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Recent History of Outdoor and Environmental Education

By Robert Rubendall

The William H. Parks Family Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education began with the acquisition of the former Camp Pine Knot, the first rustic Great Camp in the Adirondacks built by the Thomas Clark Durant family between 1876 and 1892. “Doc” Durant was the vice-president of the Union Pacific Railroad that constructed the eastern half of the Transcontinental Railroad spanning the country east to west. Having been acquired by Collis P. Huntington from the Durant family in 1895, Camp Pine Knot was abandoned upon Huntington’s death in 1900. Left idle for many years, the camp was discovered by two Cortland professors paddling a canoe on Raquette Lake in the summer of 1947. Cortland President at the time, Donnal V. Smith, had advised the faculty that the College was interested in purchasing a camp that could be used to train its physical education and recreation majors in the emerging field of outdoor education. Drs. Walter Thurber (biology) and Harlan (Gold) Metcalf (recreation and leisure studies) approached Archer Huntington and convinced him to donate the dormant camp to the College in 1948. It took a special act of the New York State Legislature to accept the gift of property, and the name was changed to Huntington Memorial Camp in memory of Archer’s father.

Over the next four decades, the camp was upgraded to accommodate the several hundred students who attended two to three-week sessions each summer. Much of the work was overseen by former physical education student George Fuge ‘49, who directed the camp for twenty-three years. He was also instrumental in acquiring the former Antlers Hotel in 1965 to provide additional summer program space and a launching point to the water-access-only Camp Huntington. During these early years, only the two academic departments mentioned earlier and the science department conducted formal classes at the camp.

Associate Professor of physical education Joseph Pierson was named Camp Director in 1985 to succeed George Fuge. This began a major expansion of the programming offered to both Cortland students and groups from the outside, including a number of high school classes taught by Cortland graduates. With a small full-time staff, including food service, maintenance and administration, keeping the camp fully occupied made good financial sense. In addition, the facility began a major overhaul that included new freshwater and wastewater treatment plants, improved docking, a winterized classroom, science lab and a wireless computer network. Fortunately, the historic Great Camp buildings were carefully restored and incorporated into the mix of structures that comprise the camp.

In the early 1990s, the Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education was created to unite the various outdoor educational facilities and programs operated by the College under a common mission. Dr. Charles Yaple was named the first director, and an advisory council was formed of faculty and staff who had an interest in working with students directly in the environment. The four outdoor sites included Camp Huntington, Antlers, Hoxie Gorge Nature Preserve, and the Brauer Field Station (used primarily by the Geology Department). With extensive courses being offered both on campus and at one of the field camps, the Council felt the College was well positioned to propose an environmental studies major to the SUNY system. Larry Klotz, Tom Pasquarella, Charles Yaple and others spent many hours campaigning for the new major, but they were denied in the end by an objection from nearby SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) that it would compete with their own environmental science major. The blow to the council was painful, and the Center itself began to struggle with its mission, since it had invested so much time and effort in developing an academic foundation to its work.

An important course was initiated during this time that enabled students outside the physical education, recreation and the natural science majors to spend time at Raquette Lake. Adirondack Winter Studies was held in January during intercession and offered classes in cross-country skiing, winter hiking and safety, geology, Great Camp history, folk dancing, environmental art, literature, and photography. The students climbed nearby Blue Mountain or Goodnow and built snow shelters called Quinzhees to spend a night outdoors in the winter. A number of faculty were recruited to teach in alternate years, and it marked an important crossroads in connecting the Raquette Lake facilities with main campus and the general student population.

Another academic program was initiated under Pierson’s leadership that has continued to this day. In 1993, Empire State College began an annual fall retreat of senior administrators, and when President James Hall decided to end the tradition in 1996, the participating faculty, including Wayne Ouderkirk, Dora Ingolfsdottir and Chris Evans, met at Camp Huntington and created an Adirondack Residency which offered blended courses through SUNY Empire sites culminating in a three-day residency or post-residency at Raquette Lake each fall. The courses and faculty vary from year to year, and now there is even an alumni session offered at the end of the week. From the author’s perspective, this has been one of the most creative and successful uses of the resources at Camp Huntington by any group outside SUNY Cortland itself.

In October 2000, Jack Sheltmire was named to succeed Joe Pierson as Director of the Center. Jack was a graduate of the Recreation, Parks and Leisure Studies master’s program and knew Raquette Lake well. His position was originally conceived to be split between campus in the winter months and Camp Huntington in the summer. However, after two years, he proposed and was granted leave to move year round to Raquette Lake, where he focused his energy on improving the programs and facilities there. The Center’s Advisory Council was essentially dissolved until it was revived in 2011 by incoming director, Rob Rubendall. During his administration, Rubendall empowered the Council to help guide the direction and policies of the outdoor and environmental programs and expand their influence more widely across the student body.

In 1999, the Education Department held a faculty retreat at Camp Huntington, and several professors – Tim Slekar, Beth Klein, Karl Klein and Andrea LaChance – discussed offering a three-day component at Raquette Lake as part of the Teaching Elementary Science class. The first three sections of about 74 students were launched in the fall of 2000, led by the four founding faculty. Later, the course became mandatory for all early childhood and childhood majors. This for many students is their first overnight experience in the Adirondack Park or any outdoor setting for that matter, and provides a foundation for teaching young students in the outdoors when the graduates acquire their own classrooms. With the large number of pre-service teachers enrolled in the College, this program, which continues into the present, enrolls the largest number of students from any one department. In recent years, the nearby Town of Webb School sends each of their 3rd through 5th graders to Camp Huntington as a field trip to be instructed by the Cortland education students, a partnership that serves as a useful hands-on opportunity for pre-service teachers to gain experience working with kids in the outdoors.

Sheltmire spearheaded a campaign to have Camp Pine Knot (Huntington) named a national historic landmark by the United States Department of the Interior. The status was conferred on the camp August 18, 2004. Since then, hundreds of guests have toured the camp in the summer months in a joint effort between SUNY Cortland and Raquette Lake Navigation, which operates a large tour boat out of the Village of Raquette Lake. In this way, people from all over the country have an opportunity to learn about and share in the history of this era of the Adirondacks and the Gilded Age of America’s 19th century.

A significant bridge was crossed in May of 2013, when President Erik Bitterbaum ended speculation that the Antlers would be sold to a local developer, who planned to turn it into an upscale resort, while continuing to allow SUNY Cortland to launch boats to Camp Huntington and stage food and supply deliveries from a storage room there on the mainland. The proposal was made in 2010 and advocated by the Auxiliary Services Corporation (ASC) that owned the property. Saddled with a deteriorating infrastructure and a deficit operating budget, ASC was anxious to transfer the property off their books. Director Rubendall, faculty who taught classes there, and many alumni strongly opposed the deal, which would limit access to Camp Huntington and restrict the growth of the Center. Together, they convinced the President’s cabinet to find a way to keep Antlers and envision a new future for the aging resort. The solution came in the form of the Cortland College Foundation and its Properties Division which stepped in to take over ownership from ASC and sign a 30-year lease with the College to operate it.

Since then, significant improvements have been made to the Antlers, including the installation of a self-service kitchen in the Main Lodge, improved refrigeration in the main kitchen, a new well and water treatment system, new garage for storage and maintenance, and the construction of an outdoor amphitheater. New programs taking advantage of the improvements include Adirondack Getaway weekends for students, Outdoor Pursuits rafting and hiking trips, and an expansion of the alumni programs established in the 1980s under Assistant Director Jay Cummings.

Beginning in May of 2010, the Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education began a period of growth and alignment with professional standards in the field. As previously mentioned, the four off-campus sites – Hoxie Gorge, Brauer Field Station, Antlers and Huntington Memorial Camp – were formally united under the guidance of a reconstituted Advisory Council. A task force appointed by Provost Mark Prus and chaired by Director Rubendall looked at the history, evolution and future of each site. Recommendations were compiled in a final report and presented to the Provost and President for implementation. Probably the most significant result of the task force recommendations was the retaining of Antlers and its transfer to the Foundation.

Rubendall’s background was in the field of adventure education and wilderness travel, so he was able to bring many of the current standards for challenge courses, staff training and wilderness travel policies to the operation. An annual internship position was created for a recreation or physical education student to assist with programming for attending groups in the summer. A requirement for all groups using boats on Raquette Lake to be led by qualified instructors was instituted, and workshops were held annually in the spring to train group leaders in aquatic and challenge course skills. As a former board member of the Association for Experiential Education, Rubendall was able to showcase Cortland’s long legacy of teaching in the outdoors and its opportunities to people across the country at annual conferences.

“To develop in all students an attitude of appreciation for our nation’s natural resources”

Addressing the mission of the Center, “To develop in all students an attitude of appreciation for our nation’s natural resources,” a concerted effort was begun to broaden the programs offered for a variety of departments on campus. Where originally, only physical education, recreation and science students were assigned classes in the Adirondacks, every Cortland student was invited to spend at least one memorable experience at Raquette Lake. The childhood and early childhood education, biology, art and art history, geology, geography, and professional writers all conducted formal programs there, and they were encouraged to expand them. A grant program was established from funds donated by generous alumni to augment the program options for students and supply much needed financial support for room and board at camp.

New programs were instituted as well. The Chemistry Department began offering a winter environmental chemistry course that studied water quality through the ice at different locations on the lake. The history department organized a one-credit course for sophomore majors in the fall that included a chance to get to know faculty, the history of Camp Pine Knot, and explore career opportunities in the field. The popular Environmental Studies 100 course began offering a six-day course in residence at Antlers. In addition, a number of leadership retreats were conducted for athletics and student organizations. The Liberty Partnership program that supports socio-economically disadvantaged junior and senior high school students in the Cortland area started a July summer camp in 2014.

With the conception of an outdoor pursuits program as an integral component of the planned Student Life Center, the Center proposed in 2012 the creation of a wilderness pre-orientation program for incoming students. Often housed within outdoor pursuits departments at college campuses, the planning group wanted to have a program up and running when the search for an Assistant Director of Recreational Sports for Outdoor Pursuits was initiated. Recreational Sports Director Julian Wright and Director of Advisement and Transition Abby Thomas served on the start-up committee to make sure there would be good integration of the program into Outdoor Pursuits and orientation and counseling functions.

The program was named Adirondack Trail BlazersATB) and launched in August of 2013 with eight students, later dubbed the “Elite Eight.” Dr. Amy Shellman was the first program director and called on a number of adjunct recreation instructors to conduct the trips consisting of ropes courses, canoeing, backcountry camping, and hiking along with numerous discussions about the challenges of college life and the resources that exist at Cortland to help students face them. As the program grew in the early years, the numbers increased, and several of the early Trail Blazers went on to become assistant instructors to enhance the context of the college life conversations. In 2015, the new Assistant Director, Recreational Sports for Outdoor Pursuits, Jason Harcum and his staff took over full operation of Adirondack Trail Blazers. ATB’s goal is to help smooth the transition from high school or junior college to Cortland by providing a challenging, small group experience to connect students with peers and provide a platform for discussing what lies ahead at the commencement of classes. Since it is operated by the Outdoor Pursuits Department, many students participating in ATB go on to take advantage of the varied trips offered throughout their careers at Cortland, some becoming instructors as well.

One of the most exciting programs offered in 2013, 2015 and 2016 was a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) “Landmarks of American History and Culture” workshop conducted by associate professor Kevin Sheets, Randi Storch, professor and department chair of the history department, and Keri Freese, project manager. The course was publicized widely by NEH and enrolled K-12 teachers from across the United States. Entitled “Forever Wild: The Adirondacks in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” the two one-week sessions began with a survey of Cortland’s industrial history in the 19th century before the residential component at Camp Huntington. It included visits to the two other Durant Camps, Uncas and Great Camp Sagamore, a tour of the Adirondack Museum, and daily lectures from content experts. Students were able to live in and study the history of Camp Pine Knot and spend free time hiking the point, relaxing, kayaking, swimming and enjoying a sea plane tour of the area. It was always filled to capacity with a waiting list.

Always looking for creative ways to use available camp space when not occupied by Cortland students, a partnership was begun in 2015 with the Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CABVI) out of Utica, New York. Executive Director Kathy Beaver approached the Center staff the previous fall to organize what would become the first Camp Abilities winter camp ever offered. In February, 25 blind or visually impaired campers ages 10-16 arrived across the ice road to Camp Huntington accompanied by an equal number of counselors recruited from local colleges and a talented, experienced administrative staff. A number of Cortland students in therapeutic recreation and adaptive physical education gained valuable experience working with the special needs campers, and the program went off without a hitch. Based on the success of the programs offered the next two successive years, plans are underway to double the number of sessions in the winter of 2018 and add a summer camp as well.

During the summer of 2015, two important milestones were celebrated within the William H. Parks Family Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education. Both Hoxie Gorge Nature Preserve and Antlers had been acquired by the College 50 years earlier in 1965. As the College expanded its campus footprint in the early 1960s, open space previously used by the science departments for field study was lost. Four faculty members were charged with finding a nearby natural area to replace it – Eugene Waldbauer, professor emeritus in biological sciences, John Gustafson, professor emeritus in biological sciences, George McDermott, distinguished service professor emeritus in geography, and Harlan Metcalf, professor of recreation and leisure services. What they eventually found and purchased was 169 acres in Cortlandville that previously included three separate farm parcels. Since then, thousands of students have studied wildlife, forest and aquatic ecology, geology or outdoor recreation there. It remains one of the most pristine, heavily used, and accessible outdoor sites in the Center today.

Antlers, as discussed, was acquired by the Faculty Student Association on the recommendation of Director George Fuge as a launching point for Camp Huntington and possible expansion space for growing student and alumni programs. Both celebrations included faculty, students and teachers from the past as well as senior administration. President Bitterbaum presided at both gatherings. At Hoxie Gorge, an arboretum was established to honor the three living founders – Waldbauer, Gustafson and McDermott.

During the Antlers ceremony, Lynne Parks Hoffman was recognized for an estate gift of over $1million to name the William H. Parks Family Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education in honor of her father, who inspired her to attend Cortland and begin a career in physical education. As stated in her will, the Center’s funds to support student access and programming at Raquette Lake will at that point almost double.

Additional fund raising initiatives led by Vice Presidents Raymond Franco, Kimberly Pietro, and Peter Perkins, along with Assistant to the Vice President for Institutional Advancement Doug DeRancy and other key staff increased the Raquette Lake funds held by the Foundation to $1.5 million by 2017. Annual appeals and a building naming campaign led the way, with many alumni who had memorable experiences at Raquette Lake participating. As a result, the Center’s Advisory Council began making formal grants and providing course fee assistance in 2014. Already, hundreds of students have benefited from the generosity of the alumni donations.

The Center today is the product of 70 years of experimentation, innovation and tradition established with the Huntington gift of Camp Pine Knot in 1948, as well as the countless contributions of faculty, students and staff to the curriculum over the decades. In the early 2000s, the College’s stated commitment in its strategic plan to transformative experiences for its students underscored the importance of outdoor and environmental education. Since 1937, some sort of outdoor experience has been included in the physical education curriculum, making Cortland an historical leader in this field. Now over a dozen additional departmental and student organizational programs take advantage of the exceptional facilities located on Raquette Lake. Through Adirondack Getaways, Outdoor Pursuits, and numerous organized group retreats, any student who wishes to take advantage of the educational and regenerative influence of the Adirondacks can do so.

What makes education at Raquette Lake so essential to the core mission of the College is in the development of aspects of the whole person that cannot come solely from classroom and campus activities. The spiritual and rejuvenating power of the natural world has long been documented and appreciated by generations in the Adirondacks. Camp Pine Knot’s builders and their guests were the first to take advantage of getting away from the increasingly industrialized and later technologically advanced nature of urban life. Since 1948, students attending programs at Raquette Lake have improved self-confidence, trust in others, cooperation, leadership and other important skills that have served or will serve them well throughout their lives. Living together in a remote community that includes challenge and skilled facilitators teaches students that we are all part of numerous social groups that require us to work together and respect our individuality and the natural world of which we are a part.

With the transfer of Antlers to the Cortland College Foundation and the College’s renewed commitment to its growth, the College is well positioned to take a leadership role in the study and future of the Adirondack State Park. Extended place-based study options, coordination of environmental research projects on the lake, hosted symposia of public and private experts in global climate change, and advocacy for responsible management of the park are all possible directions for the Center and its Advisory Board to pursue. With its history of outdoor education and geographical location within the Park, SUNY Cortland has the potential to capitalize on its assets and prepare students to become active stewards of the natural world, while setting an example of institutional responsibility to the world of which it is a part. Financially sound, historically significant and led by talented, committed staff, the Parks Family Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education has a bright future that can continue to be a point of great pride for SUNY Cortland.