As a blazing sunset ends a perfect spring day of canoeing on Lake Superior, Lincoln Cruz can’t help but thing that 200 years ago, on this very spit of sand, he would’ve been a French Canadian voyageur, paddling beaver pelts and trade goods across the continent at the height of the fur trade.
Cruz, a Northland College freshman, 16 classmates, professors Alan Brew and David Saetre, Rick Fairbanks, the provost this Ashland, Wisc.-based environmental liberal arts school, and myself, arrived at this beach in a 36-foot fiberglass replica of the birchbark “Montreal” canoes that plied Lake Superior from 1770 to 1821. Today, Cruz is part of a unique college program that focuses on the history, geology, ecology and human cultures of the Lake Superior watershed to foster experiential learning and integrated decision-making, and ultimately endeavors to create a new legion of environmentally aware voyageurs.
“I can’t believe I’ve become so attached to this lake in only nine months,” says Cruz, who freely admits that his home in Milwaukee has never seemed so far removed from this isolated sweep of sand, glacier-smoothed granite and thick boreal forest. “It’s going to be really, really hard for me to leave this place.”
The highlight of Northland’s “Superior Connections” program of studies is a one-month road trip around Lake Superior that culminates students’ first year of college. The 1,800-mile journey involves stops at various interpretive centers, historical sites and wilderness areas along the way, including a four-day voyageur canoe and sea kayak trip along the lake’s wild and roadless Superior Highlands coast, located west of Wawa, Ont. Here, the students can literally touch the lake’s 3.5-billion-year-old geology, taste its seemingly endless expanse of freshwater and deal with its notoriously fickle moods first-hand—exactly the way Brew, a professor of English and associate dean, hoped they would when he helped launch the program three years ago.
The sequence of nine courses in the Superior Connections program integrate students’ majors in education, natural sciences and humanities, explains Brew, to “explore the relationships among the liberal arts, the environment, and the future of our planet and society.”
This novel approach seems to be achieving its goal of molding creative thinkers for a changing world, which are represented at a more localized scale by those facing the Lake Superior watershed. Mining and aggregate developments threaten water quality on both the U.S. and Canadian shores; exotic species continue to cripple fisheries; and researchers at the University of Minnesota-Duluth have demonstrated that climate change has warmed Lake Superior’s famously frigid waters at a startling rate of 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 25 years, compromising its unique coastal ecosystem of arctic-alpine vegetation.
The beaches, headlands and waterfalls we explore have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years, and the Superior Connections students seem inspired to keep them that way. Cruz tells me about his career objectives as a natural resources manager and interpreter; fellow student Mack Hogfeldt talks about his lifelong love of swimming in Lake Superior’s clean water; and outdoor education major Hannah Fanney shares her ambitions as a sea kayak and whitewater guide, and how these positions will enable her to share her love of the watershed with a broader audience.
On our last day morning camped on the lake, the students and their professors are reluctant to leave our sandy campsite. When we finally load up and slide the big canoe into the water, a becalmed, glassy lake welcomes the voyageurs of tomorrow.
– Conor Mihell