Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat

Just a handful of classes are still open for enrollment this summer at Columbia College's High Sierra Institute, including nature photography with a National Geographic photographer.

This summer marks another season of success at the institute at the historic Baker Station. The camp is comprised of longhouse barracks and a community kitchen at the foot of Sonora Pass, 6,200 feet above sea level.

"The setting is wonderful - granite cliffs all around, giant trees and the river right there," said Tom Hofstra, natural resources and biology professor and co-coordinator of the institute.

The institute offers a variety of classes, from yoga to memoir writing, but focuses on the natural resources of the area.

"The access to the high country is the big thing," Hofstra said. "We can leave at 9 o'clock and be in the field a half hour later."

He noted that students get access to alpine and sub-alpine areas, rare to the state.

That means marmots and bald eagles "hang out" right across the river, Hofstra said. Students also study the geology and biology of hot springs on the eastern Sierra Nevada, about an hour's extra drive from the station.

Also, with no Internet or cell phone connections, students tend to engage more in the moment and with each other, he said.

The experience has had profound effects on some students.

"Coming out of high school, I didn't know what I wanted to do," said Erik Long, a former institute participant. "Then I had my first class at Baker Station and it changed my life."

Long recently graduated from Columbia College with degrees in environmental science and natural resources technology and will now attend Bethel College in Kansas to study environmental science.

"Instead of getting a book and reading about it, you get to get out and learn," he said.

Michelle Beutler, a student and now an aide to Hosftra, said the institute changed her life, too.

"I went from a middle-aged, overweight housewife to climbing the tallest mountains in the area," she said. "I think that it's a jewel and people should know more about it and use it."

Besides being a unique local opportunity, the station is a rarity among community colleges in the state.

"The UC system has a whole reserve system, where they own reserves that often have research stations. But in terms of community colleges, I can't think of any others that have something like (Baker Station)," Hofstra said.

Hofstra has co-coordinated with Modesto Junior College English professor Demitri Keriotis for about eight years to run the program at Baker Station.

For the complete story, see the July 21, 2014, edition of The Union Democrat.