SPOKANE — Some college students spend semesters away from school contemplating art at the Louvre in Paris, exploring pyramids in Egypt or trekking across China.
But for about a dozen students from around the nation their time off campus this fall meant going deep into the Pacific Northwest wilderness, backpacking through mountains, studying river ecology and waiting on weekly air supply drops.
The novel program from the University of Idaho dropped college students in one of the most remote locations in the U.S. for more than two months, giving them a unique sense of what organizers call the “complex and symbolic” American West.
“This was something that was much more exciting than a semester abroad for me,” said Bonnie Ricord, a junior from Empire, Mich.
Students who study abroad are immersed in foreign cultures to expand their learning in ways that aren’t possible in a traditional classroom.
The Semester in the Wild program, which completed its first session at the end of last month, has the same goals. But instead of sending students far beyond U.S. borders, educators here have them travel deep within to Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness, an area about 150 miles northeast of Boise and almost completely cut off from the outside world.
There the 11 students shared a cabin without cell service, 35 miles from any road. The nearest town was more than four hours away, and mail, food and supplies were delivered weekly by bush plane. Energy came from solar panels and a small hydroelectric project in a nearby creek — but those power sources balked as days grew shorter and the stream froze over.
Other university programs provide students with a chance to spend time in federally designated wilderness areas. But part of what makes the Idaho program unique is the coursework, English professor Scott Slovic said.
Students studied literature of the U.S. West, environmental writing, river ecology, wilderness management and outdoor leadership under professors who were flown in for weeklong teaching stints.
“It was the most intense semester of schooling I ever had,” said Jacob Miczulski, a junior from Bellevue, Idaho.
Slovic said the students “actually lived the types of subjects they were learning about.”
“We read a John Muir essay about climbing a tree in the Sierra Nevada in a windstorm,” he said, mentioning the pioneering conservationist. “And an hour later students were outside with me climbing trees.”
Tom Gorman, Idaho’s associate dean for the College of Natural Resources, said the program has drawn interest from students around the nation and is accepting applications for fall 2014. This year’s class had participants from as far away as North Carolina. The cost is normal tuition, room and board, plus a special fee of $1,500 per student.
Ricord, who studies natural resources ecology at the University of Vermont, said the program provided her with an experience she otherwise wouldn’t have had.
“Being in a wilderness was new to me,” she said. “In the Midwest and East, there is a lot less designated wilderness.”
There are about 109 million acres of wilderness areas set aside in the U.S., just over half in Alaska. The Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness, at 2.3 million acres is the second-largest in the Lower 48.
Miczulski, who studies wildlife management, also said he got to see and experience new things.
“I could sit on the front porch with a pair of binoculars,” he said, “and see bighorn rams butting heads.”