Snowshoes and Adaptations

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Receiving Instructions in Snowshoeing Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Receiving Instructions in Snowshoeing
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
“No, no, no!”

“Don’t try to help me up yet,” I instructed, choking back laughter through a face full of snow.

Third graders teetered in their snowshoes on the edge of the tree well with mixed emotions written on their faces—equal parts concern and confusion. I was sunk to my armpits in snow, insisting that they not help me out of it. The learning had begun.

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
We were in the trees, high in the canyon, there to discuss the winter adaptations of local wildlife while an inch an hour of fresh powder fell from above. I had stepped onto a shallow layer of snow that covered a spruce sapling just as I was explaining the similarities between the snowshoes on our boots and the feet of the snowshoe hare. The timing was impeccable.

“I guess we’re not as good as the snowshoe hare,” one student quipped as a flurry of helpful hands and a borrowed ski pole finally freed me from the hole.

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
“No, I guess not,” was my reply. “So how do we survive here, then?”
Snow continued to fall while students offered up their hypotheses: “We have tools, like coats and snowshoes and ski poles”; “we help each other, like a community!” “We don’t have special body parts, so we have to try new things to survive.”

Someone mentioned “structural adaptations.” A familiar murmur of agreement as someone used another science term, “behavioral adaptations,” language maybe once thought too complex for 9-year-olds. But it was language students had developed over the course of a few months closely studying the wildlife of Utah—language they were putting to work now, constructing new understandings of the world in real time.

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Enjoying the Snow, Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Enjoying the Snow,
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
We needed to keep moving, so my colleague and co-wilderness-guide for the day introduced the kids to another behavioral adaptation used by herds of deer. Minutes later, 13 energetic bodies were performing the mule deer “snow dance,” stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow. “No more post-holing,” he told the kids. He let the new vocabulary word sink in while we rested and ate a snack, much like a mule deer might.

As a matter of state law, the Utah State Board of Education expects third graders to, quote, “Engage in argument from evidence that in a particular habitat…some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all” (UT SEEd Standards, 3.2.5, 2019).

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Our Class The Joy of Teaching Outdoors Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Our Class
The Joy of Teaching Outdoors
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Learning outdoors helps students connect academic content to lived experiences in real time. These students certainly had an argument to make as to how well-prepared an animal needs to be in order to survive a mountain winter. They lived the experiences themselves.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio from Josh Boling
Text: Josh Boling, 2020,

Sources & Additional Reading

Boling, Josh, Why I Teach Outside, Wild About Utah, November 11, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/why-i-teach-outside/

Strand, Holly, Shoeshoe Hare, Wild About Utah, November 18, 2010, https://wildaboututah.org/snowshoe-hare/

The Henry Mountain Bison

American Bison Courtesy US FWS Ryan Moehring, Photographer
American Bison
Courtesy US FWS
Ryan Moehring, Photographer
The Henry Mountains of southeast Utah are famous for being the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to have been officially mapped. Indeed, before they were mapped, they were often referred to as the “Unknown Mountains.” Another relative unknown detail about this range is that it harbors one of only five genetically pure, free roaming bison herds on North American public lands.

In 1941, a seed herd of 18 American Plains Bison (B. b. bison) were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park to the arid desert of Utah’s Robbers Roost. A year later, five more bulls were introduced to the herd in hopes of sufficiently diversifying the gene pool and sustaining the herd. The bison must not have found Robbers Roost as appealing as Butch Cassidy had, though, because this new Wild Bunch set out for literal greener pastures that very same year.

The small herd forded the Dirty Devil River and travelled southwest toward the Burr Desert. The herd stopped here for a while, enjoying their newfound buffet atop the Aquarius Plateau. 21 years later, though, in 1963, the still small herd grew tired of the desert and abandoned it altogether for the higher, more verdant snow fed meadows of the nearby Henry Mountains. Here, the herd thrived and quickly swelled in numbers.

Today, the herd’s population is estimated to be between 300 and 400 animals, which ecologists and wildlife biologists regard as the maximum carrying capacity of their Henry Mountain range. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has responded accordingly. In an effort to perpetuate the health of the herd and their range, the DWR began issuing “Once-in-a-lifetime” permits to hunters hoping to fulfill not only a tag but also a burning sense of adventure. The Henry Mountains, after all, were mapped last for a reason. They remain one of the most rugged and remote places in a state known for its rugged and remote places.

Fittingly, quite unlike their more quintessential Plains Bison brethren, the Henry Mountains bison can be found almost anywhere in the Henrys between the desert lowlands and timberline. Apparently no one has told the herd that Plains Bison don’t typically like high elevations or steep mountain slopes. This unique proclivity of the Henry Mountains herd to cast off behavioral stereotypes works in their favor when hunting season rolls around and they abandon the high, open meadows for steep, wooded canyons and thick groves of aspen and evergreens.

This highly adaptive nature unique to the Henry Mountains herd made it an obvious candidate to serve as a seed population in early 2010 when 39 individuals were transplanted from the Henry Mountains to the Book Cliffs along the Utah-Colorado border. These 39 animals were to serve as a genetic supplement to a relatively new herd first reintroduced to the Book Cliffs by the Ute Indian Tribe in 1986. The now 600-strong Book Cliffs herd is well on its way to reestablishing the American Plains Bison’s historic range in the Book Cliffs.

The story of the Book Cliffs and Henry Mountains Bison give us reason to hope that one day soon, the American Bison might reclaim its territory, a historic range that once ran from Alaska through the Canadian territories and the Great Plains to the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. And, if so, the role the Henry Mountains herd will play in that expansion may be a significant one.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy US FWS, Ryan Moehring, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio from
Text: Josh Boling, 2019

Sources & Additional Reading

Utah’s Book Cliffs Herd, Bison Bellows Series, National Park Service, June 30, 2016, https://www.nps.gov/articles/bison-bellows-6-30-16.htm

How scientists brought bison back to Banff, National Public Radio, Feb 28, 2017, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/scientists-brought-bison-back-banff

Buffalo (Bison) on the Henry Mountains, Capitol Reef Country, Wayne County Tourism, https://capitolreef.org/blog/buffalo-bison-on-the-henry-mountains/

Henry Mountains, Utah.com, https://utah.com/henry-mountains

Bison Unit Management Plan, Unit #15 Henry Mountains, Utah Division of Wildlife Management, https://wildlife.utah.gov/hunting/biggame/pdf/bison_15.pdf

Gilman, Don, Rare, genetically-pure bison found in Utah’s Henry Mountains, St George News, Jan 12, 2016, https://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2016/01/12/djg-genetically-pure-bison-found-in-utahs-henry-mountains/#.XB7nRs9KjfY

Henry Mountain Outfitters, HuntersTrailhead, http://www.hunterstrailhead.com/index.php?ID=147

Brian, Jayden, Utah Henry Mountain Bison Hunts, Bull Mountain Outfitters, LLC, http://henrymtnbisonhunts.com/

Henry Mountains bison herd, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Mountains_bison_herd

A Solstice Vignette

Winter Trail Courtesy Pixabay
Winter Trail
Courtesy Pixabay
In the frigid dark of long winter nights, we tell stories—stories of thievery, heroism, and light. Raven, Maui, and Koo-loó-pe, the hummingbird. They are all said to have taken back the sun from too much darkness for their people, and their deeds remain the whispered subjects around campfires that lead up to the winter solstice. I’d like to tell a story of my own about our calendar’s longest, darkest night and our relationship with it.

The first archaeological evidence we have that point to organized observances of the winter solstice come from the Neolithic period—that era from about 12,000 to 6,500 years ago which hastened the Stone Age into those of Copper and Bronze. The Neolithic coincided with the invention of farming in the Near East; and on the heels of farming came the necessity of a calendar, upon which the new agrarian economy was utterly dependent—for delineating seasons, planting and harvesting crops, and monitoring food stores over winter. We looked to the sky, of course, as we always had, for such insights into the survival of our species. We found familiar patterns there—the ebb and flow of darkness and light that came with the ever changing arc of the sun. From north to south the sun wanders, from light to dark and warm to cold. We built shrines to its movement. You know their names: Stonehenge and Newgrange; the Goseck circle and Chaco Canyon’s sun dagger. Each culture would create its own method of tracking, observing, and then of celebrating. We built tools, and then shrines, and then we built mythology.

The Neolithic agrarian economy lived by the sun. As darkness fell on wintery fields, our Stone Age ancestors shared stories about that moment when the light would return, hoping that their characters could hasten the sun. Reverence is a powerful thing. It informs the stories we tell about ourselves–stories of existence balanced on moments. We revere the return of the light when the night is at its darkest and longest. That’s when we send Raven, Maui, or an exuberant Miwok hummingbird to bring the sun back from too much darkness. That’s the mythology, at least.

A Solstice Vignette: The Seasons Courtesy US NWS
The Seasons
Courtesy US NWS
Astronomically speaking, the winter solstice is ephemeral. In the northern hemisphere, it occurs at the exact moment when the northern portion of the Earth’s axis is tilted directly away from the sun at its farthest point. This year, in the Mountain West, that moment is Saturday, December 21st, at 9:19pm. But astronomy’s geometries and physics are only part of the tale. Our stories are told with an affinity for more than just practical science.

Solstice means “to be still,” to wait for the return of the light. We attach great meaning to it. The cluster of holidays we have in winter worldwide are evidence enough of that. Every culture recognizes, in its own way, the vast significance of this fleeting moment; and those observances connect us through time to the ancestors that first looked up—marking time, checking dates, counting bushels until the next harvest. The solstice is a moment we barely notice, but one that bears immense anticipation. We move right through it at the speed of time—then tell our stories to lend meaning to that time spent moving, from the light through to darkness and back again.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US NWS
Photos: Courtesy Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/photos/snow-weather-trail-winter-autumn-834111/
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling & Friend Weller
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Astronomy Picture of the Day, NASA, https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap071222.html

Solstices & Equinoxes for Ogden (Surrounding 10 Years), TimeandDate.com, https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/seasons.html?n=4975

Byrd, Deborah, All you need to know: December solstice, EarthSky.org, Dec 15, 2019, https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/everything-you-need-to-know-december-solstice

Why I Teach Outside

Why I Teach Outside: Josh and his students study outdoors Courtesy & Copyright Steph Juth
Josh and his students study outdoors
Courtesy & Copyright Steph Juth
In February of this year, researchers published an integrative review of the literature on nature’s role as a catalyst for academic growth in children. They had this to say about their findings: “In academic contexts, nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction. The evidence here is particularly strong…” (Kuo, Barnes, and Jordan, 2019). For a long time, great thinkers such as renowned educator John Dewey and conservationist Aldo Leopold have recognized and professed the power of situational, hands-on learning—especially in the natural world, and especially among children. This sentiment is something we all share, I think—something bordering on instinct. Now, scientific research has caught up to a truth we all know in our bones.

This is a topic close to my heart; I’m a third grade teacher who got his start leading groups of kids into the backcountry, canoeing and backpacking the lake-littered northern latitudes of the mid-west. Adventure and education always seemed necessarily intertwined to me. “Education is not preparation for life,” said John Dewey; “education is life itself.” And life, I’ve always thought, is out there. The authors of the literature review agree, writing that “experiences with nature…promote children’s academic learning and seem to promote children’s development as persons” (Kuo et al., 2019). One of the key logs for this increase in learning and development is the increase in students’ motivation once they’ve left the walls and classrooms behind. According to the researchers’ report, “learning in and around nature is associated with intrinsic motivation, which, unlike extrinsic motivation, is crucial for student engagement and longevity of interest in learning” (Kuo et al., 2019). Even more “[e]ncouragingly, learning in nature may improve motivation most in those students who are least motivated in traditional classrooms” (Kuo et al., 2019).

I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with students in the field. While out there, I’ve had that instinctual knowledge we all share reaffirmed while sitting next to a dammed-up beaver pond, watching third-graders reverse engineer the beaver dam out of rocks, sticks, silly putty, and freshly-chewed wood chips from a beaver log. I know my circumstances are not the norm, though—not yet, at least. So, how might teachers utilize the natural world when there’s no beaver dam on campus and they can’t get the funding or administrative support to go find one? It may be simpler than one thinks! There is an abundance of evidence that indicates students can reap the same benefits just from being outside while they learn. “In multiple studies,” the researchers point out, “the greener a school’s surroundings, the better its standardized test performance—even after accounting for poverty and other factors—and classrooms with green views yield similar findings” (Kuo et al., 2019). To supplement the views and the greenspaces, though, teachers can consult research-based resources like UC Berkley’s teaching guide, School Yard Ecology, and the National Science Teachers Association’s inspired 10-minute Field Trips.

If the increasingly robust academic research into nature’s role in student learning is any indication, though, I foresee a not-so-distant future replete with an even wider diversity of resources and opportunities for teachers and students to explore the natural world in pursuit of academic rigor. “It is time,” the authors of the integrative review write, “to bring nature and nature-based pedagogy into formal education—to expand existing, isolated efforts into increasingly mainstream practices” (Kuo et al., 2019). It seems incumbent upon us to trust the truth we feel in our bones.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Steph
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Kuo, Barnes, Jordan, Frontiers in Psychology, Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship, 2019, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305/full

Barrett, Katharine, Willard, Carolyn, SchoolYard Ecology, GEMS (Great Expections in Math & Science), Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, http://lhsgems.org/GEMSschooleco.html

Russell, Helen Ross, Ten-Minute Field Trips: A Teachers’s Guide to Using the Schoolgrounds for Environmental Studies, National Science Teaching Association, 1998, https://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9780873550987