Learn Among the Trees

A hands-on program takes wannabe foresters to the scene of their future profession

It may sound unlikely. Certainly it sounds idyllic. But there’s a university course where professors may interrupt class to watch sturgeon swim by, and where lectures may be delivered from the bottom of soil pits or gathered around a campfire.

It’s Forestry Summer Camp, a three-week course offered by the forest and wildlife ecology department at CALS’ Kemp Natural Resources Station near Minocqua. The camp, which takes place every other year, introduces students to the information and skills they need to assess a forest’s natural resources—and also gives them ample opportunities to practice those skills in the field.

“It helps us get an idea of forestry and what it entails to see if it’s a good fit for what we want to do in the future,” says CALS junior Kelsey Egelhoff, who attended camp along with 26 other students this summer.

The department’s idea is to have new forestry majors take the course as early as possible. “It’s meant to provide new students with the excitement, the motivation and the context they need to do well in their remaining courses,” says forest and wildlife ecology professor Eric Kruger, one of the camp’s three coordinators.

Early on, students are divided into groups of four and assigned 250-acre tracts of land, called “compartments,” in the nearby Northern Highland American Legion State Forest to survey over the coming weeks. But even just the first step—setting up a compartment’s research plots—is no small matter.

Egelhoff estimates that her group walked for eight hours one day, guided by GPS, to mark their plots with red-flagged stakes—and they only got halfway done. “But even if it’s hard work, just being outside and getting to enjoy it all is really nice,” says Egelhoff, who hopes to go to graduate school and study redwoods in California.

Next the groups use modern tools and techniques to assess the birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, soils, woody debris, shrubs and trees on their plots, gathering data for a summary of their compartments and a final research project.

“One unique feature of our camp is that we have students explore the data that they collect and answer specific questions that are pertinent to their interests,” says Kruger.

The camp experience, he adds, has value beyond motivating students.

“I would guess that most employers have been through similar camps in their lives and fully appreciate the importance of these camps for the development of young professionals,” Kruger says.