Alexia Kemerling, Hiram College Garfield Presidency Scholar, recaps her experiences on the group’s academic year-commencing retreat to Hiram College’s Northwoods Field Station in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The trip was led by Douglas Brattebo, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and director of the James A. Garfield Center for the Study of the American Presidency. Jeff Swenson, associate professor of English, also accompanied the group. Twenty-nine students, first-years to seniors, from a wide range of majors, comprise this year’s group of Scholars.
We crossed over the Mackinac Bridge, and into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, just as the sun began to sink to the horizon. As we grew closer to Lake Superior, the roads were empty save for our fleet of three Hiram College vans. When the pavement gave way to dirt roads, and the trees thickened, I knew we were getting close to the hidden treasure that is Hiram College’s Northwoods Field Station.
It was dark when we pulled up to the rustic camp, but not even the long day of driving or the mildly overwhelming task of unpacking and setting up cots in the dark could dampen the excitement of our group. This was the second year that the Garfield Presidency Scholars kicked off their year of studies with a trip into the wilderness—though it was my first time on the excursion. With my pillow tucked under my arm and H.W. Brands’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, “The Last Romantic,” in hand, I followed my friends down a trail to our cabin. Our phones dead and useless in our pockets, we relied on the full moon to light our path.
Every year across a four-year cycle, the Garfield Presidency Scholars study a different president, examining his leadership and legacy through readings, presentations, discussions, and trips to historical sites. Entering into my third year as a Presidency Scholar, I’d noticed that the most nuanced and open debates I’d had with my inquisitive peers did not always happen during regular meetings. They occurred on bus rides to our trip destinations, in lines getting road-trip snacks at gas stations, in small groups as we wandered through self-tours of various places. There is something about spending time in new environments in the company of your peers that lends itself to sharing in unabashed curiosity and thoughtful discussion. Perhaps, that’s just what the Hiram students who built Northwoods in the 1970s had intended—to construct the ideal unconventional classroom.
Over the next few days, we hiked beautiful trails, kayaked in Lake Superior along the Pictured Rocks, swam in Cherry Lake, fished from canoes, and roasted marshmallows on campfires. We committed the beauty around us to memory, rather than try to capture it in photographs. We lost track of time in the very best of ways. I forged friendships with people I’d only seen in passing, and shared new laughs with old friends.
Every night after the dinner dishes had been washed and put away, and the reflection of evening light shimmered on the surface of Cherry Lake, our cohort gathered on the porch to discuss Theodore Roosevelt. Surrounded by 100,000 acres of National Forest, we inevitably spent a lot of time analyzing Roosevelt’s relationship to nature.
Roosevelt took note of the rapidly industrializing United States and understood that our natural resources were not infinite, a concept that so many of his time could not grasp. Unafraid to harness his “executive power” in the presidency, he doubled the number of sites within the National Parks System. Clearly, Roosevelt saw value in preservation. Yet, our “conservation president” also viewed nature as sport, something to be conquered. On a safari in Eastern Africa he and his son shot 512 animals. Though the former president would be the first to claim the specimens were for the benefit of science, it was still a radically different approach to environmentalism than we hold today.
If not for Roosevelt, though, there’s a chance we wouldn’t have been sitting where we were. In 1909, during the final weeks of his presidency, Roosevelt designated a portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as “Marquette National Forest.” A few decades later, the protected area was expanded and became Hiawatha National Forest, as it remains today.
On our first day we’d hiked to the Grand Sable Sand Dunes. Standing at the top of the infamous Log Slide, 300 feet above Lake Superior, I marveled at the sheer beauty of the landscape in front of me. I could see the shapes of boulders through the crystal clear water; the cerulean blue looked unreal. Pines and birch and ash trees clung to the very edge of the rocky cliffs of the land that stretched out on either side of the dunes. My mind conjured up words like: idyllic, pristine, untouched.
Yet the Upper Peninsula has a history that begs to differ with my romantic notions. The land where we stood was once covered with white pines; the sand dunes title, Log Slide, is a literal one. Loggers used to glide old-growth timbers down the dunes to be transported away. And though protected now, the Hiawatha National Forest is still used by the timber industry. This land is not an example of nature untouched, but it is proof that courses can be changed.
So how did the Upper Peninsula go from desolate destruction to abounding reforestation? You might compare the unlikely resurgence to the story of how Roosevelt changed his own course, from timid, sickly boy to rambunctious, strong, athletic man. In too many ways to list here, Roosevelt’s life is an example of human resilience, adaption, and the wonders of doing the unexpected.
Spending four days disconnected from the addictive screens of technology, immersed in nature and learning, is in its own way an unexpected wonder. In the grand scheme of things it may seem a small deviation, but a deviation nonetheless. And it is one for which I found myself utterly grateful.
I’d arrived to Northwoods with little more than a backpack. I’d packed tank tops when I should’ve brought long sleeves. I didn’t bring a flashlight or a portable charger or any number of things I might’ve packed had I known what I was walking into. And yet, I’d gotten along just fine—even better than fine.
On our final night at Northwoods, a group of us sat around a single flickering kerosene lantern and took turns telling stories. Jason Wiegand, the caretaker of Northwoods, plucked his banjo, filling the log cabin with a steady stream of folk music. Maybe it was the gentle sound of the banjo or the last day rose-colored glasses, but I couldn’t help but reflect on how relaxed and happy I’d felt the last few days. I’d felt present in each moment, and slept peacefully without anxiety dreams. I wondered what it’d be like to live this way full-time. How could I take this easy-going attitude I’d suddenly developed back to Ohio with me?
I turned to Jason and asked, “What is one thing you’ve learned from living at Northwoods that you wish the general population knew?”
He sighed and leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees. “Oh, man,” he said. The heaviness in the sound of those two words suggested that he had enough answers to my question to fill a book. After a moment of pondering he settled upon a single piece of wisdom: “You can—and should—live with a lot less than you think you need.”
Photo Courtesy of Douglas M. Brattebo