by Drew Lefebvre
It’s early June in the northern Rockies. The days are long, the trees are in full leaf, and here at MNHC we have just finished up our spring field trip season. Over the past six weeks, our Visiting Naturalist in the Schools program has guided 67 classrooms on full-day, hands-on field trips to some of the best wild places western Montana has to offer. It’s no easy feat to provide field trips for 1700 fourth- and fifth-grade students. It requires the dedicated support of all our staff, plus four supremely competent seasonal hires, as well as dozens of hours from our faithful volunteers. Providing in-depth naturalist education is truly a community effort!
As our spring season comes to a close, I find myself reflecting not only on the lessons we have imparted to our students this year, but also on what the students themselves have provided for us. Time and again, I find myself blown away by these kids’ sensitivity, awareness, and attention to detail. Here are three of my favorite moments from this year’s field trip season.
It was a slow day at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. The morning air was chilly and a spring rainstorm seemed just around the corner. I doled out all the extra gloves and fleece jackets I could find, but the students were still uncomfortable. The wildlife, too, was feeling the chill. All the species I could usually count on seeing—quail, waterfowl, wrens, owls, even a resident porcupine—were holed up in cozy places, far from the curious eyes of fifth graders. The kids were restless and I struggled to focus them. Finally, I suggested we take a walk, so we’d at least stay a little bit warmer.
We set off down the path, keeping our eyes open for wildlife, and soon a wonderful thing happened. The students broke into groups of two and three and began observing their surroundings, unprompted. I kept silent, carefully eavesdropping as duos and trios began narrating for each other. A group of boys began earnestly discussing the probability of a snake sighting. Two girls speculated on the potentially gross eating habits of owls. Ahead of me, two others wrapped their arms around each other and strode ahead, giggling and trying to match strides as they considered which path to take.
I watched in amazement as a formerly cold, gray morning was transformed into a little oasis of outdoor friendships. And I reminded myself to never underestimate the power of sharing natural observations with a like-minded buddy.
I sat in the shade under a giant ponderosa pine, its long branches swooping down from a massive trunk to form a protective curtain. Nestled in my little fort, I sat quietly, gazing back along the path from where I’d come, waiting for my first student. Today I was leading an activity called the Solo Hike. My group of eight students was out of sight, near the beginning of the trail. Every two minutes, a chaperone released one student down the path, allowing them to walk at their own pace, enjoying a few rare minutes of solo hiking time during an otherwise busy field trip. Armed with only their nature journal and a few prompts I’d laid along the trail (How many shades of green do you see? and From where you are, can you hear the river?), each student was free to enjoy their solo time however they wanted. Sheltered in my ponderosa fort, I waited at the end of the trail to receive each student and hear how their hike had gone.
Or at least, that was the plan. I’d been waiting for a long time now, and there was still no sign of my first student. I checked my watch repeatedly, noting the minutes ticking by with increasing anxiety. At this rate, we’d never have time for all the students to finish before lunch. What was taking so long? Had they somehow gone off trail?
Finally, a twig snapped, and I looked up to see my first solo hiker arrive. She looked calm and happy, so I was careful not to show my slight annoyance at the long delay.
“How was your hike?” I asked her.
“It was nice. I wrote a poem.”
As she held up her nature journal, I realized what had taken so long. Two full pages of poetry occupied the space where most students simply jot down a few notes. This student had turned her solo hike into a writing workshop. The rest of the students arrived shortly, and she shyly shared a few lines of her poem. I reminded myself that going solo and walking slowly is the whole point of this activity. And of course we made it to lunch right on time.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day at Council Grove State Park. It would’ve been easy to think that the birds were putting on a show just for us. Already that morning we’d seen a cavity full of fuzzy Great Horned Owl babies, a nesting pair of Osprey transporting unwieldy sticks up to their giant nest, two male Calliope Hummingbirds dueling for territory, and a forest’s worth of Lewis’s Woodpeckers snatching insects from the air. Clutching binoculars and field guides, my fourth grade students tiptoed along the trail, captivated by the creatures around them.
Soon we stopped to investigate a piece of bright green wolf lichen. One girl wished out loud for a microscope to look at our specimen up close. I told her that we were all carrying secret microscopes, but it was up to the class to figure out how to use them. The students looked dubiously at their binoculars, fiddling with the focus knobs. After a minute, one girl shouted, “Whoa!” and proceeded to instruct her classmates how to turn their binoculars upside down, maneuver the lens so it was right on top of the lichen, and line it up for a zoomed-in, upside-down binocular-microscope. Soon, everyone was clustered around our wolf lichen, leaning in close for a detailed view of our newfound treasure, and feeling so proud of figuring out a new tool all by themselves.
As I reflect on this spring’s field trip season, I know that each year brings new students, new lessons, new adventures, and new relationships. I can’t wait to see what next year has in store. But until then, I’m looking forward to a nice, long summer!