WOLCOTT, VT. — It's another subzero day in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, and eight students are cheerfully wading into waist-deep snow to ... count trees.
Soon the hair framing their faces is crisp with frost. But there's a method to this madness - they'll be comparing tree species in plots at a higher elevation. And doing this hands-on science - even if it is occasionally hand-numbing - is the reason they're here.
For people interested in arctic climates and cultures, the Center for Northern Studies in Wolcott, Vt., offers a rare opportunity. Because of the area's glacial history and current climate, some geological features and plant and animal adaptations resemble those in places much farther north, such as Alaska. And few universities in the United States offer the interdisciplinary approach the center is known for.
During January's intensive winter ecology course, students walk down to Bear Swamp to conduct experiments and to track the extreme temperatures. The 350-acre "cold sink," where air drains down from the surrounding mountains, is a landscape of stunted trees decorated with strands of pale green lichen.
They study how far light can penetrate into different types of snowpack, and learn how the weather affects subnivean creatures - the ones that stay under the snow to keep warm.
"Winter pushes everything to its limit, and then what's really important for survival becomes apparent," says Rosalind Yanishevsky, a visiting January-term student who is also a professor of ecology at Vermont's Marlboro College. She's just learned about a bird that loses half its body weight on a winter's night and has to eat constantly during the day.
Ms. Yanishevsky's first career was biology, but she discovered a passion for colder climates while studying bears in Montana.
"I think my right foot points north a couple inches," she says with a laugh. Her fellow students are undergraduates at nearby Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, a small environmentally focused school with which the center is now affiliated. Not all her classmates profess a love for the cold, but even the student from Puerto Rico is a good sport.
"People think we're a bunch of new-agers out in the woods, but this tends to be a fairly rigorous course," says Steven Young, a naturalist who founded the center in 1971 and has done research throughout the circumpolar North.
Winter ecology is the class that turns some students into northern studies majors. There, the North is seen through a blend of anthropology, economics, geology, history, biology, and literature.
Trips at the beginning and end of each academic year connect students to researchers and indigenous communities at the top of the world - from northern Canada to Finland.
"People always ask, 'What are you going to do when you graduate?' " says Ian McEwen, a northern studies major whose main interest is how indigenous communities will be affected by climate change. He might learn Russian and do research in Siberia - plans driven by his conviction that we all need to understand our planet better "so we can live in a way that works."
American academic interest in the Arctic dates back more than a century, says Douglas Anderson, director of the Laboratory for Circumpolar Studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I. The German-born Franz Boas, considered the father of American anthropology, did field research in the Canadian Arctic in the late 1800s. During the Korean War and the cold war, the United States government had intense interest in the region.
Now there is cooperation between Russian and US scholars, of course, but important political, environmental, and indigenous land-claim issues continue to percolate in the resource-rich North. The region makes up 25 percent of the earth's land mass, but less than 1 percent of its population.
Before the term "interdisciplinary" was in vogue in academia, Mr. Young saw a need to connect natural science and social science in the study of the region. For the past three decades, that breadth has prompted students from all over the US - and even from Northern indigenous communities - to spend a semester or a year at the center in Vermont.
Although it is small, usually hosting fewer than a dozen students at a time, Mr. Anderson agrees that the center's approach is valuable.
Universities usually don't have an arctic specialty in more than one discipline - anthropology at Brown, for instance. But research projects often require multiple types of expertise. Anderson is currently looking at slate artifacts, hoping to identify historical trade networks. The isotopic analysis of slate "is something way beyond me, so I have to work directly with geologists," he says.
The University of Alaska at Fairbanks also has an interdisciplinary northern studies program, geared toward graduate students. Recent research includes a photographic project on how people cope with the lack of light in winter, and a dissertation on the spiritual value of wilderness.
"The Arctic is extremely important politically, especially with the debate on the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," says Judith Kleinfeld, the program's director at Fairbanks. And Alaska is a good place to study American values because it's "our last frontier," she says, "where the pioneering spirit and ... self-reliance and ingenuity are still very strong.."
Luke Hardt, who is majoring in northern studies major at Sterling, says he's excited to be learning the science behind the plants and animals he's known since childhood. The son of an instructor who trained US special-operations forces in art of wilderness living, he's lived a nomadic life, hunting, trapping, and drinking from rivers instead of a tap.
"I look at a tree and I can say, 'that's a black ash,' but in this course I can say, 'the buds will be like this, or it will have this taste or this smell,' " he says as he eats a hearty dinner before heading out to Bear Swamp for a few hours of solo observation. With his face protected by his thick beard and mustache, he's excited that the temperature might hit 50 below.
Mr. Hardt says he relates to native cultures and their approach to the natural world, which has sometimes been dismissed by scientists' quantitative methods. An Inuit attributes his health partly to the spiritual significance of the seal, for instance, while scientists have tended to "chuck the religious aspect out the window" and only acknowledge the biological value of seal in the diet, Hardt says. "Both sides can be right."
Familiarity with the climate and the animals helps students understand the literature and cultural traditions, says Kathleen Dana, the humanities professor at the center. At the end of each semester, instead of an exam for her course, students perform stories and rituals they've studied. "We have a Qaggiq - a 'party igloo,' " she says, referring to a tradition of the Inuit in the Canadian North. "They would have parties, big drum competitions, wrestling, riddling...."
Her students don't go so far as to build an igloo, but the most recent group retold a Tlingit tale (from natives of the Pacific Northwest) about how birds get their colors. "They knew stuff about the anatomy of the birds that could be transferred into the costumes," she says. "And the natural history teacher came in to teach us how to walk like chickadees and magpies," she adds with a laugh.
The center's main classroom was added to the house where students gather by the woodburning stove after chilly expeditions. Charts, maps, and photos cover the walls. Preserved animal skins and skulls perch on windowsills and shelves.
Young opens a metal cabinet and pulls out one of the many albums full of dried plants. The herbarium is not a research-level collection, but its 10,000 specimens come in handy. Upstairs, there's also a northern studies library that students and alumni rave about. It boasts some rare books and a wide range of specialized periodicals - everything from Inuit Studies to the Journal of Glaciology.
Most of the time, the great outdoors is the classroom. The winter ecology students take a 45-minute drive to Stowe's Mt. Mansfield to do a tree comparison at a high elevation.
While she has them near the ski resort, visiting professor Charlotte Clews Lawther also takes students up in the gondola for a mountainside lesson. Poking with poles to make sure they won't sink too deeply when they step, the lead walkers create a meandering path up the mountain.
At a clearing with a view near the top, Ms. Lawther passes around a package of Oreos and asks students what they would say if developers wanted to add another ski trail where they were standing. For every concern about the environment and the need to preserve animal habitat, she throws back a question about what kinds of studies they would need to prove their points.
For one, they'd need to look at whether similar developments have caused a crucial loss of habitat - which gives her the perfect chance to point out why inventories - like the tree counts they've been conducting - can be so crucial.
During this conversation, there's a faint smell of fire, and Hardt soon passes around a hot cup of natural mint tea. "You didn't start that fire with a stick, did you?" a classmate asks him. His answer is a casual nod.
Hardt says he'll probably teach wilderness living after he gets his degree. Others who have taken courses at the center have gone on to study alpine ecosystems, work at polar research centers, and teach at the University of Lapland in Finland. But even those who stick closer to home say the intensive learning environment fosters a lifelong curiosity.
"I hated the cold, and [winter ecology] opened up this whole beautiful world for me," says Laurel Kritkausky, who visited in the late-1990s as a Russian major at Middlebury College. (It helped that Young outfitted her in warm clothing, including mukluks.)
While she's earning a master's degree in sustainable development, she creates lesson plans with Vermont schools so students can do their own research on community issues and the environment.
Ms. Kritkausky especially enjoyed the unresolved scientific questions that would arise at the Center for Northern Studies, and the "deep theorizing which you all do together ... rather than the professor simply having the answer."
And to this day she does animal tracking. "There are so many skills that I'm still so excited about and that I share with other people. That depth of enthusiasm that education should engender in you - this was where I found that."