Meet me at Camp Davis

 Oh joy! Another day to excel

"Oh Joy" sign at the Camp Davis Mess Hall.

This cheerful message greets campers at the Camp Davis Mess Hall. (Image: Dale Austin.)

At 6,113 feet above sea level, the morning air is crisp at Camp Davis. Early risers rely on the August sun, not yet visible above the mountains, to light their path to the mess hall. A bald eagle’s screech echoes across Wyoming’s Hoback River Valley; the only other sound is the occasional rumble of a car on Highway 191. Eventually, the sun appears, gilding the camp buildings in a warm sheen. At the mess hall, hot coffee and a cheerful message set the tone for today’s campers:  “Oh Joy! Another Day to Excel.”

Those days to excel have been happening since 1929 at Camp Davis Rocky Mountain Field Station, operated by U-M’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Located within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and nearby Grand Teton National Park, the camp opened in 1929. The scenic outdoor “classroom” offers myriad types of soil and plants, as well as alpine ecosystems and other natural features to observe and study.

Camp Davis cabins (Image: Jeff Burtka)

Camp Davis cabins — and a familiar flag or two. (Image: Jeff Burtka)

“It was just an incredibly eye-opening experience,” says John Geissman, BS ’73/MS ’76/ PhD ’80, of his original visit to Camp Davis in 1973. The memorable undergrad excursion marked the first time he had been west of the Mississippi. “To me, it represents a huge aspect of my life in the sense that I had the opportunity to interact with so many wonderful, intelligent, enthusiastic, fun-loving, and nature-loving individuals,” he says.

Geissman, a visiting professor of earth and environmental sciences, was one of several Camp Davis alumni who gathered in Wyoming this summer. Former campers celebrated the facility’s 90th anniversary, unveiled a new recreation hall, and dedicated fresh cabins (complete with heat and bathrooms). They attended geology lectures, hiked the mountains, and visited Grand Teton National Park. The alumni also enjoyed stargazing (with high-powered telescopes), whitewater rafting, and bonding around the campfire.

“It’s an ideal setting, and I think U-M should feel very fortunate to have it,” says Geissman.

He has returned to teach at Camp Davis every summer but one since 1974, beginning as a teaching assistant and evolving into an adjunct professor. In recognition of his commitment to the camp and the University, alumni and students affectionately but unofficially have dubbed the new recreation space “Geissman Hall.”

Field trips

Battle Mountain Hike (Image: Alison Torres Burtka.)

Camp Davis alumni hike Battle Mountain. (Image: Alison Torres Burtka.)

Camp alumna Cindy French, BS ’78, retired from Chevron Phillips Chemical in 2014. She started her career as a petroleum geologist. French still cherishes memories of the field trips she took in 1978. The reunion allowed her to revisit some of her favorites, including the Gros Ventre Slide. Her husband was able to join her this time.

“It reminded me of how fascinated I was by the impact of geological processes on people,” she says.

That impact is what makes Camp Davis so valuable to the University, says Kyger Lohmann, professor of earth and environmental sciences. He taught there from 1981-96.

“You can teach a tremendous amount in a classroom, but one cannot create the visual connection between what I would call the ‘concepts of geology’ and the ‘reality of geology,’ which would be the sediments, the rocks, the structures, the real world,” he says.

Studying the earth sciences in “the real world” had a transformative effect on English major Heather Foote, BA ’89. Before attending Camp Davis in 1986, she had mixed feelings about her science courses.

Block M at Camp Davis (Image: Jeff Burtka.)

Mail call at Camp Davis. (Image: Jeff Burtka.)

“Being able to experience geology firsthand — to see the differences and touch things — had a profound impact on me,” Foote says. She is now director of strategy at Northwestern Medicine in Lake Forest, Ill. “[I discovered] that I learned best by experience.”

The real-world location is just one feature that inspires such revelations, says Nathan Niemi, professor of earth and environmental sciences and camp director. The instructor-to-student ratio can be as small as one-to-six, he says. “It’s probably one of the most intimate teaching experiences the students have. They will get to know these faculty better than probably any other faculty they’ll ever meet, unless they do research with somebody on campus.”

Fields of dreams

Camp Davis alumni hike river. (Image: Jeff Burtka.)

Camp Davis alumni never stop learning. (Image: Jeff Burtka.)

Like Foote, many Camp Davis alumni who did not pursue a career in the earth sciences say they still hark back to lessons learned in the field.

Finance executive Karr McCurdy, BS ’81, who attended Camp Davis in 1977, started his career as a geologist. Today he is a partner at Denver-based Rock Elm Capital Management.

“The geological sciences background was very relevant and germane to what I did in finance because I knew how to evaluate technical fundamentals of a project, which is typically where things are missed in an unsuccessful project.”

He says the recent upgrades to the camp – from wi-fi to washing machines – give students a competitive advantage he wishes his class enjoyed.

Camp Davis alumni check the hiking map. (Image: Jeff Burtka.)

John Geissman leads campers on a hike. (Image: Jeff Burtka.)

“The changes will help students focus more on what they’re learning in the earth sciences. They now have better access to technology and information while conducting fieldwork than we certainly had back in the day!”

But it’s not just the facilities that have changed over the years, says Geissman. During his nearly five decades teaching at Camp Davis, he has watched the landscape transform, observing “forests of trees that are fully standing yet completely dead, waiting to ignite.” The reunion featured a few heated, but friendly, debates about climate change, he says.

“In that part of the world, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that something horrendous is going on. The challenges are immense, and we can do it, but we have to agree to do it.”

Foote concurs. “My hope is that through continued outreach, education, and long-term programs such as Earth Camp [the department’s summer program for high school students], we continue to create enough problem solvers who hold the long view and can guide us to solutions that will make a positive impact on taking care of the earth.”

Bright stars

Cream Puff Peak book (Image: Heather Foote.)

Hikers who make it up Cream Puff Peak leave messages to inspire one another. (Image: Heather Foote.)

Foote says she was thrilled her parents, brother, and two young sons could attend the reunion so she could pass her love of Camp Davis on to them. In August, she accomplished a personal goal of climbing the deceptively named Cream Puff Peak (elevation 9,665 ft.). She hiked it with another alumna and her son, as well as the sons of another alumnus.

“That trip up Cream Puff encapsulates what is so special about Camp Davis,” Foote says. “By itself, without the people, it’s a bunch of cabins. But Camp Davis is really about the people, the learning, the camaraderie, and the understanding that when we put each of our talents together, we are able to accomplish what wasn’t before possible.”

Perhaps one of the most luxurious accomplishments, most campers agree, is the improved dining experience. Few remember the food tasting so good when they were students. (Geissman says the staff cooks this well for the students, too, and he values their work so much he wants to join the cooking staff one day.)

As the campfire dwindles, the night sky comes to life with thousands of stars. Children of the alumni run freely in the dark, detectable only by their laughter, voices, and streaking shadows. Some campers return to their cabins, but others linger and stare into the colossal Milky Way blanketing the Hoback River Valley. It’s as if they are pondering their existence on earth, just as the first Camp Davis students did 90 years before.

(Top image credit: Dale Austin.)


  1. Aaron Niehoff - 2000

    Absolutely love Camp Davis and the entire experience. I think we had a record number of students that year. I want to come back to visit.


  2. Rosemary Mullin - BS Math 1971 MS Geology 1974

    Article really captures the experience of Camp Davis, past and present. We all visited so many of the mapping areas. Good to get out and see ROCKS again. We all represented many different years of camp. The outcrops and vistas bridged the years into a shared experience and helped us connect with students from different eras. I wished more of the professors had attended. The nightly lectures were wonderful and the discussions heated. So good to be around intellectually questioning people. Hugh thanks go to all of the organizers. It was like herding cats to get us to all of the different places, but the added experiences and memories made it all worthwhile.


  3. Kenneth Hoedeman - 1963

    Civil Engineers used to go to Camp Davis in the summer for route survey and geology classes. I fondly remember the Saturday trips to Jackson Hole to do our laundry and have a beer.


  4. Robert Gerometta - 1968 Architecture @ U of M

    I will be in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone next August with my grandson. Can we visit
    Camp Davis ? I am not a camp alumni.
    Sounds beautiful !!


  5. Ronna Simon - B.S. Geology 1981

    Having lived in Jackson for quite a while now (retired Forest Hydrologist for the Bridger-Teton National Forest), it was nice to come back to Camp Davis for one of the evening lectures this year. I was there for Field Camp in 1980, when the cabins were decidedly more rustic. We women took over the men’s showers one night because the water heater in the women’s shower house didn’t provide much hot water, and one of the guys stood guard for us. We were very grateful. A shout out to John Geissman, too: I spun rocks in the “Paleomagic Lab” for his dissertation.


  6. Lisa Smith - 1977 BS Microbiology

    Camp Davis is, indeed, a game changer for students. We support a grant scholarship to send students of need to attend and pursue their love of earth sciences. Please see link if interested.!/give/basket/fund/700734
    Andrew Joseph Biebuyck, Drew for short, graduated from the University of Michigan in 2013 with a degree in geology. Drew discovered his passion for geology as an undergraduate at the University, and he was working as a geologist when he died in a tragic rock climbing accident in Colorado in December of 2017. Drew loved being out in the field studying rocks and learning about the earth. He fondly remembered his time at Camp Davis, which was his first opportunity to conduct fieldwork for an extended period of time. This scholarship was established by Drew’s family and friends. Drew was an incredible person and a light in our lives. Nothing takes away the pain of losing him so young, but it will bring us some comfort to know that every year more students are able to discover the joy of geological fieldwork at Camp Davis because of him.


    • Deborah Holdship

      That’s a beautiful story, Lisa. I’m so sorry for your loss. What a wonderful way to remember Drew and help others. (Ed.)


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