The Alaska Wrangell Mountains Field Studies immerses students in academics, community living and wilderness travel. We alternate between time spent in the off-the-grid town of McCarthy and the backcountry of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. We spend Week One in town, Week Two in the backcountry, Week Three in town, Weeks Four through Six in the backcountry, and Week Seven in town.
Life in Town
Daily life in town revolves around the Wrangell Mountains Center (WMC) campus at the “Old Hardware Store.” Students and instructors work alongside local residents to experience off-grid home life in a rural and rugged national park gateway community. Classes take place at the Old Hardware Store and at field locations throughout the McCarthy-Kennicott valley. In addition to coursework, students participate in cooking meals, maintaining facilities, tending a garden, living in tents and embracing simplicity. This collaborative lifestyle emphasizes the broader networks that underlie human survival, including but not limited to systems of food production, disposal of waste, electricity generation, and human communication and cooperation. Frequent workshops, lectures, and artist residencies hosted by the Wrangell Mountains Center create a diverse learning space in which students reside and study alongside visiting experts.
Sample Day in Town:
7:15 – Awake in “Tent City,” a campground with stunning, 360-degree mountain views. Gather with some fellow students and walk the 10 minutes to the Old Hardware Store. Along the way, you see a raven flying overhead and make note for your Species Account.
8:00 – Breakfast is ready! (A couple students and a WMC staffer were up early to light the wood stove, make coffee, bake muffins, and start packing lunch.)
9:00 – Morning meeting: Introduction to the day’s schedule and time for you to make announcements.
9:15 – The group splits to spend the day with local experts:
Half the group travels to the homestead of local resident Mark Vail to learn about his innovations in subsistence living, his recent wildlife observations, and the latest meeting between McCarthy residents and the national park service.
The other half of the group attends a geology lecture by hydrologist Barry Hecht. After lunch, there is a walk to the nearby river bluff to practice geology research techniques that students will use in upcoming field research projects.
4:00 – Free time for homework, leisure, and socializing. You lie in a hammock by the creek and read a scientific paper for tomorrow before doing your garden chores of watering and picking a fresh salad and raspberries to contribute to dinner.
6:00 – Dinnertime.
7:00 – WMC Summer Arts and Lecture Series presentation by a visiting landscape artist.
8:30 – Light will be out for several more hours! Armed with ideas from the artists’ lecture, you find a wildflower you're studying and do a detailed sketch for a portfolio assignment.
9:30 – Back in Tent City you wind down for the day, organize your notes, talk with your friends around a bonfire and banjo, and prepare for sleep.
Note on Technology: Students should be prepared to rely on technology sparingly both in town and in the backcountry, where there is no connectivity. We believe that immersing oneself in the landscape and culture of the Wrangells is a unique and important opportunity among the world's rapid transition to high tech.
Life in the Backcountry
While not in town, students participate in backcountry traverses through boreal forest, alpine tundra, and across a glacier-laden landscape. On these eight to twenty-one-day backpacking trips, small travel groups pass through ecosystems that become primary teaching tools. Visible changes in the environment are dramatic in the Wrangell Mountains: Glaciers melting while one walks on them, rivers cutting new channels before one's eyes, plants sprouting and going to seed in a single quarter. To complement the experiential learning, students read and discuss relevant, peer-reviewed journal articles about the natural processes encountered in the day. The distance from electricity, internet, and mobile devices allows students to rekindle ways of natural knowing through sustained observation and creative writing and drawing in natural history field journals.
Sample Day in the Backcountry:
7:00 – Awake in your tent on a river bar near an alpine meadow. You pack your backpack and join your cook group to make a camp stove breakfast.
9:00 – Packs on and snacks ready. After going over the route for the day, everyone begins hiking down valley, keeping water, snacks, and field notebooks handy to record observations of the Arctic ground squirrels, and the changing rock types visible with descent.
10:00 – Hike over the moraine to the ice of the Kennicott Glacier.
12:00 – During lunch, a lecture by Tim Bartholomaus on glacier hydrology.
3:00 – Ice feature encounter! Students split into teams to investigate different formations and then diagram hypotheses for how they originated.
5:00 – Make camp. You set up your tent and take 20 minutes to organize your field notes from the day for a portfolio assignment, and then join your cook group to make the warm, hearty dinner you earned hiking.
7:30 – Discussion: An anthropology article you read on oral histories of glacier travel and glacial movements becomes the camp talk as you watch wilderness nightfall.
Header photo credit: Anders Link.