Out of This World: the Minnesota Seaside Station

More than a century ago, a group of students traveled from the American Midwest to Canada’s Pacific Coast to study seaweeds. Botanical Beach has been a unique outdoor classroom ever since. 

Published January 25, 2016

It was the best location for the unlikeliest crew. In the summers from 1901 to 1907, students and instructors from the University of Minnesota (UMN) made their way, some 3,000 kilometers, by train, coastal steamship, and on foot over a muddy forest trail, to study the marine life on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. The site for the Minnesota Seaside Station was selected by Josephine Tilden, an instructor at the UMN, whose passion was phycology, the study of seaweeds. (She first traveled to the area in 1898 with her mother in tow, presumably as a chaperone, and secured the land for the station site.)

Despite the extreme logistical challenges of maintaining a small field station on a remote Canadian shore, from a biological standpoint Tilden couldn’t have chosen better: she’d discovered a phycologist’s nirvana. The extensive rock shelf of Botanical Beach, as the area is now known, was a perfect outdoor classroom and laboratory with a rich biodiversity of marine life, particularly algae and invertebrates, that was accessible on foot—whether wearing trousers or a long skirt—at mid- to low-tide.

For seven summers, about 25 students, faculty, and scientists, studied at the Minnesota Seaside Station, working out of three log buildings: the main Lessonia Lodge (named for a species of kelp) and two bunkhouses. To the disappointment of Tilden and her colleagues, the university chose not to assume management and funding of the station—its value seemed to elude them—and the last summer session was held in 1907.

Although recognized for years for its biological significance, Botanical Beach was not protected as a provincial park until 1989 and now is part of the larger Juan de Fuca Provincial Park.

The legacy of hands-on, outdoor learning has continued and the area has been used as a field site for biology students from Canada and the United States for decades. This video takes you to Botanical Beach with students and instructors from the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor lab’s “ZooBot” course. The university has used Botanical Beach as a field site for over 50 years.