The Northern Forest Canoe Trail Course

Robert M. Sanford,
University of Southern Maine
Joseph K. Staples, University of Southern Maine






It is commonly assumed that“distance learning,” or education that is asynchronous and non-residential, involves a substitution of the online version of traditional pedagogies—lectures, assignments, discussions, etc.—for live, in-class experiences, often at the cost of student engagement in the social and experiential aspects of learning. However, new technology can also allow faculty to design independent, unscripted, and embodied learning experiences that deepen students’ engagement with their own learning. The innovative course described below used simple and widely available technological tools to empower students to become self-directed learners while contributing to the body of public knowledge about an important environmental resource.

The Northern Forest Canoe course is a freshman general education (“core”) course developed by an interdisciplinary team of three faculty (Joseph Staples, chemical ecology; Robert Sanford, environmental planning; and Elizabeth Vella, psychology) at the University of Southern Maine (USM) to provide an experiential, non-residency learning experience. This course was designated an “entry year experience” (EYE) that reflects the principles of Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER). We wanted to create a course that would provide learners with basic competency in environmental science field skills (GPS, compass, dichotomous keys, transects, shoreline field assessment, tree and aquatic plant identification, use of canoes and field equipment for water quality sampling) through an immersion experience that connected students to a natural community and would foster a sense of stewardship.

We developed this as a “distance learning” course rather than as a true online course, because the learning occurs at a distance, through field work, and is the result of the student’s own activities and reflections—there are no online lectures or formal sessions. Instead, the course is an asynchronous learning experience that takes place at the convenience of the student during a designated portion of the summer. However, the possibility remains of offering future versions as a synchronous “expeditionary” course led by an instructor.

Figure 1. The 740-mile (1,190-km) Northern Forest Canoe Trail runs from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine. Students are free to select to use any portion of it or its related tributaries and watersheds. (Map by Northern Forest Canoe Trail,

The location of the course (fig. 1) is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, 740 miles (1,190 km) of marked canoeing trail extending from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine. The specific sections of the trail to be investigated are selected by the individual student. There is no fixed distance a participant must travel, but the student must spend at least 10 days in which five or more hours per day are spent on the waters of the trail.

Target populations for the course include military veterans returning to school and desiring a gradual entry through a contemplative nature experience, other non-traditional learners, and freshmen who want to get a head start on their college educational experience before the academic year commences. The authors of this paper, as veterans themselves, particularly sought the opportunity to reach out to veterans. Psychology Professor Elizabeth Vella’s research focuses on the benefits of outdoor experiences for combat veterans, and a number of the reading assignments address the therapeutic aspects of outdoor recreation.

This course is designed to credentialize a self-guided outdoor learning experience mentored by university professors with interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary expertise. Participants undergo the equivalent of ten or more days (which need not be consecutive) of canoe or kayak trips along portions of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Since the goal is experiential, it is not important how much of the trail is covered, nor that the travel be completed all at once. Instead, participants set their own schedule, provide periodic online check-ins, and submit assignments designed to foster an experience that is contemplative and that builds independent learning skills. The course provides an introduction to environmental data gathering and assessment, to aspects of environmental management, and to critical thinking about personal, social, and ecological implications of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Students are assumed to have a knowledge of basic water safety, canoeing/kayaking ability, orienteering and map reading skills, and camping/ cooking or other logistical support skills. The course is a self-guided experience; students are expected to rely upon their own abilities and to undertake only those trips that are safe and attainable within their skill set and equipment capabilities. Students are free to take along partners, friends, and family members.

This course is suitable for anyone seeking to explore the environment or learn about environmental science. It is also suitable for anyone who wants a self-paced entry to a college-level experience. The course fulfills the Entry Year Experience core education requirement for USM. Accordingly the course meshes with the core EYE goals, as specified on the syllabus. This non-traditional approach constituted an act of faith between the developers and the summer program staff. The supervising program director stated: “I am pleased to have supported the innovative Northern Canoe Trail course as a pilot this summer, even with a small enrollment. If summer is not the time to incubate cool, experimental ideas that have the potential to reach students differently then I don’t know when is! I hope this course will continue to gain momentum while inspiring students and faculty alike.”1  In furtherance of this goal, USM Online’s Center for Technology Enhanced Learning (CTEL) provided a $2,000 development grant for the course. USM Reference Librarian Zip Kellog, author of several canoeing publications, provided input into the course development, as did the Veteran Certifying Officer, Laurie Spaulding; Susan McWilliams, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education; and other staff at the university.

This course and USM’s Entry Year Experience (EYE) goals:
  1. Employ a variety of perspectives to explore the interrelationship between human culture and the natural world of the Northern Forest Canoe
  2. Pose and explore questions in areas that are new and challenging: as a part of the river experience students will develop questions about the stewardship of this Students may draw from conservation biology and ecology, geology, environmental history, environmental literature, economics, other social and physical sciences, and the fine arts.
  3. The online posting requirements of this course give students opportunity to immediately respond to their experiences and to receive feedback from a mentor (one or more instructors).
  4. Reflect upon and link learning in the course with other learning experiences (for example co-curricular experience). This course is co-curricular by its very Students will provide formative assessments via their online postings/uplinks. The self-assessment piece at the end is a final summative.
  5. Recognize that an individual’s viewpoint is shaped by his or her experiences and by historical and cultural The student will evaluate his/her views and perspectives on the NFCT.
Course objectives
  1. Complete a total of 10 or more days of canoe/kayak experience on the waters of the These days need not be consecutive and can be selected at the convenience of the student within the timeframe of the course
  2. Employ environmental science field skills (notably, GPS, compass, dichotomous keys, transects, shoreline assessment, tree and aquatic plant identification, use of canoes and field equipment for water quality and other environmental sampling) to gather data and document river
  3. Participate in a Google+ virtual community of paddlers.
  4. Record reactions to an immersive, contemplative experience in rural or even wilderness riparian settings with the intention of deepening one’s connection to a natural community and fostering a sense of stewardship.
  5. Be able to describe the interdisciplinary nature of independent learning and self-assessment as part of a college-readiness experience.

The course uses a variety of assignments in a low stakes writing approach. Low stakes writing—“writing to learn”— is central to the achievement and assessment of learning outcomes. It is low stakes because there are no right or wrong answers and there are frequent assignments. Low stakes writing for this course includes a journal and separate responses to experience posted in the discussion section of Blackboard. The questions and writing prompts are drawn from Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives and are keyed to the assigned texts, conditions of the environment, and the experiential nature of the course as a self-guided river corridor transit.

Figure 2. Environmental Science major Amy Webb and her dog camping out along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Photo courtesy of Amy Webb.

The course establishes an online community in which students share their work and their reflections and in which stakeholders can participate. The civic engagement aspects of this course include a “client” partner, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) non-profit organization. NFCT provided input into the development of the course, including requests for specific projects to be accomplished by the participants. One member of the NFCT Board of Directors responded: “We are delighted that Professor Sanford and his colleagues at USM have developed this innovative course for experiential learning along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Students learn and earn credits toward a degree while enjoying a potentially life-changing experience, and their notes and observations provide NFCT additional information about trail conditions and usage.”2

Although the numbers were small (six) for the trial run of this course, the participants seemed to benefit. One student (fig. 2) stated,“I really enjoyed the fully immersed, completely independent environmental experience that the Northern Forest Canoe Trail Course offered. While taking this class I was able to complete a full time internship, receive course credits, take my family along and teach them a thing or two about the environment!”

Basic technological literacy and equipment were required for students enrolling in this course, including a digital cam- era, GPS, and computer, iPad, or iPhone for online connection to the campus Blackboard3 system for announcements, assignments, grades, discussions and other support activities. A Google account was required for participation in the Google+ virtual community. Links are provided to the various course documents.

About the Authors

Robert M. Sanford chairs the Department of Environmental Science & Policy at the University of Southern Maine, in Gorham, Maine. He is a SENCER Fellow and a co-director of the SENCER New England SCI.

Joseph K. Staples (PhD.) conducts research in the areas of forest ecology, environmental entomology & physiology, and integrated pest management in the Department of Environmental Science & Policy at the University of Southern Maine. He is a graduate of the Scholar Educator Program at Illinois State University and has taught more than thirty different courses in biology, ecology, and environmental science.


  1. Karin Pires, Associate Director, Academic Programs, Professional & Continuing Education (PCE), University of Southern Maine, personal communication.
  2. Will Plumley, NFCT Board of Directors, personal communication.
  3. This description of the course assumes the use of Blackboard Learning System for course And Blackboard will be used to maintain an online confidential grade book. However, the final version of the course may use Google Community or other format as per the final syllabus.


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