the people there,” said Pataky said. “That’s something that the students get to tap into.”
Another thing students can count on is honing their observation skills. Pataky said that exposure to a different landscape can change one’s patterns of perception.
“They’re learning about the cultural processes at play in that region which are very dynamic,” Pataky said. “The goal is to really facilitate a well-rounded approach for these students in this very unique environment.”
The course has 16 spots and currently nine are filled. Although students from all over the U.S. are welcome to participate, Pataky said this is the first year that the program has really focused on sparking interest with college students here in Alaska.
“It makes sense to get this incredible program on the radar to UAA and APU students because it’s accessible and it’s a world-class opportunity for them to do meaningful work in their state,” Pataky said.
While the program is about exploration and adventure, it’s much more than a summer backpacking trip.
“Students have to be ready for a physical, emotional and academic challenge,” said Dave Mitchell, Alaska Wildlands Studies faculty member and program alumni.
Coursework includes a variety of topics like botany, geology, ecology, nature writing, park management and glaciology. The course does not require previous experience, however, and college students of all different majors have participated. It is for anyone who is interested and is not tailored for a specific discipline, Mitchell said.
“The great part about it is that everyone is there for a different reason,” Mitchell said.
While some register to learn about geology, others might be there for the wilderness aspect. But when the course comes to a close, students leave with a greater understanding of nature as a whole.
“It teaches students how to look at the environment that they’re in through many different lenses,” Mitchell said.
These “lenses” include writing and art as well. Shawn Olson, 2003 program alumni, said that she was constantly encouraged to write poetry and draw during field excursions. This was her favorite part of the program.
“The blend of art and ecology was just as it should be-disciplines of the heart and mind combined in a stunning setting,” Olson said in an e-mail.
Olson described the setting to be anything one could want from Alaska.
“As everyone knows, Alaska is a very wild place,” Olson said. “But the Kennicott Valley (including the towns of Kennicott and McCarthy) is like, the Alaska of Alaska, if you know what I mean.”
As for the course instructors, Olson said the passion with which the lessons were taught surpassed most other college-level schooling that she had received. Her advice to interested students-do it.
“You won’t be sorry,” Olson said, “but be prepared to rough it and become intimately acquainted with the wild.”
Students who are interested in enrolling can expect to incur a cost. The program fee is $2,395 with an additional $75 for the application fee. The application is due May 15. For more information on the Alaska Wildlands Studies program or other programs coordinated by the Wrangell Mountains Center, visit