Connecting Students with Nature—and with Each Other

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By Joe Wilensky

Rappelling off the top of Schoellkopf Crescent—or ziplining from a replica of McGraw Tower. Kayaking and canoeing on Beebe Lake.

Rock climbing, skiing, and mountain biking amidst the dramatic topography of the Adirondacks and Catskills. Hiking in Nepal and exploring the tops of giant sequoias in California and baobabs in Madagascar.

These are just a few of the many outdoor adventures, training courses, PE classes, and other opportunities that Cornell Outdoor Education (COE) has been offering Cornellians for a half century—helping them cultivate new skills, become leaders, and forge connections to nature and to each other.

COE students participate in an outdoor top roping rock-climbing class in 2019
A 2019 rock-climbing class at Minnewaska State Park in Ulster County, NY. (COE)

In the decades since its first outing debuted in 1972, COE has grown to become the largest operation of its kind at any university in the country—if not the world. Each year, more than 6,000 students take part in its numerous and varied offerings.

“The outdoor and leadership skills I built at COE provided the foundation for everything I’ve done since,” observes former natural resources major Lindsay Watkins ’05, who served as a student instructor in climbing, hiking, snowshoeing, and more—then went on to a career in environmental education and forestry.

“But most importantly, COE was a place where I felt like I belonged, where I found lifelong friends, and where I learned to be my authentic self.”

COE traces its roots to a program called Wilderness Reflections.

Conceived as a pre-orientation experience for first-years and transfer students, it was co-created by David Moriah ’72, BS ’73 (who had previously gone on trips with the outdoor education nonprofit Outward Bound) in summer 1972.

David Moriah ’72 during a high rappel event in Ithaca's Lick Brook Gorge around 1980
Co-founder David Moriah in Ithaca’s Lick Brook Gorge around 1980. (COE)

Wilderness Reflections—which took newly matriculating Cornellians on backpacking, bike touring, and canoeing trips—became entirely student-led by 1975, with recent graduate Moriah serving as its informal leader and mentor.

He coined its cheeky (unofficial) motto: “I would found an oasis of madness in a pompous academic institution that takes itself far too seriously.”

At the time, Moriah was also working in the University’s physical education (PE) department, crafting the first iteration of its outdoor ed program. Wilderness Reflections began co-sponsoring courses with PE—from rock and ice climbing to back-country first aid—to create a pipeline for future student leaders of classes and excursions.

This multitude of offerings (which also helped students fulfill Cornell’s PE requirement) soon outstripped Wilderness Reflections itself; the program was formally named Cornell Outdoor Education in 1985.

Today, some 200 people participate in COE’s annual pre-Orientation trips, now called Outdoor Odyssey. Still student led, they include backpacking in the Finger Lakes and Catskills and canoeing in the Adirondacks.

Hundreds more choose from the about 70 PE courses offered each semester through COE—comprising about a fifth of those available in the department—from biking and paddling to caving, yoga, snowshoeing, circus arts, trail running, and more.

COE continues to run the Lindseth Climbing Center (which expanded in 2016 and now encompasses 8,000 square feet of bouldering and climbing, including an adaptive program) and manages an outfitting operation that rents gear to members of the Cornell community.

“Students can go out for a hike, a cross-country ski, or a paddle, and suddenly they’re de-stressing, taking care of themselves through physical activity, and taking care of their mental and emotional wellness,” says co-director Karel Hilversum. “It also helps them be their best in the classroom, so they can succeed academically.”

Canoeing on Beebe Lake, a popular Reunion Weekend activity, is run by COE
Canoeing on Beebe Lake during Reunion Weekend. (Ryan Young/Cornell University)

COE’s Hoffman Challenge Course, located in the woods a few miles from campus, features high and low ropes courses, giant swings, and even a 64-foot-tall replica of McGraw Tower (sans pumpkin) with rappelling stations.

Each year, it’s used by about 5,000 people for teambuilding exercises and leadership excursions—drawing groups ranging from dining hall staffers to athletic teams.

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COE also operates canoeing, ziplining, and rappelling sessions during Reunion, Cornell Days, and other events; hosts a hugely popular annual used gear sale; and runs the Cornell Tree Climbing Institute, the largest training program for canopy researchers (including ornithologists and primatologists) in the country.

COE was a place where I felt like I belonged, where I found lifelong friends, and where I learned to be my authentic self.

Lindsay Watkins ’05

In the wider Ithaca community, COE students, staff, and volunteers have tackled trail maintenance and repair and other service projects. COE also manages the Gorge Stewards Program, whose employees educate residents and visitors about safe practices in Ithaca’s natural areas.

COE offers a wilderness medicine certification program with Weill Cornell Medicine and has partnered with other University groups to extend its reach globally.

Its Tree Climbing Institute has conducted canopy research atop baobabs in Madagascar and old-growth giant sequoias in California, and winter trip participants have hiked mountainous trails in Nepal.

Into the Wild

Taken all together, its leaders say, COE’s expanse and diversity of offerings makes it the most comprehensive program of its kind.

“From the beginning, it was about education, leadership, and character development,” Moriah observes.

“It was in the ethos of the program. We were doing more than just going outside and playing in the woods. We were really creating a different kind of educational experience at Cornell—one that was experiential.”

The Barton Hall high ropes course
The Barton Hall high ropes course. (Sreang Hok/Cornell University)

Eric Przybyszewski ’11 got involved in COE his freshman year, learning wilderness survival, backpacking, and trail running, and eventually training other COE staffers. Now a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, he says COE taught him lifelong lessons.

“When students experience outdoor adventure, they learn about themselves and their environment,” he says, “and they see more beauty in the world.”

Only about 4 percent of COE’s budget comes from the University, and most courses are fee-based; the rest of its support comes through gifts, several endowments, and revenue from its other programs.

When students experience outdoor adventure, they learn about themselves—and they see more beauty in the world.

Eric Przybyszewski ’11

Among COE’s current goals is to increase access, says Hilversum—“to be sure that any Cornellian, regardless of their financial situation, can participate in the Cornell Outdoor Education experience.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted instruction on the Hill, COE found itself uniquely suited to resuming in-person classes: many of its offerings were already held outdoors and inherently socially distanced. It also found its services much in demand: the community was looking for ways to de-stress, focus on mental wellness—and be together.

“Our whole lives here had been centered around the notion of convincing people to be outside,” recalls co-director Mark Holton, PhD ’99. “And during the pandemic, suddenly they showed up in great numbers.”

COE co-director Mark Holton climbs an old-growth giant sequoia in UC Berkeley’s research property in Whitaker Forest
Co-director Mark Holton climbs a giant sequoia in California’s Whitaker Forest in 2010. (COE)

Early in the pandemic, COE began offering online programming, such as self-guided hiking and trail running classes; hundreds of people enrolled. And while some virtual courses are still offered in the summer, they are not options during the semesters—with the organization’s core aims in mind.

“A real value here is managing people’s stresses,” Holton notes. “And part of that is meeting other people—sharing laughter and friendship as they’re building that connection to the outdoors.”

Top: Sreang Hok/Cornell University.

Published December 16, 2022

Did you have adventures with COE?


  1. Jake, Class of 2014

    COE was foundational to my experience at Cornell. I am so grateful for the community and opportunities that it provided me as a student instructor which will forever play a part in how I collaborate with and care for others.

    I can’t wait to connect with everyone at the 50th Year Reunion in 2023!

  2. Lauren Hefferon, Class of 1983

    As a freshman in 1979, one of the first things I signed on to do was to become a bicycle touring instructor with Wilderness Reflection. It immediately immersed me an active tribe of fun new friends and adventures while allowing me to share my passion for cycling with students. It was absolutely one of my most positive experiences while at Cornell. It made such an impact on my life that I decided soon after graduating to dedicate my life to outdoor education in the form of starting my own bicycle touring company. I have remained close with many WR folk as well as joined the COE board and am amazed to see how the program has evolved, diversified, grown and for its life changing impact on so many

    • Frank Fico, Class of 1985

      As one of your incoming freshman Finger Lakes bike touring students in August of 1981, I can say that the Wilderness Reflections program was one of my best experiences at Cornell. I also took flat water and whitewater canoeing for PE freshman year, and ended up co-teaching the whitewater course my senior year. It was a life-changing experience for me.

  3. Pep Charusanti, Class of 1998

    I took backpacking, caving, and rock climbing courses through COE and remember every minute of it. I grew up in the city, so these courses were my first taste of outdoor adventure, and I’ve continued to enjoy the outdoors ever since. COE is a wonderful, wonderful program. Big applause to everybody involved in making what it is.

  4. Alan Wachs, Class of 1981

    In 1977, I began my freshman year backpacking with Wilderness Reflections on Vermont’s Long Trail. Later, I went on COE outings in the Finger Lakes and Adirondacks regions. I took a PE course on downhill skiing at Greek Peak.

    These adventures were my most memorable experiences at Cornell.

  5. Paul West, Class of 1986

    A fifty-year anniversary? That’s a reunion I don’t want to miss! The opportunities to organize and lead WR and PE trips led to a career in education and taught me to cook. Cornell was a big place, but the Oasis of Madness nurtured personal connections and practical lessons. The people and program were the highlight of my college experience and have had a huge impact on my life. When seniors at my high school tell me they’re going to Cornell, I shamelessly plug the orientation trips and COE.

  6. David Talamo, Class of 1985

    Fantastic to read this and even see some familiar names! I echo the above comments and I’m so glad to see they have continued across the decades: COE and the surrounding community were the highlight of my Cornell years and helped launch me into the career that continues today. My experiences there fed and inspired much of my work and who I am. And when my work went in a particular direction and the match was too ideal to ignore, I even received the further blessing of getting to share program names (Wilderness Reflections). I would love to be there for a 50th reunion 🙂

  7. Cynthia Kubas, Class of 1978

    I will always have fond memories of my Wilderness Reflections experience in the fall of 1974. We backpacked in the Adirondacks for 10 days. Janet, Caren, Roberta, me, what a crew! My BFFs throughout freshman year and beyond.

  8. Joelle Jach, Class of 2013

    I was a late-to-the-game COE lover, becoming an instructor in my junior year. I took and taught several backpacking classes, and I am so thankful for my all-too-brief time with the program. I hope to see COE continue to grow and change lives for years to come!

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