The Good Side of Mud Season

It is finally spring in Summit County and the signs and sounds of melting snow are everywhere. If you’ve spent time in the mountains you know it as mud season. And I know it as the season of post-holing at the most inopportune moments.

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It doesn’t happen when I’m by myself, investigating new terrain on a long cross-country ski. And it doesn’t even happen when I go wandering on a long run to see what kind of bird is up in that lodge pole pine. It always seems to happen when I am traveling with students. That soft snow is great for snow balls and also for swallowing me up.  

When I’m with students in the field I carry a very heavy pack. The bottom is filled with extra clothes for wet kids and an over-packed bag of first aid supplies. The next layer is things that I know I’ll need like warm layers and my lunch, plus some salty snacks for growing boys. On top of the pile I have all the things I need to teach – my whiteboard and countless laminated sheets with graphs, maps, and some pictures. Top it all off with a few liters of water and as many markers as I can fit in a small zip-lock and it’s easy to see why I sink like a stone.

Typically I’m traveling with the kids on snow shoes or skis, cruising over the snow in our light and fluffy sage field, and it seems effortless for me. Maybe because I spend my time watching others struggle -- kids flopping everywhere, their first time on cross country skis. But when I stop in the middle of the field, because I get excited about fresh animal tracks or the perfect place to dig a snow pit, my feet go in deep. Usually we have just arrived in a place the kids would call the middle of nowhere. The students take off their skis to walk around in just their boots. Watching them start to explore, getting down on their hands and knees, starting to dig their first snow pit – this is when I get excited. I take off my skis, take a step, and down I go.  

I’ve grown to like it. I like thinking of the small animals that have built tunnels in the snow all winter down by my toes. And how even though my feet go down, they are just reaching a crust and there is so much further to go. It’s good to remember that down there the sage is waiting for a little sunlight to start photosynthesizing again. It always takes me a little while and a little struggle to return to the top crust. But it’s just long enough to look around and see students finding new things that will melt away with the spring.

CATCHing Healthy Habits

CATCH Xylin Hula HoopThree days each week as my co-instructor and I are preparing fresh fruits and vegetables for snack time we hear her voice calling down from the top of a nearby staircase. “Hi Natalie! Guess who’s here!” It is Xylin West, of course! Xylin is a fifth grader who has been attending our CATCH Kids Club afterschool program at Silverthorne Elementary for nearly two full years.

In the hopes of sharing the magical experience of interacting with one of our CATCH kids, I interviewed Xylin asking her a few questions about her experiences in CATCH Kids Club (CKC).

Are there any new foods that you like now because of CATCH?     
Xylin responded, “Ants on a log. I never had celery, peanut butter and raisins before and now I really like them.”

 What have you learned about nutrition at CATCH?
“First, I didn’t know that chicken nuggets didn’t really have much chicken at all!” She exclaimed.  Then she added, “I learned that it’s really important to get exercise, and I also learned about the immune system.”  

Xylin’s mother, Missy West, enthusiastically commented on Xylin’s CKC experience stating, “She loves it! She talks about it and how much fun she has all of the time. She loves planet ball, the scooters that you guys had, and the parachute.”

There is no doubt that Xylin adds a special something to CKC at Silverthorne Elementary. Everything about her is positive and filled with energy right down to her favorite color, yellow. What a privilege it is to spend so much time with such a marvelous young person!

As a CKC instructor I couldn’t be more proud to be part of a program that does so much to strengthen our community. In addition to giving children a place to be active, learn new skills, and experience healthy eating, CKC fills a need in Summit County for afterschool care, while giving a diverse group of elementary children an opportunity to socialize during organized activities. CATCH, or Coordinated Approach to Children's Health, is an evidence-based curriculum providing nutrition lessons and physical activity. Children who participate in CATCH at least 3 days each week for a 12 week period are healthier and better equipped to make educated, nutritional choices. I am confident that participation in CKC has given students like Xylin a place to learn positive habits and develop skills that will continue to serve them for the rest of their lives.

At the end of our interview, I asked Xylin how she would make sure to be healthy and active when CKC is over for the year. Xylin replied, “Well today I walked to my bus stop. My mom and I got good exercise this morning. I will try to eat more healthy foods, and I will do the stretches you taught us in front of the TV.”

Xylin’s enthusiasm surrounding CKC is contagious and will brighten everyone’s day just like the ray of sunshine she is!

Bringing it All Back Home

Let me begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the opportunity Alcoa has provided me for attending the Key Issues Institute in Keystone, Colorado last July. It was a wonderful learning experience that has provided me with ideas about how to reach my students in a more real world context. I have come back with a different way of looking at the environmental health of our own community and a process to initiate a positive change.

AVC Olewine Alcoa TarankoCurrently, my students are working on a proposal to team with Duck Lake State Park to tackle some of the environmental issues facing the park. The ideas have come from our participation in the Alliance for the Great Lakes Beach Sweep back in September at the park. Based on our data collection and a guided tour, the students have chosen trash and recycling and non-native species of plants. We are currently researching these issues and have begun reaching out to community resources for information and assistance.

Future plans include expanding the project into other curricular areas using student presentations and writing letters to community groups for language arts, mapping and measuring the park trails for math, and researching the history of the park and surrounding area to create informational signs for language arts and social studies. This project has been able to get off the ground with the help from Jan Klco, our History Day coach, and Robb Zoellmer, a state park staff member. I will also be presenting a summary of our project next March at the Michigan Science Teachers Association State Conference in Lansing.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to attend the Key Issues Institute.

Derek Taranko is an educator from Whitehall, Michigan, and attended Key Issues Institute in 2013 with sponsorship from Alcoa.

HPG Goes Pro

In a move that has surprised marketing execs at the elite outdoor retailer, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard decided to make the Hot Pink Gorilla the new “face of Patagonia.”
Dmitri Siegel, Executive Creative Director at Patagonia explains, “He’s just got the right attitude for our company. …He right? Is it a he? Or is it a she? Whatever… I mean, just look at him. …Or her or whatever. A PINK GORILLA repelling off the face of a cliff! It doesn’t get more extreme than that. And THAT’S what Patagonia is all about.”

HPGAt KSS we couldn’t be more proud of our HPG. The last year has been one of intense training – hours at the climbing gym and sending impossible routes from Yosemite to Ouray.

In an interview with Climbing magazine, HPG said, “I’ll never forget the amazing people at KSS who took care of me, taught me to gather nuts and berries, brushed the twigs out of my fur, and loaned me deodorant when I smelled bad. That’s real love, man.”

Awww shucks, HPG. You know we love you. And we're keeping a corner of the boot shed clear for you when you come visit.


Happy April Fools, everyone!

Planning KMA: Great Sand Dunes National Park

A hidden gem amidst the Rocky Mountain Range, The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a paradise of diverse microhabitats from desolate desert to alpine ridges.

Sand Dunes

This summer, Keystone Mountain Adventures (KMA) will dive into this amazing landscape during our 13-day Research Focus trip. When planning this trip I thought to myself, What teenager would want to spend their summer doing research? The many experiences that comprise this program make it much more than a simple research project. In many schools today there can be a disconnect between classroom education and real-world application, due to an entirely indoor classroom or lab setting. At its very essence, science is the study of the world around us and students rarely have the chance to experience that world indoors. Although classrooms offer a more organized and fundamental take on science, the research involved in this trip will give teenagers the chance to get dirty and experience the kind of science that field researchers do in their careers every day.

We designed Keystone Mountain Adventures to be so much more than a research trip. It’s the backpacking trip of a lifetime, a white water rafting adventure, a chance to challenge yourself with rock climbing, and finally soaking it all in at the beautiful river-side pools at Princeton Hot Springs.

I have led multiple trips for Keystone Science School, but have never been more excited than I am for this one. Not only do these teenagers grow more confident and independent, but they also become smarter, more balanced individuals in every aspect. Unknowingly, even to myself on my first trip, campers all become a part of a new family of peers that can only be found on an adventure like this.  The magic that happens on these trips that can never be explained, only experienced.