Raquette Lake Continues to Lure High Schoolers

Raquette Lake Continues to Lure High Schoolers


For an astonishing 42 years, high school students have learned about nature firsthand in the pristine beauty of the Adirondacks, courtesy of SUNY Cortland.

Many of those students developed a lifelong love of science, nature and the outdoors. Some went on to experience it all again, this time as degree-seeking SUNY Cortland students.

Douglas Pens ’67, M ’71 established a tradition carried forward by many SUNY Cortland graduates in physical education and secondary education. The graduates would land teaching jobs and later create programs to allow high school and middle school students to experience sunrises and sunsets in the lee of majestic Blue Mountain at the College’s Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education at Raquette Lake.

The tradition, anchored by New Hartford Senior High School, where Pens was a teacher, remains strong. During the 2010-11 school year, 470 youth from 17 school groups participated in programs at Huntington Memorial Camp or Antlers or both. All of the groups were led or accompanied by SUNY Cortland graduates who had become teachers and brought their classes to the Adirondacks to experience the same hands-on learning that transformed their own college experience.

Robert Rubendall, director of the Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education, estimates that between 20 and 25 graduates have used the center this year as an outdoor classroom for their students.

“The storyline of Cortland graduates in physical education and education bringing their high school and even middle school students here is an important one to the Raquette Lake Outdoor Education Center,” Rubendall said. “It helps influence interest in attending SUNY Cortland and provides a way for the outdoor/environmental educational spark ignited during college to play out in the teachers’ careers in New York.”

service learning at Raquette Lake
High school students in the New Visions Environmental Science class taught by Timothy Sandstrom ’76, an Onondaga-Madison-Cortland BOCES teacher, engaged in “service learning” by knocking snow off a rooftop at Camp Huntington during the snowy winter of 2010-11. They were, from the left, Kristen Rawluk, Sam Nasiatka, Jacob Weber, Ryan DeWitt. In the upper lefthand photo, four girls in the same class prepare to make like polar bears in Raquette Lake. They are, from the left, Sierra Giraud, Hannah Holland, Marietta Burt and Breanna Foster.

That spark has helped illuminate a wide variety of learners.

“From my own struggles as a student, I tried to see learning from the perspective of a student where ‘things were not always clear,’” said Pens, explaining his motivation for creating a class with a unique field studies component that involved exploring the alpine wilderness. “Even though my classes had students who ranged in ability from low to honors, I constantly challenged myself to ‘work’ the subject matter in such a way as to appeal to all.”

Pens retired in 2000, turning over a program that remains a beacon to the rest.

“Students in these programs are changed in many ways when they are here,” Rubendall said. “First and foremost, they learn what it means to live in a community with structure, responsibilities and privileges. They know they are lucky to be able to use this magnificent facility and enjoy the direct interaction with nature in the woods, on the trails and on the water.

“For many, it’s their first time in the Adirondacks, the first time they have seen deer running through the woods, or the Milky Way at night,” he said. “They are often amazed at what they can do and derive self-confidence from the challenges they overcome as individuals and a group.”

The College recently reaffirmed its commitment to the 64-year-old Outdoor Education Center at Raquette Lake by making the properties and programs a major focus in the $25 million “Educating Champions: Campaign for Cortland.” The Cortland College Foundation seeks to raise $1.5 million for the Raquette Lake Endowment and Program Fund to ensure that countless more future young adults get to explore and learn from this scenic treasure in the Adirondacks.

Ownership of the facilities has been transferred to the Foundation by the Auxiliary Services Corporation, a non-profit organization created to provide meals and other non-academic services to SUNY Cortland. The College has also committed to making  $1 million in capital improvements at Antlers and Camp Huntington.

Even in difficult financial times, parents and school districts in the region have continued to send pre-college teenagers to Raquette Lake, sometimes with the help of local fundraising or state grants, Rubendall said. That dedication has helped the center maximize its shrinking resources.

“Their presence provides business for us midweek in spring, fall and winter, when we don’t have as many SUNY Cortland groups who can attend,” Rubendall said. “The revenue that is brought in by these groups does help maintain the year-round operation of the center for our students as well.”

The tradition of pre-college outings to the center began in 1970 when Pens, an eager and promising new instructor at New Hartford Senior High School, traveled to Raquette Lake with his wife, Eileen Davies Pens ’68, to ask the center director for permission to bring high school seniors to camp.

The individual was the late George Fuge ’49, M '52, who would later become Pens’ mentor.

“We talked for nearly two hours,” Pens said. “He asked me my plan, goals, staffing, and many other challenging questions. The more he asked, the more I realized what I was getting into. He pointed out that this was ‘not done’: Camp Huntington was used exclusively for Cortland College students and staff.”

Pens, who was 25 years old at the time, didn’t take “no” for an answer.

“I must have been persuasive, because he finally said yes,” Pens recalled. “New Hartford High was to be the first public school to come to Camp Huntington. The two-hour ride home became very quiet, as I realized the responsibility I now had: to the College, to my high school, my students and myself. Wow, what had I done?”

Pens had proposed to design and teach one of the country’s first high school ecology courses, for which none of the 50 state education departments he contacted could offer a curriculum. Pens felt strongly that fieldtrip experiences were important. They had been for him.

 “My students would have to have some of the fabulous experiences my professors gave me,” Pens said. “Doctors (Professor Emeritus John) Gustafson and (the late Professor Leon) Cohen took the Biology Club to the Cape Hatteras seashore my junior year, and the Everglades my senior year. On both those trips they taught us fieldwork. It was amazing! Those experiences had continued the hands-on experiences that Doctors (Professor Emeritus Eugene) Waldbauer and (the late Professor Arthur) Cook already exposed us to.

Douglas Pens '67, M '70
Although retired, Douglas Pens ’67, M ’71 still visits the Center for Environemental and Outdoor Education at Raquette Lake whenever he can. In this photo from a few summers ago, he spoke with his fellow alumni at Huntington Memorial Camp while Robert Rubendall, on the right, took notes.

“We were always in a field, a forest or a stream or just behind Bowers Hall (on the main campus). Actually, my big moment came in my sophomore year when Waldbauer brought his Field and Natural History class to Antlers and Huntington for the weekend. I think that was when the ‘learning light’ went on in my head. This is what would identify me as a teacher.”

After graduating from SUNY Cortland with a bachelor’s degree in early secondary science, and earning a master’s degree from his alma mater in education, Pens taught science at Cortland Junior High School and Stimson Junior High before landing what would become a 30-year career at New Hartford Senior High School.

His groundbreaking education experiment at Raquette Lake ran parallel with that career, after getting off to an ambitious start.

“I planned to have four five-day trips, two in the fall and two in the winter, Saturday through Wednesday. This would accommodate all my students,” Pens said. “Neither my staff nor I would receive any additional salary for this extended time. I also wanted my students to miss as little school as possible; hence we always began the trip on the weekend. The first fall trip would depart in late September. That was exactly 13 days after ‘meeting’ my classes for the first time.”

The trip itself focused on field biology, water chemistry, nature studies, animal behavior, astronomy and geology. It was extremely successful. The students were enthusiastic and constantly challenged Pens.

“One thing I did not expect was how this science trip began to evolve right before my eyes,” Pens said. “Students would ask me about the history of the Adirondacks. I could not help that much, but I told them I would find out. They would approach me with a poem they were writing about this trip and asked for input; again it was out of my comfort zone. Students would sit down by the dock sketching Blue Mountain, again asking for help.

Pens’ science trip was becoming much more than he originally planned, morphing into a wide-ranging outdoor education program. He continued to focus on science, but added English, Adirondack history, art and photography, and later — with the Project Adventure course — a physical education teacher.

“Soon fly-fishing even entered the equation,” Pens said. “We also had transportation issues. These centered on teaching hiking, boating, canoeing and kayaking skills. In winter we traveled by snowshoe and cross-country ski. I even taught them rock climbing.”

Pens recounted how he found financial support to obtain the enormous amount of equipment needed for all these ventures: four canoes, four kayaks, 40 cross country ski sets, 36 pairs of snowshoes, plus an array of climbing ropes, carabiners and harnesses.

taking a polar dip at Raquette Lake
Quickly exiting Raquette Lake through a hole cut in the ice is Jolene Cox, a student in the New Visions Environmental Science class.

Pens’ program continued successfully for 30 years, involving nearly 4,000 students and 90 different teachers. The College periodically sent biology, recreation and physical education majors to join him as willing observers and staff.

“This was a great experience for the collegians as well as staffing help for me,” Pens said.

The New York State Board of Regents awarded Regents credit to New Hartford High School’s Ecology class. Students could also receive three undergraduate college credits through SUNY Cortland.

After Pens’ retirement New Hartford’s program of science and outdoor education continued under another teacher, Jamie McNair. The latest student group experienced a winter camp in February and brought the total school participation over the years to at least 4,575 inquiring minds. And students from other high schools continue to follow in Pens’ footsteps.

“There is no school that has brought as many students here at the high school level by a long shot than New Hartford,” said Robert Rubendall, who directs the two center facilities, Huntington Memorial Camp and Antlers.

Rubendall recalls a recent visit by one secondary teacher, Kelly Garner, who annually brings his boys and girls all the way from the Point Option Alternative High School in Newport News, Va. Garner has the help of college students from William and Mary College led by two Cortland physical education graduates, Randall “Randy” Drake ’77 and Tim Ramsey ’73. Garner himself was inspired long ago by a winter camping practicum course with a former Cortland faculty member, Silvia Shirley.

“I am regaled by their excitement and enthusiasm for everything they are doing here for the first time,” Rubendall said. “Every one of them is up at 5:30 for a pre-breakfast ski with their teacher, Kelly, and is pouring everything he or she has into the week, mainly because of this passion for the outdoors that has been handed down from Cortland faculty to student and later to their students generation after generation.”

Transformed by their early experiential education on Raquette Lake, many of these same high schoolers were inspired to pursue a college education in the sciences, Pens, Rubendall and others noted.

KP duty at Raquette Lake
Every camper pitches in for kitchen duty, a lesson learned by Jimmy VanDeuson, a student in the New Visions Environmental Science class.

Pens recalls that many, many New Hartford graduates who took his course later enrolled at SUNY Cortland. Such graduates include Tracy Evans Miller ’84, Judy Reilly ’88 and Karen Heinlein ’88.

“I have had four or five students enroll at SUNY Cortland,” observed Timothy Sandstrom ’76, an Onondaga-Madison-Cortland BOCES teacher who leads the New Visions Environmental Science class at Tunison Fish Laboratories in Cortlandville.

“We have many former students who have enrolled at SUNY Cortland who went to Raquette Lake,” noted James Barry M ’89, a Homer Jr. High School teacher and SUNY Cortland adjunct faculty member who brings his secondary school children to visit the Adirondack camps. He noted that, for many students, it was their first connection to SUNY Cortland.

“I would love to be able to precisely quantify SUNY Cortland students who were inspired to come here because of one of these secondary experiences, but I can’t,” Rubendall said. “But given the opportunities Raquette Lake provides our in-service teachers, coaches and recreation therapists, and the experiences the College provides for the students themselves, we do have a measureable and lasting impact on the leadership for conservation and environmental education in the state of New York.”

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