Sunday, March 16, 2008

Aldo Leopold, New Mexico field trip

The fact that Aldo Leopold

  • started his career in forestry in New Mexico in 1909 is an important point in the following documentation of a class of 5Th grade school children on a field trip, March 14Th of 2008.

    Born in 1887 near Burlington Iowa, Aldo Leopold grew up, high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi river. He spent his years out in nature and developed a keen sense of observation of it's cycles of life.

    His being instrumental in founding 'The Gila Wilderness Area' in Southern New Mexico in 1929, as the first US Wilderness Area

  • is also important to this little story. Aldo Leopold was known as 'The Father of Wildlife Ecology and his book 'A Sand County Almanac' published in 1949 a year after his death in 1948 at his little farm near Baraboo Wisconsin, (near Madison) is still a valued reference for the balance of man living in harmony with nature.

    Our little story begins with a request from my ten year old Granddaughter, to please accompany her class on a field trip into the 'Sandia Mountains of New Mexico'. I am familiar with the Sandia Mountains

  • being right in our own backyard and a source of enjoyment and wonder for most of my life. I have blogged a couple of my trips previously. Being a mountain hiker with a renewed interest in this amazing ecologic system, I accepted, with only a slight reservation. A knee problem slows me down and the possibility of ten year olds scampering up the trail, leaving me to be rear guard.

    Our original Mountain hike field trip planned by that excellant little Albuquerque New Mexico NE heights elementary school, for a couple of months ago, was cancelled due to a storm with below freezing temperatures, blowing snow and icy conditions. My granddaughter informed me that on Friday March 14Th, I was to pick her up at home, take her to school, sit in a small chair in her class while her teacher explained the days program to myself and other adults willing to assist in, what I assumed to be, 'herding cats'. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

    After orientation which included dividing the students into small loose knit Squads of 4 for each adult. The students were then loaded into the two buses from our neighborhood elementary school. The adults drove to the area with the map provided. The Public School System here in NM, has built a large Natural History Center

  • in the Sandia Mountains, explicitly for the purpose of educating students in the importance of understanding the role and balance of, nature and humanity with all life on earth.

    I and the other adults/parents, arrived ahead of the buses, parking in the large area in front of the education buildings. Our first order after the buses unloaded, was to somewhat organise into manageable small Platoons of about 25 each. There were five groups in all, with a naturalist guide assigned to each group. We were introduced to our Platoon leader Paul, known as 'Viper' on the radio system that kept them in contact with each other, yet seperated on the trail. Cliff, Amy, and AJ (Smuggler) were a few of our guides. Amy (MUDHEN) actually accompanied us to answer questions in her area of expertise as well as 'Rear Guard' in our column.

    The order of the day was explained by Paul who refered to 'Aldo Leopold' as his inspiration in a lifetime of working with Nature and teaching as a guide, therefore the title of this post is in his honor.

    "No lunches or snacks were to be taken on the trail", no asking, "how much further", no asking "what time is it", "Please do not get lost and make me search for you", "if you do get lost just stay put and we will find you", "Do not wander all over the place, it just makes it harder for us to find you". "Use the restrooms before we start up the trail", "Stay on the Trail so we don't end up with a 'road". With those explicit instructions, we 'saddled up' and started our single file foray into the mountains with 'Viper' on Point.

    The first stop for our Platoon of 25, was within a short distance of the center. A 'whiteboard' was set up at a small seating area at the 6,900 foot altitude and the Days mission was outlined, with many questions answered by the alert students. The Eco-system was basically outlined with the division of the 'Producers', the 'Consumers', and the 'Recyclers' of the forest system being labeled. The Living parts were also seperated from the Nonliving. The students caught on fast and many of the basic family of each division were identified. Trees 'producers'..Animals such as 'Squirrels' consumers..'Fungus' recyclers, Rocks and Dirt including it's nutrients.

    A short walk back to the 'Pajarito' Trail head, and our Trek began. Within a few minutes climb to higher altitude, the first stop and forming a circle, Paul asked the students about the powers of their observations so far. The things that were seen and their place in the cycle. Many forest signs were described such as 'Scat' from animals, Leaves from the trees, and the soil composition such as the gophers that turn the soil endlessly while tunneling. A 'plowing' process that is necessary to keep the layers of dirt in the forest well mixed and allowing the soil to be porous for moisture holding.

    Paul is really impressed with the tough old Alligator Juniper with it's unique alligator scaled bark, tortured twisted branches, and he described it's methods of survival. This is a dry, high altitude Forest. One method of survival, Water retention by allowing the bark on the bottom of horizontal branches to remain and carry the nutrients under it, to the upper reaches of it's foliage.

    During years when no moisture is available, it can go into a state of hibernation. A lifespan of 1,900 years is entirely possible with the Alligator Juniper. This little, possibly fire caused, Sun bathed clearing was perfect for allowing the sprouts of new meadow grasses which are necessary for grazing animals.

    More hiking upwards into the Mountain system, brings us to an area where several different types of tree co-exist. The temperature change allows the Pondrosa, which likes a cooler habitat, to flourish. At this point we began a rare, off trail, brush trip. A turkey 'scat' was spotted.

    The turkey was abundant when I lived nearby in the 1960's. They disappeared for a long time due to various reasons, possibly including infectious diseases, and were then reintroduced from the Manzano Mountains to the South. Now once again, it's common to see sign of them. We climbed higher up the mountain, carefully pushing through the brush.

    A welcome rest stop was at "Best View Baldy". A small clearing on top of a mountain ridge, overlooking a valley of trees. The short duration wind gusts on this day, achieved about 24 miles per hour, according to Pauls little instrument. While laying back and looking at the view, Paul told us some stories from his past. One of which was nearly freezing to death on Mt. Washington

  • in New Hampshire. Wind can achieve 239 mph on 6,900 foot Mt. Washington and hypothermia sets in quickly. Another time Paul was in a tent on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Labrador

  • . The wind almost blew his tent over the cliff, consequently, Paul respects the wind. Paul worked as a guide inCarlsbad Caverns

  • , another New Mexico natural wonder.

    While exploring Lechugia Cave near Carlsbad Caverns, which BTW is 114 miles long, he was climbing the 200 foot rope, using lever devices. At the 90 foot level, He shined his light down and saw nothing but a black abyss. He shined his light up and saw nothing but more blackness. He then thought, "WOW this is so cool, and they pay me for this".

    Paul also respects forest fires, having worked as a fire fighter. He mentioned that nature burns whatever it wants with little effect from the fire fighters. The Yellowstone fires taught a valuable lesson in humility to mankind, a book describing that fact is available, if anyone wants to read it, drop a comment at the end of this post.

    The altitude on this scenic resting spot is 7,200 feet by my GPS indication. Any one who thinks a trail climb of over 300 feet is simple, needs to try it with a backpack and trying to keep up with ten year olds. I compare it to a 30 story tenement stairway. After sipping water and a question and answer period where binoculars and monoculars were handed out and recovered, We start back down by a different route. Interestingly enough, which takes us past a 500 year old Indian hunting lodge made of rocks, not far above a small spring.

    The animals enjoy the fresh clear water trickling from the little, old wellhead that someone tried to develop a very long time ago. A game of searching and observation was enjoyed by the students, listing all of the various elements of the eco-cycle found in this area of rich natural diversity. A large Ponderosa pine about three feet in diameter, had a shiny metal disc fastened to it with the words, "Custers Last Stand" GD1876 #130. Always looking for some fun, paul found what looked like a large animal 'scat', picking it up with paper, he carefully showed it to the students before putting into his mouth. A shriek erupted from the students, Paul had carried a rubber 'scat' with him for the shock effect, it worked :>)

    The rapid return descent down to the base camp, was on a canyon trail lined with remaining ice from this winters storms. After arriving at base camp and a restroom break, Our own packed lunch was enjoyed at several tables placed away from the buildings, back into the trees, to give a sense of even more nature. No litter was allowed, and all trash was packed up for deposit in the barrels at base camp nearby.

    The last hike of the day, was to a prepared area for the lesson in 'Orienteering' using compasses and five foot lengths of rope to 'chain' the distance to pre positioned PVC tubes containing further instructions to follow. Now it was getting technical. Paul explained how the compasses worked, using the needle for North reference and turning the ring for the heading listed, then folowing the base line toward the direction determined for each group on the starting post sign. Then using the rope for relevant distance measurements, the students were to begin their quest.

    My little squad of four girls were enthused to say the least. One grabbed the compass and immediately determined the direction heading of the first leg, at 200 degrees for 80 feet. Two grabbed the 5 foot rope and started 'chaining' the distance. I stood at the post to keep them on heading. The fourth started looking frantically for the camouflaged PVC tube, finding it within minutes. The girl with excellent writing skills documented the further instructions rolled up in the tube, which included the next compass heading of 150 degrees for 50 feet, the distance and also one word of the puzzle to be solved later.

    I then went to that site as a guide, as the four girls plotted their next leg of the course. Within minutes they were 'chaining' the distance of the compass heading. One tube was found hanging from a branch of the tree, my Granddaughter spotted it. From that site, the next leg at 60 degrees for a distance of 60 feet, was processed quickly in their minds. The third tube was somewhat elusive due to the dense brush in the direct chain path. An overshoot in distance brought them to the second tube from another team. The other team welcomed the help.

    Our team's third tube was soon found and the words from each tube, 'Squirrel, Tree' and Hawk, brought them to determine the cycle of life in this Mountain forest. "The Pine Tree produces the pine cone nuts", "The Squirrel eats the nuts", "The Hawk eats the Squirrel" and "Their lifetime of scat along with their eventual demise", "Recycles into the soil for nourishment of the trees".

    A quick return to the rendevous point revealed that our little team won by a considerable margin. I was soooo proud of the girls. We waited patiently for the others to return. After return, all teams told Paul the answer to their riddles. Paul collected our compasses and ropes. We all packed up our gear, then proceeded back down the trail to base camp. Many pictures were taken to remember this day while waiting for, and loading on the buses.

    All in all a really fascinating 7 hour day was had by all. Thank you Teachers, Organisers, Students, and of course Adults accompanying the group. We all had a great field trip enjoyed by everyone involved and most of all by this 'Blogengeezer'.

    One more day enjoying life in this United States of America. "One Nation Under God". "The greatest Nation the world has ever known"

    Please do not forget 'The Others'

  • that keep our society free to do these things. Lt G

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