By Guy Spriggs
Since 1948, UK’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) has operated a geology field camp in the Rocky Mountains, giving students the opportunity to apply classroom learning in the real world. This summer, EES offered alumni the chance to return to the Rockies for a special reunion over the Fourth of July weekend.
Participants in the field camp talk about the trip as a life-changing and formative experience, and not surprisingly, alumni were interested and motivated by the prospect of revisiting memories and experiences in Colorado.
“More than anything else, it’s something students can look back on. It’s a thing that can bind different groups,” said EES professor Frank Ettensohn. “Whether they’re from the 1950s or the 2000s, it’s pretty much the same experience. We have more technology now, but we still do the same things.”
EES professor Bill Thomas, who first attended field camp as a student in the 50s, emphasizes the experience itself as transformative.
“It was a whole summer of tent camping in the Rocky Mountains, sleeping to the sounds of Cement Creek, climbing in the mountains every day, pursuing the intellectual stimulation of making a geologic map in the field, and enjoying the camaraderie of camp life. What is not to like?” Thomas said.
“Field camp was one of the most anticipated experiences among earth science students,” said Charles Holbrook, who earned his bachelor’s in 1962 and his master’s in 1964. “The anticipation grew as the time approached for the actual experience. The older geology students seemed to possess a certain aura from having ‘been to field camp.’”
Field camp participants are also happy to recall enlightening and amusing stories, many of them involving former professors, namely Arthur C McFarlan.
“He believed so strongly in the importance of field work that during summer field camps, McFarlan lived in a tent and climbed mountains with them in Colorado and other locations until past his mid-sixties,” Holbrook said. “He led by example explaining, illustrating and challenging all along the way.”
J Hunt Perkins, graduate in 1953 (bachelor’s) and 1955 (master’s), tells the story of eager students starting to climb a slope to identify a rock outcrop on a ridge, only for McFarlan to remind them that the outcrop could be identified from the huge boulder of that same rock on which he was sitting at the bottom of the mountain. “Lesson learned,” Perkins said, “think before you act!”
Perkins also recalls making the cross-country trip in University-owned station wagons, as well as trekking down from the top of Cement Mountain – elevation 11,000 feet – on horseback before a summer snow storm.
But the reunion was more than just an opportunity for alumni to get together and swap stories – it was also a demonstration of the unique unity, spirit and strength that have come to define the EES department and its graduates. Participants are quick to remind you that these qualities are an important part of the EES field camp experience.
“There isn’t always a lot of group effort in the classroom, but out there you have to map in groups,” Ettensohn said. “We emphasize cooperation and coordination because they’re going to work in groups at an oil company or anywhere else. We realize the importance of working together.”
“You had to share and support one another. It’s unique. I don’t know of another major that does anything like it. I don’t know any that has a requirement for you to go spend the summer together,” said 1977 graduate Wendell Overcash.
For the alumni of EES, experiences like those at UK’s field camp are a big part of the reason why they remain such an active and connected group – even decades after graduation.
“There wasn’t a cutthroat competition, it was social, it was collaborative, there was no pressure to do it yourself and exclude everybody else,” Overcash added. “So many alumni are just part of the group. You can almost always pick up the telephone and just call them, talk about personal or professional things.”
Holbrook similarly believes the EES experience at UK is defined by a sense of cooperation among students. “The EES department has historically been relatively small compared to other departments on campus and that, combined with the nature of the earth sciences, create an environment that promotes interaction,” he said.
“The EES department itself contributes significantly to this bonding by actively promoting alumni outreach and by establishing liaisons with various companies that hire earth scientists from the University of Kentucky because they like the training and preparation the students receive,” Holbrook continued.
Overcash suggests that collaboration is the nature of geology and that the major attracts people of a common personality, but he also believes that camaraderie has been forged over generations of EES majors because of common experiences.
“Once you get in it’s kind of an ordeal, and the field camp is a big part of that. There’s a sense of adventure. There’s a synergy in the department, and it feeds back on itself,” he said.
Whether it is being in a new environment, compelling students to collaborate or attracting like minds and personalities, EES has created an atmosphere of loyalty, support and togetherness. And as the major and the job market continue to change, alumni hope this spirit will be a part of EES at UK far into the future.
“All of these elements, individually and interactively, contribute to the culture of the department and the lasting relationships that develop among students who have shared academic experiences,” Holbrook said. “The field camp experience forms lasting bonds among students and leaves an indelible imprint upon the consciousness that lasts a life time.”