After lunch we continued work on our snow tunnels and were able to actually connect several of the tunnels together right at the end of the day!
Winter Break Camp started out great with many veteran campers from previous camps this year and even some kids who have been coming for years!
Right away we geared up for cold, snowy fun as we have gotten a ton of snow at the Mountain Park this year. A quick snowshoe demo and we were off on a snowshoeing adventure in search of a great sledding hill.
Along the way we tossed a few snowballs and had a lot of laughs and even a few snowshoe humorous complications as it was some of these kids first time in, as one camper put it, "these fascinating contraptions."
We made our way to the meadow and made a huge maze of tracks to play tag and had snowball fights and built snow-crust castles that resembled Stonehenge.
Later we began a task that will take us all week to complete doing a little each day . . . carving out ice tunnels in the big mounds of hardened frozen snow piled up by the snowplows in the park over the last few weeks. We hope to connect all the tunnels and be able to slide down through them!
The Mountain Park has been receiving a lot of snow lately and the kids absolutely love it. Although there are a few days where the schools will opt out of participating in the days session due to weather conditions, most schools and classes do not stop when we get a good snow.
If the snow is deep enough the students don snow-boots and it's class as usual . . . although it's quite a different day from one spent indoors sitting at a desk. These students hike through out the snowy forests and get all of their days worth of educational standards by using the various aspects of nature as teaching opportunities.
One of the focuses for this month is the biology and identification of the trees in the Mountain Park. There are six prominent types of coniferous trees in the park, two Junipers, two Pines and two Fir. Although there are many differences between the different trees, the students are taught to focus on a few easy to discern traits such as the type of leaf (needles or scales) and their arrangement.
For example, the Douglas Fir [left] has very green needles that grow from the branch in all directions (like the spokes on Douglas' bicycle wheel!) . .
while the White Fir [right] has slightly bluish-green needles which are almost twice as long and typically grow from the sides of the branch and curve upwards.
It's also a great opportunity to begin to prepare them for next sessions focus which is on Mammals and Tracking by pointing out the occasional signs and quite frequent tracks of the various animals which make the Mountain Park their habitat.
Often we find the tracks of mule deer and fox and at times we have even come across tracks of wild cats such as the bobcat that we saw and got photographs and even a little video of last year. Of course various animal scat, especially from the many deer that visit the park, is quite prevalent and provides not only some frequent laughter from the students but also a lot of opportunities to segue into many on-topic conversations.
We also find signs of squirrel activity; the ponderosa branch tips on the ground around the drip-line of the trees, some of which have been stripped of their needles and bark due to the squirrels eating the sugary inner bark.
~Ranger David "Pine" Martin
Mountain Park Environmental Center
The hike into Devil's Canyon was magnificent and the water flowing under the ice was moving in dark and mysterious blob-like forms which completely captured the kids attention and brought up conversation about how it was like the blood stream of our bodies. Their personification of it was a great segue to speak to the importance of water on the planet as well as in such a dry state as Colorado. It was a great day out and the kids had a blast!
It was a pretty cold week for Earth Studies students, but we managed to find some sunny places to sit and learn about Trees and Wildland Fires. In the tree portion of the day these kids learn how trees grow and the different parts of the trees anatomy as well as learning to identify the various trees in the Mountain Park. They also learn how to age the Ponderosa Pines of the park (without cutting them down and counting the rings).
In the fire portion of the day these students are taught about the Mason Gulch fire which came within 4 -1/2 miles of the Mountain Park. Most students found forest fires to be much larger and more destructive than they had previously imagined them to be.
Tree I.D. combines a scavenger hunt element with the mystery of figuring out which of the six coniferous trees in the park is which. Students use a dichotomous key designed for the trees found in the Mountain Park; by examining the trees closely to answer the series of questions on the key they eventually arrive at the answer.
After doing about nine trees these kids could identify some trees just by looking at them at a relative distance.
This session goes a long way toward educating these kids about how nature works and how to better steward their park and other wild areas of Colorado. Their minds are opened up to new possibilities such as the idea that wildland fires are not good or bad, but just a natural and necessary part of the health of the ecosystems they have been studying.
“A child said What is the grass?
fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child?”
I was reminded of these lines from Walt Whitman’s poem Leaves of Grass yesterday when a student asked me a question during our Earth Studies session.
We were sitting in a circle amongst the Ponerosa Pines examining the soil created by that ecosystem; discussing the minerals, water, air and organic matter to be found in the samples each child had taken. We discussed the ways in which the forest of the past contributed a great deal to the rich, nutritive biotic content of the soil from which the forest of the present receives it's nutrients and water from.
A child held up something he had found in his small sample of soil. “What is this?” he asked. It was one of the small, orange, male pine cones.
I explained what it was, but this answer only served to generate more questions. One was, why are the female cones so much bigger than the male cones?” I explained that the female cone is an ovulate cone and has a big job; it must build a home for, create the seeds which carry all the genetic coding for the Pine tree to reproduce, and must house those seeds until they are dispersed which may take several years.
Often I am asked questions by students during Earth Studies programs to which I would love to answer in great depth and illuminate them at length to the amazing and elegant complexity of the living systems of the world around them. I would have loved to go into how wind tunnel analyses of the female cones have shown that the geometry of the cone’s structure itself aerodynamically enhances the probability of pollen entrapment.
A part of me, akin to Whitman, would love to ruminate on each question, take them deep, ponder and mull over the nuances and connections and through this generate a greater sense of meaning within myself and these children, imbue their worldview with a deep beauty. With the day’s time constraints and the short attention span of the Fifth Graders however, it is best to keep the answers brief and as “on-topic” or applicable to the session’s lesson as possible. Bring it back around. Show interconnectedness.
I woke up this morning with some deeper thoughts on this subject. What we do as Environmental Educators is a lot of seed planting; we know that not all seeds will take root, so we plant a lot. It occurred to me however, that not only are we planting seeds, but we are enriching the soil those seeds are planted in and that this, like the relationship between the soil and the trees in this ecosystem, will perpetuate itself. Environmental Educators not only teach the elements of the session at hand, but as adult members of their community and education system, we teach many other things by example. We show them our love of Nature and how to responsibly interact with our environment and each other. Earth Studies Co-Program Director John Duston once told me "We teach values." and I would have to agree with him wholeheartedly. Much of what we teach is through exhibiting our values by our behavior. We teach them that we value nature and value learning by fostering an outdoor classroom culture of cooperation, mutual respect, patience and enthusiasm. As we educate these young people our hopes are that it elevates the level of education, the sense of place and the values of our community and society at large as it grows and matures. Our intention is that each of these kids grows up strong, healthy, intelligent and happy.
Society is the soil from which our children grow; our children will become the society of the future and they will in turn become the soil from which their children grow.
The second day of this year’s June Wonders of Nature Camp was a special day as the campers had the opportunity to participate in the Peace Pole dedication ceremony!
The Peace Pole is a pole carved with the word Peace on all sides in different languages (even animal tracks!) and was placed near the lodge. Dave Van Manen played “I’ve got Peace Like a River” on his guitar and many joined in to sing along. Helene Van Manen brought out the drums and led the group in a drumming and singing celebration.
A time capsule was placed underneath it and the campers all had an opportunity to place an object or a wish or a picture having to do with peace inside the time capsule along with items and sentiments from other staff members and members of the local community.
As several campers reported that they had been pretty tired from the hike the day before and so we focused mainly on games, hiking from one area a short ways to the next game spot and then again to another and so on. The games were great ways for the kids to be physically active, have fun, get to know each other better as well as stimulating the mind with a bit of mystery and guessing.
This was a great second day which kept the hiking to short stints between gaming areas and resulted in a much closer bond between the campers as they had more relaxed fun together laughing and playing together. There were a few bumps and scrapes now and then, but it was taken in stride as part of the fun outdoors.
Wonders of Nature Camp got off to a great start this year as we clearly defined the group goals and group ethics and expectations we would be looking to fulfill and create together. Many of the children had great input about their expectations of the fun and discovery they wanted to experience. Some wanted to make new friends, some were all about the games and others were very interested in exploring the natural world of the Pueblo Mountain Park. Although the week went fast, we ended up doing all these things!
Monday began with a hike up to Lookout Point to see the view of the foothills to the South West as well as to experience the depths of Devils Canyon from above. This was a pretty challenging first hike for some of the little campers, but they did well. This hike up Mace Trail passes through some pretty hot and dry Mountain Shrub Land Ecosystems and so hydration was important and we all encouraged one another to drink plenty of good, clean water. We also kept an eye on each other for signs of heat exhaustion as well as reminding the group to reapply sunscreen. We saw some Claret Cup cactus blooming as well as many other wildflowers along the way, and as usual the bugs and butterflies and hummingbirds were very busy.
Wednesday we focused on the Devils Canyon trail making our way through the shady Douglas Fir Ecosystems. We contrasted this ecosystem with the one we experienced the day before and discussed the differences in the flora and fauna of each.
We took our time to take in the details and this led to many interesting discoveries. Right off the bat we began to notice different vegetation and spotted some large fungi growing on old dead logs. The treasure here was the friendly blue and purple (with black-polka-dots!) Pleasing Fungus Beetles.
They also fly around a lot and have a proclivity for landing on our shirts and hats and crawling around peacefully. Some of the kids did not relish this experience, while others fell in love with these amiable beetles immediately. These beetles were an introduction to the insect world of the Mountain Park and several of the boys took to searching out different kinds of insects with gusto for the rest of the week.
There are so many different kinds of insects in various stages of development at this time of year that there was no end to the entomological discoveries.
It was a delight to see the kids take an interest in the tiny folk of the forest for in my opinion they are often overlooked and underrated, not only in their amazing diversity or elegant beauty, but in the work they do in the natural community.
One boy in particular seemed as though he had found his purpose in life by discovering the amazing diversity of insects this Summer and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this young man grow up to be an amazing naturalist and entomologist with a great knowledge of local insects. I encouraged them during our journaling time to write or make illustrations about these discoveries. There was a lot of interesting science to talk about such as the insects’ different adaptations, metamorphosis and the unique ways some of them camouflage themselves to blend in with their habitat.
A hike up to the Fire Tower was a high point providing the campers with the opportunity to climb up into the sturdy historic Fire Tower.
Hellbeck Elementary School recently held its first science fair in several years. In selecting the judges the administration chose many professionals from the local community, ranging in scope from State Honor Roll members and science teachers of other elementary schools in Pueblo to U.S. Army Engineers, technology experts and scientists involved in space programs.