On September 9th, 2018, 19 students from Mountain Vista Elementary School gathered for a rugged adventure into Catalina State Park. This was the first expedition of the semester, and the students were more than excited. Some of the kids were nervous to go on a hike, worried about snakes, ants, bees, and all of the other wild animals in the Sonoran Desert. Other youths were excited, feeling confident in their outdoor capability. Our mission on this trip was to explore this incredible desert landscape, looking for the small isolated places the flora and fauna call “home”, and using these observations to discuss and learn about the amazing characteristics of this incredible Desert. Under a hot sun, across rugged terrain, and in a totally new experience, the students were ready to learn.
Unloading from the vehicles at Catalina State Park is always an inspiring experience. The Santa Catalina Mountains loom over the park, displaying aspects that reflect the mountains brutal and chaotic formation. With the dramatic backdrop, the lush and vibrant foreground is comforting and inviting to the eye; not words typically used to describe a desert. After a few minutes hiking on a trail, we diverged and followed a wide arroyo. Arroyos are perfect for the outdoor classroom. The soft sand and lack of pointy organic objects is perfect for playing, relaxing, and learning.
Under the shade of an old cottonwood tree, we made a circle and sat in the cool sand. We began by talking about the place we were in, and the Sonoran Desert as a whole. Once the endemic details made a foundation, I asked the students to describe the details of a “home”. As I expected, qualities like “couches, TV’s, beds, etc..” all made their appearance. “So, what about the homes of the animals and plants that live out here?” The youth leaped at the chance to describe the homes of the locals, and we went through the list of species and their unique living spaces. From mountain lions to scorpions, and saguaros to morning glory’s, we tried everything we could think of. “Why would they live there?” “What does their den look like inside and outside?” “why do birds like to live in saguaros? Does the saguaro like when birds live in it?”. The students were boiling over with anticipation, and ready to be launched into the desert to explore and discover the answers to these questions.
Out we went, and we discovered a lot. First, the group said hello to a bull snake that made its way across the trail, probably on its way home for a siesta. We inspected the massive (relatively speaking) mounds and the little entrance ants make to their “home”. The students were shocked to learn just how deep, wide, and complex the intersystem of an ant’s nest can be. “It’s like a whole Tucson under there”. We found an old oak tree, which lent its massive horizontal branches to the tender feet and curious minds of the students. They carefully roamed into the air, discovering the elevated homes that the old oak provides. Students found spiderwebs, bird nests, mosses, and more. We discovered devil’s claw (harpagophytum) that was growing under the shade of an arroyo bank mesquite forest, preferred home for this beautiful plant. With a short hike through another arroyo, we came to a tall saguaro that had many “boots” in it. These boots are the homes of a variety of species bird, rodent, and even reptile. What might seem to be a detrimental relationship between these occupiers and the saguaro is, in fact, a symbiotic relationship. The saguaro is often described as the “hotel” of the desert for these reasons. The students absolutely loved this.
At this point in the trip, the sun was bright and friendly, sharing its warmth graciously. For the fourth-grade students, this heat became an oppressive force. So back toward the large arroyo we went, past the saguaro hotel, around the old oak friend, under the canopy of the relieving mesquite forest, over the underground city of ants, across the bull snakes’ path, and down to the morning glory flowers in the large arroyo bed. We circled up and talked about everything we learned today, then made our final journey to the vehicles. It was a massive day for learning, and a massive success for our first expedition of the semester.
Thanks to Resolution Copper for their support of this outing!