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Cornell Outdoor Education's 40-year odyssey

participant in a spring 2012 COE

Sit-ins, teach-ins and "happenings" were commonplace in the early '70s, when an unabashed Outward Bound tree-hugger named David Morrisey Moriah '72 and a clutch of students occupied Cornell Physical Education's administrative offices.

The protestors' demands: Hand over the keys to the van they had reserved for a new student program called Wilderness Reflections or they were quite prepared to set up camp right there.

The van was secured.

That event roughly marks the beginning of the Cornell Outdoor Education (COE) program. Wilderness Reflections, founded 40 years ago in 1972, evolved into a wildly successful adventure called Outdoor Odyssey – a pre-orientation program for incoming freshmen and new students that offers 25-30 wilderness trips throughout New York state and beyond each year.

From its radical roots, COE has grown into one of the top collegiate outdoor leadership and wilderness programs in the country. Today COE has a dedicated fleet of eight vans, and 2,000 undergraduates are expected to enroll in some 300 different COE courses and programs this fall.

Course offerings, many available for credit, include backpacking, canoeing, caving, climbing (rock, ice and tree), hiking, kayaking at sea and in white water, leadership training, mountain biking, natural history, cross-country and telemark skiing, and wilderness first aid, to name a few.

One hundred fifty COE student leaders work alongside 11 full-time professional staff, and 25 alumni and friends of Cornell serve as volunteer consultants in strategizing, public relations and fundraising for COE.

cyclists ride through Manhattan's Central Park

Cyclists ride through Manhattan's Central Park as part of COE's 40th anniversary celebration kickoff in October 2011. See larger image

outdoor adventurers climb in Central Park

Outdoor adventurers climb in Central Park as part of COE's 40th anniversary celebration kickoff in October 2011. See larger image

Winter trip to White Mountains, 1970s

Winter trip to White Mountains, 1970s. See larger image

The program's million-dollar budget is largely self-funded though fees and gifts and includes $30,000 in scholarships.

Todd Miner, the program's third director in four decades, says support from COE alumni is a big part of the program's success. "When our budget took a hit a few years ago, we were able to continue most of our program, largely thanks to our alums," Miner says.

COE also gets support from Cornell's Department of Athletics and Physical Education and from Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services.

"Cornell Outdoor Education has been a wonderful resource and catalyst for our students," Murphy says. "Their work with the students who lead Outdoor Odyssey provides a very special opportunity for outdoor exploration, community-building and individual reflection for a growing number of our first-year students."

The program has had strong leadership from the get-go. When Moriah stepped down in 1984, Dan Tillemans seized the helm with intrepid zeal. In 1988 he led the first of two highly publicized expeditions that carried a Cornell flag to the summits of Chimborazo and Cotapaxi, the highest volcanoes in Ecuador. Tillemans also oversaw construction of the Phillips Outdoor Program Center, the Hoffman Challenge Course and the 160-by-30-foot Lindseth Climbing Wall in Bartels Hall, the largest natural rock indoor climbing wall in North America.

From the sticks to the stacks: The Outdoor Odyssey

During their pre-orientation trek, Outdoor Odyssey participants can push hard or enjoy a laid-back week of rock climbing, canoeing, trail-building, mountain biking, backpacking, taking photos or spelunking.

Todd Miner, COE director

Todd Miner, COE director. See larger image

Groups consist of seven to nine "trippers" led by experienced upperclass trip leader guides, who plan meals, activities, transportation and serve as resident wilderness gurus. Just as importantly, the guides provide the inside scoop on the Cornell student experience for the new students.

Moriah originally led the program "from his knapsack" and is famous for this Cornell Daily Sun "Quote of the Day": "I would create an oasis of madness amidst a pompous academic institution that takes itself too seriously."

While outdoor gear technology has improved over the years, the challenges remain the same: Odyssey trips emphasize safety, building trust, teamwork and muscle, often in rugged terrain. It's the opposite of the popular TV show "Survivor" – Outdoor Odyssey is about inclusion.

David Morrisey Moriah '72, COE founder and first director

David Morrisey Moriah '72, COE founder and first director, during a 1970s Wilderness Reflections program. See larger image

"And it's not just about learning how to pitch a tent," says Miner. "We try to focus on the dynamics of working together with people you've just met, the psychology critical to successful outdoor living and on helping students navigate a very challenging transition from home and family to college and Cornell."

Many Odyssey trippers remain friends throughout all four years at Cornell, often choosing to live together as upperclassmen.

"I had no idea that we were pioneers (in 1972), and that that was the program's very first year," says Patricia Hanavan '76. "All I know is how lucky I was … coming from afar and never seeing the campus before I arrived, to feel that I knew some people pretty well by the time classes started."

Rice hulling during a COE hiking trip to Nepal

Rice hulling during a COE hiking trip to Nepal, 2010. See larger image

About 225 students are expected to take part in this summer's Odyssey. In addition to the traditional backpacking, canoeing and climbing trips, the 2012 Odyssey Trippers will learn from trips focused on service, sustainable agriculture, base camp experiences (complete with showers!) and a half dozen other topics.

In the meantime, a celebration is in order: The christening of Moriah Hall, a self-composting outhouse named in honor of COE's original leader, was held May 19.

Morning yoga during a COE hiking trip to Nepal

Morning yoga during a COE hiking trip to Nepal, 2010. See larger image

"I think it's just wonderful that they built an entire hall in my name," says Moriah, who fully appreciates potty humor. "I was young, passionate and foolish in those early days. But there is no question that today Cornell has the best, largest, safest and highest-quality program on any campus."

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