shortcut to content
Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato


Page address:

PHIL 450/550: Special Topics
Environmental Philosophy
Summer I  2006
Prof. Craig Matarrese

Course Description:

This course focuses on the idea of wilderness and includes a one week wilderness paddling trip in the Boundary Waters & Quetico Wilderness area on the border between Minnesota & Canada.  This wilderness area is a vast system of lakes, unparalleled in beauty and abundant wildlife (bald eagles, moose, deer, bear, wolves, etc.), and perhaps the very best canoe country in the world. 

The idea of “wilderness” is more complex and subject to contestation than one might at first suppose.  The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines “wilderness” as an area where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” but of course, if we take a broad view of what it means to be “untrammeled,” then perhaps no place on the planet is really a wilderness, i.e., humans have affected the global climate and distributed pollutants throughout.  But even if “wilderness” is just a construct, it is nonetheless one that has shaped our understanding of who we are, and one that helps us articulate public policies aimed at conservation and preservation.

The romantic conception of wilderness that we find in Henry David Thoreau, John James Audubon, and John Muir (among others) suggests that wilderness is necessary for our self-development, as a natural catharsis to balance out our all-too-unnatural modern lives.  This is an idea that we’ll consider closely in the course, i.e., the claim that wilderness offers us the sublime, a unique aesthetic experience, a glimpse of truth, an entryway into a deeper ethical relationship with nature. 

Students will do a fair amount of reading before the paddling trip, from an anthology, The Great New Wilderness Debate: An Expansive Collection of Writings Defining Wilderness from John Muir to Gary Snyder (University of Georgia Press, 1998) plus a book by Sigurd Olsen, Reflections on the North Country (University of Minnesota Press, 1998).  Throughout the paddling trip itself, there will be plenty of time for philosophical discussion, plus writing in journals, which students will be required to keep and turn in later.  After returning from the wilderness, students will also write term papers that consider both the philosophical claims about wilderness that they have become familiar with plus their individual experience of the wilderness.  One issue we will all be thinking about is the validity (or invalidity) of the romantic conception of the wilderness that we find in Thoreau, Muir, and others, and students’ journals will become a record of personal thoughts and reflections on the matter.

Over the past few decades, there has been a great deal of research and writing on the benefits, advantages, and effectiveness of the outdoor educational experience, and such studies have overwhelmingly confirmed the claim that these experiences have substantial intellectual, physical, social, and emotional impacts on students.  In this course, the methodology and substance of the course intertwine perfectly:  students will be reading philosophy about the experience of wilderness as they themselves are having that experience. 

Registration Information:

The course is offered through Extended Campus at Minnesota State, Mankato, for Summer Session I (May 22nd to June 23rd), and the paddling trip itself is from June 3rd to June 10th.  Term papers are due by the end of the session (June 23rd).  It is a 3-credit course listed as PHIL 450 or PHIL 550 (graduate students should register for PHIL 550).  The course is limited to only 8 students, because Quetico Provincial Park places restrictions on group size entering the backcountry.  Instructor’s permission is required to register for the course.  If demand warrants, I will have a waiting list for the course.


The fee for this course will be roughly $500 plus tuition.  This includes transportation to and from Boundary Waters-Quetico, bunkhouse accommodations with the outfitters the night before we depart, canoe & equipment rental, food for the entire trip, round-trip tow service to the Canadian border, and overnight camping permits.  Participants are responsible for their own food on travel days to and from Boundary Waters-Quetico.

Note:  it is possible that I can lower the fee somewhat if it turns out that a number of participants have gear of their own that they are interested in bringing along.  In that case, we can decrease our reliance on the outfitters. 

Health & Safety Policy:

As a true wilderness, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area & Quetico Provincial Park pose certain health and safety risks.  Although we will make measured and prudent judgments about the weather, bears and such, there are still unavoidable risks that are simply part of living in the wilderness.  Everyone can expect sore muscles from paddling, the occasional scrape or bruise from portaging, etc.  The most serious injury I’ve ever experienced on these trips is a sprained ankle, but since we’ll be making use of knives, propane stoves, campfires, and an ax, there are risks for more serious injury.

This course is intended for fit, active people with no infirmities, medical problems or conditions requiring special medical care.  Although I am a trained outdoor educator and expedition leader with knowledge of first aid (trained at the National Outdoor Leadership School and the Wilderness Medicine Institute), I am not a doctor, and in the event of a serious medical crisis, the best we can do paddle out, which may take up to two days, to seek medical attention.  It is essential that persons with medical problems inform the instructor of these so that risk of participation can be assessed.  In addition, all participants will be required to sign a liability release form. 

Who Should Participate?

Although most students who are involved with wilderness experiential courses like this one report that they are profoundly moved in positive ways & would take such a course again, recommend them to friends, etc., these sorts of experiences are not for everyone. 

The course is open to undergraduates and graduates of any major, traditional and non-traditional students, those with extensive wilderness paddling experience, as well as those who have no wilderness experience at all.  You should be interested in both the wilderness experiences plus the intellectual and philosophical experience this course offers.  You must also be willing to share collective living arrangements. 

In the Boundary Waters & Quetico, the weather may either be sunny, warm, and delightful or it may include persistent thunderstorms and uncomfortably hot, cold, or windy weather.  Other hardships include portaging (carrying a canoe on your shoulders over rough terrain), mosquitoes, and paddling against the wind for hours.  The significant level of physical exertion required for both canoeing and portaging on travel days, plus the trying (for some) experience of having no access to toilets & indoor plumbing, should be kept in mind.

That said, thousands of people every year in this wilderness area overcome these hardships and have a wonderful time, enjoying the serenity, beauty, and contemplative interaction with the true wilderness. If you are unwilling or unable to confront wilderness hardships, you shouldn’t be participating in this course;  if you are open to the challenge of a true wilderness journey, however, and to the idea that such an experience can be a personal and intellectual journey as well, then you should inquire further about joining the course.

For More Information:

  Dr. Craig Matarrese