- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

WOLCOTT, Vt. - Bear Swamp resembles many places in northern Canada or Alaska. Through the woods at the bottom of a hill, the forest opens up to a wide expanse of what used to be a glacier lake.

The cabin could be anywhere in the far north. A stove churns out heat, boots and fleece slippers sit near the door, and posters of Finland and Arctic vegetation cover the walls.

But it’s far from Alaska or northern Canada. It’s the Center for Northern Studies at tiny Sterling College in the north-central Vermont town of Wolcott.

It’s a place where college students study the environment and people of the north. They take class in Arctic and sub-Arctic fauna, indigenous cultures of the circumpolar north, literature and wildlife biology. They travel to Lapland, Iceland, Newfoundland and Labrador, and they conduct research in Bear Swamp.

“It actually has virtually every species of tree which is found in central Alaska,” said naturalist Steve Young.

“So you literally can just step out the door, and five minutes later, you’re in an environment that has most of the components” of a colder boreal region, said Mr. Young, who founded the center more than 30 years ago, on his family’s land.

It started as a research project in 1971 and evolved into an away program for college students from Middlebury and other schools studying winter ecology.

Last year, Sterling College took over the program and made it accredited. Sterling now offers four-year bachelor’s degrees in northern studies and is thought to be the only such program in the lower 48 states, said Erik Hansen, the center’s education program director.

“We decided it fit really well with our other majors — wildlands ecology and sustainable agriculture and outdoor education leadership, which has a big emphasis on ecotourism, that kind of thing,” said Mr. Hansen.

Similar programs exist throughout Canada, at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and other places in the north.

The sweeping region defined as the north consists of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and vast stretches of northern Russia. The roughly 15 million square miles make up a quarter of the land surface on Earth, but is home to just 1 percent of the population, said Mr. Hansen.

Another way to think of the north is as the region inhabited by caribou or reindeer, Mr. Young said.

“There are no longer caribou here, unfortunately,” Mr. Young said of Vermont. “There were, 50 odd years ago.”

Mr. Young and the students just returned from Lapland, a region that spans the far north of Sweden, Norway and Finland and the northwestern corner of Russia. There, they worked with the reindeer-herding Sami people and studied the bioregion, species and the fisheries industry in what one student described as a barren landscape.

“The transition was surprisingly dramatic for me,” said Luke Hardt, of Middlebury. “I didn’t think it would be so sudden from boreal to arctic. The flora and fauna, the more northern you get, obviously, the less diversification you’re going to get.”

On a recent morning back in Wolcott, Mr. Young and several students headed down the path into Bear Swamp with a long stainless steel tube cut in half lengthwise.

They plan to collect core samples of the earth to determine what took place in the past 10,000 years as the lake filled.

It is part of a class in quaternary studies, which Mr. Young describes as the history, environment and people of the last million years.

“It has to do with ice ages, and how the climate has changed over long periods of time, and how we know about that, and how humans responded to that,” he said.

The program tends to attract independent, imaginative and curious people, said Rick Morrill, a teaching assistant.

“The sort of people we get are not your average folks,” he said. “Usually it’s higher-level academic students — people who are interested in doing things differently than standard programs.”

Mr. Hardt opted to switch to northern studies from botany. “When you’re just an ecologist, or just a biologist, or just an anthropologist, you have blinders. You don’t see the whole scope,” he said.

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