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Regal hemlocks tower overhead, fragile ferns blanket the forest floors and ribbons of sunlight break through the canopy. That may sound like paradise, but for CALS forest and wildlife ecology students, it’s a school day—with the forest as a classroom.

Every summer the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology offers students a weeks-long opportunity to learn among the trees at the CALS-based Kemp Natural Resource Station in Woodruff. In odd-numbered years, a field camp focuses on wildlife ecology. And in even years students can participate in a Forest Resources Practicum, affectionately known as “Forestry Camp.” The three-week course allows young foresters to see what a career in forestry entails while learning essential skills from forestry professionals.

Last summer’s Forestry Camp followed the established tradition. The class is divided into teams of four, and each is assigned a “compartment,” a 200-acre tract of rich woodland in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest. Throughout the course, teams learn all about their plot—essentially, forest ecosystem structure, function, processes and services—by surveying the vegetation, soil, animals and, of course, the trees.

Along the way students develop the knowledge to conduct a comprehensive forest resource assessment. Subject areas include basic field skills, plant identification, GPS & GIS, timber cruising, forest soils, wildlife identification and survey methods and forest habitat classification.

Instructors guide students as they work, visiting individual teams in the woods.

“Field visits often take an hour or two because they become deeper conversations about the history of the forests and the various components of the ecosystem,” says professor Volker Radeloff. “Camp days end up being long days!”

All of that work pays off with invaluable experience and a slew of lifelong memories. Student John Joutras recalls the day he and his team got stuck in the middle of the forest during a rainstorm.

“One of my teammates said, ‘You know you’re a real forester when you’re bushwhacking through the woods in the pouring rain.’ Sure, that might sound kind of miserable, but it was actually really fun,” says Joutras.

Hiking from dawn to dusk would feel like a full day to most, but students refused to stop there. After dinner, activities continued with canoeing, campfires and even more hiking.

During the final week, students summarized their results and conducted a final project based on their own and other teams’ data. But the true value of the course can’t be quantified through a final project or grade, students say. Rather, forestry camp motivates students and fuels their passion for the outdoors while they build lasting relationships with instructors and, of course, each other.

“The real challenge isn’t any individual part but finding a way to tackle it all as a team,” says Joutras. “I found that invaluable.”

This article was originally published in the summer 2017 issue of Grow magazine.

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