By Patrick Winderl
Editor's note: Cabin Fever is held each winter and consists of two sessions. This year, the first session was held Dec. 20-23, and the second will take place Monday through Friday.
In room 108 of Brockman Hall on Montana State University-Northern's campus, John Matta's class of 10 attentive pupils are hard at work. Using razor blades, gouges, chisels and other tools, the students hone their wood-carving skills by whittling a humanlike face out of chunks of cottonwood bark.
Step by step, Matta, who has carved wooden figurines as a hobby for decades, guides his class through the carving process. During an intense four-hour session, the students painstakingly transform nondescript pieces of wood into amusing caricatures of a bearded old wizard.
Matta's audience is a diverse one - men and women, young and not-so-young, experienced woodcarvers and beginners. They share a common trait, however. They are enjoying themselves. Matta is adamant that his students make safety their No. 1 priority, but having fun is a close second.
For the most part, his students closely follow his advice about how to make their carvings lifelike, but occasionally a student will take a little artistic license.
"This is a better one," Matta said, directing one student to use a different gouge to detail her wizard's facial features.
"Um, that's going to give him really big nostrils," she replies, opting to use her first selection.
Matta shrugs. He is not a college professor and his students are not graded on the outcome of their efforts. Instead, Matta, an MSU Extension agent based in Liberty County, has volunteered to teach the session as part of Cabin Fever, a series of workshops offering instruction in a broad variety of life skills and hobbies to the residents of north-central Montana.
The course offerings attract a wide array of students and instructors, who include college professors, Extension agents, business professionals and agricultural producers.
A number of the sessions serve as continuing education credits for professionals or count as credit toward earning a college degree, and others are simply intended to get people excited about a new hobby. The courses teach participants how to write grants, use various computer programs, weld, cook, manage a business, play horseshoes or prune bushes. Others include classes on self-defense, Pilates, insurance shopping and volleyball.
"I took a course last year on Web page design," said Fort Benton resident Bob Benjamin. "I put it to use. I have a couple Web pages that are active, and I have to maintain them."
This year Benjamin took a welding course to help him perfect skills he uses in his aircraft repair business.
"I was kind of looking for a little more instruction TIG welding," he said. "We went through it and it did help a bit."
During the TIG welding class, administered by local rancher and MSU-N professor Conrad Nystrom, students practiced making gas tungsten arc welds on steel and aluminum. The class had 14 participants and lasted two days.
Another session certified agricultural producers in pesticide application. Farmers and ranchers who need to use restricted-use insecticides, rodenticides and herbicides must accrue a certain number of credits every four years to keep their certification. A one-day course held Dec. 22 was attended by 10 people, said Hill County weed coordinator Terry Turner.
"Generally we get 10 to 15 new applicants each year," he said. "It's great getting new people trained."
Wood carving, welding and pesticide application are just three of the more than 50 courses offered by Cabin Fever this year. The event is organized each winter by the Hill County Extension Service and MSU-N's Extended University. The courses are open to anyone with a little extra time and a desire to learn, said Hill County Extension agent Jennifer Wells.
"There's a wide variety of classes out there, with something for everyone," she said. "It can be somebody looking to take up a hobby or develop a specific skill they want to perfect."
Held every winter for the last 11 years, the classes attract hundreds of participants. This year, more than 500 people have registered, Wells said, adding that the number might grow by the time the second session of Cabin Fever starts next week.
Scheduled to coincide with Christmas break, Cabin Fever is held exclusively on MSU-N's campus, taking advantage of the vacant classrooms and labs.
School may be out but the learning is far from over.
Cabin Fever has evolved from a handful of students participating in a couple of classes into a well-known winter institution that caters to the needs of many different people, Wells said.
"Originally when it started, it was just a welding class for agricultural producers, but it has really expanded. We do some things for youths, continuing education courses, and also for agricultural producers," she said.
Instructors come from as far away as Colorado, and some teach more than one workshop. Matta, for instance, held a composting class in addition to the carving workshop and will host an informative session on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.
Each year, the Extension Service and MSU-N poll Cabin Fever participants to see which classes they would be interested in attending the following year. The suggestions are taken to heart, said Sandy Jappe, who works at the Extended University.
"Each class we do each year is evaluated, and we ask participants about what classes they want to see held. We take calls and suggestions from people, and then we go about trying to find an instructor," she said.