Courtesy of Cornellians

Toboggan riders speed through the woods by Beebe Lake in the early 1900s, displaying a connection the outdoors that Cornell Outdoor Education has only deepened in their 50-year history.

June 13, 2023

Cornell Outdoor Education Anticipates 50th Anniversary Reunion

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In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Cornell Outdoor Education will host a reunion for past and present COE students, facilitators, advisory board members and supporters from July 6 to 9. The four-day itinerary includes mountain biking, tree climbing, group camping and more outdoor activities, along with curated storytelling and history presentations.

In anticipation of the reunion, COE held a webinar on Tuesday, June 6 to look back on COE’s accomplishments since its founding in 1972. Hosted by historian and visiting lecturer Corey Ryan Earle ’07, the webinar was well-attended by former students and outdoor educators.

The webinar began with a news segment filmed shortly after the construction of the original Lindseth Climbing Wall, Cornell’s indoor climbing facility located in Bartels Hall. At the time of its construction, Lindseth was the largest indoor natural rock climbing wall in North America. Dr. Bob Arnot, news anchor of the segment ‘How America Keeps Fit,’ remarked on the University’s unique dedication to outdoor education in 1990 that remains ahead of its time.

“Well, I’ll tell you… [rock climbing] is like no phys ed course you or I ever took — no sit-ups, no push-ups. [Cornell] offer[s] whitewater rafting, kayaking, international expedition climbing and this, which is called ROCK 104,” Arnot said, scaling the Lindseth Climbing Center’s walls.

Even prior to the inception of COE, Cornell held a unique relationship with the natural environment. Namely, up until 1949, a toboggan slide on Beebe Lake was a popular venue for student recreation. Additionally, in 1928, although the city of Ithaca did not then recognize daylight savings time, the Cornell administration chose to recognize the practice so that students could enjoy more time outdoors.

Throughout the webinar, Earle took attendees through the history of COE, beginning with the program’s precursor, Wilderness Reflections. Spearheaded by assistant dean of students David Henderson in 1972, Wilderness Reflections was a program for incoming first-year students aimed at helping freshmen connect with one another and experience personal growth while developing an appreciation for the natural world. 

The next era of outdoor education at Cornell was ushered in by COE founding director David Moriah ’72, who greatly shaped the future of COE shortly after graduating from the University. Under Moriah’s leadership, participation in outdoor education trips became worth academic credit, and education programming grew to include activities such as rock climbing, canoeing and outdoor leadership.

Moriah, who now serves as the chairman of the advisory board for COE, remarked on the state of COE at its beginning, highlighting how far the program has come. He emphasized the lack of guidance COE leaders and instructors had due to the education program’s originality.

“It was like the wild wild west, or maybe to bring the metaphor a little more up to date, it was like the early days of the internet,” Moriah said. “There was no road map, there basically were no rules and we were exploring the woods and gorges around Ithaca for hiking and climbing … we had to make up the rules for us to do it safely.”

Shortly after the hiring of director Dan Tillemans in 1984, the outdoor program was officially rebranded to Cornell Outdoor Education as it is known today. With Tillemans’ experience with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, COE saw enormous growth, including the first COE leadership development expeditions, the merging of Wilderness Reflections into COE and the construction of both the Lindseth Climbing Wall and the Hoffman Challenge Course.

From when Tillemans became director of COE in 1984 to when he stepped down in 1999, student involvement grew from around 300 students per year to about 3,000. Tillemans, who has remained on the COE advisory board since 1999, believes that the work of student leaders was integral to that growth.

“The growth [of COE] is actually on the backs of the student leaders because the full-time staff at Outdoor Ed are [currently] supervising about 200 student leaders,” Tillemans said. “The investment in the student leadership program runs everything.”

Tillemans’ dedication to COE came from the tangible impacts that resulted from student involvement with the program.

“The other thing that motivated me was knowing that I was having an impact. It’s a grassroots movement — we don’t get paid a whole lot in this business,” Tillemans said. “So the reward is, you know, what are we doing to help the world? And just watching the people that we work with develop the skills and the confidence to help go out and save the world.”

Earle continued the webinar with a recap of the modern era of COE. A hallmark of present-day COE is the Cornell Tree Climbing Institute, a division that gives participants the opportunity to take part in tree climbing expeditions in Costa Rica and to the Redwoods. Expeditions can be solely recreational or for academic purposes — CTCI is currently the largest provider of canopy research in the nation.

“[The Cornell Tree Climbing Institute] is a great example of how COE integrates with academics at Cornell. It’s trained many scientific researchers who study tree canopies, collaborated with academics and classes, [and CTCI] expeditions to the High Sierra Mountains of California include a partnership with the UC Berkeley Department of Forest Ecology,” Earle said. “Students have assisted with giant sequoia restoration and ecology research, as well as learning tree climbing skills and team leadership outdoor skills.”

The current co-directors of COE, Karel Hilversum and Mark Holton Ph.D. ’99, discussed the modern goals and scope of COE in the webinar. COE, which now serves around 11,000 participants each year, has begun to promote experiential learning. Currently, COE is partnering with professors to bring experience-based learning into the classroom and encouraging student communities from all schools — including Master’s and veterinary students — to attend the Hoffman Challenge Course for bonding and team-building.

“What we were looking to do was integrate with the University to share what we could offer in terms of experiential education and leadership development,” Holton said. “Part of that was looking around the University and trying to figure out what problems we could help solve.” 

The Outdoor Odyssey program — formally known as Wilderness Reflections — is an orientation program for incoming first-year students that takes new Cornellians on a variety of four to eight-day outdoor trips. Thousands of students have participated in the program, including a particularly special group of students who rescued an injured hiker during their trip.

Claire Blaudeau ’23, a recent Cornell graduate and the current COE student coordinator, went on an Outdoor Odyssey trip her freshman year and credits it as the defining moment of her college experience. Blaudeau recalled being unsure of taking the leap of embarking on an Outdoor Odyssey trip to start off her college experience.

“I was a little nervous, I was like, ‘Oh Gosh, Mom, this is six days backpacking. I’ve never been backpacking before, [so] I don’t know if I can do it,’” Blaudeau said in the webinar. “I’m so glad I did. The people that I met on the trip have been friends throughout college, and I met all my other friends and my hiking buddies. So, [it was the] best decision.”

Currently, under Blaudeau, Hilversum and Holton, COE is working to expand access for first-generation, low-income and minority students who historically lack exposure to outdoor activities. They hope to reach more students from all backgrounds.

The webinar concluded with a Q&A portion in which the panelists offered further insight on the many phases of COE. The Q&A was punctuated by a statement from Moriah on the growth of COE from a tiny operation to the largest collegiate outdoor education program in the country that continues to expand.

“[It’s amazing] to me to see what’s become of this program that I began with just rubbing a couple of sticks together to make a fire — now it’s just a roaring bonfire,” Moriah said. “My hat’s off to all the people who are on this panel and all those who have served as instructors over the years … I am just so honored to be part of this amazing enterprise.”
Hopeful attendees can register for the COE 50th Anniversary Reunion through COE’s website.