On September 21st, 2018, 10 students from Mansfeld Middle School embarked on an amazing adventure into the Santa Catalina Mountains. With summers heat still swollen and boiling in the low desert valleys, we were all eager to escape to the high mixed coniferous forest. This was the first expedition of the semester for these students, and they were as excited as they were nervous. Our goal for this trip was to introduce these students to outdoor adventure and learning, and to discuss and observe the incredible qualities of our Sky Islands. I knew this area held a lot of opportunity for exploration and discovery, but I had no idea just how ambitious these kids would be.

Our hike began as we walked passed the massive steel Arizona Trail sign that marked the Marshal Gulch Trail Head. The kids were impressed to learn that our path, if continued, would take us all the way to Utah. The trail becomes steep abruptly, and although it is not generally difficult, the elevation change from Tucson’s (2,300) to Marshal Gulch Trail Head (7,440) causes breathing to be labored and the body to be starved of oxygen. So, our hike begins slowly with loud heavy breaths, and a belief that this is going to be hard the whole time. This is the first tangible lesson of our day into what Sky Islands are.

As our hike continued, the students were stunned to see the variety of beautiful rocks. Some of them resembled silver, others gold, and some were like nothing the kids had seen before. Because of this, we were able to discuss what types of rocks these are, and what their role is in the composition of the mountain. This is important when understanding the age of the mountains, and where they’ve come from. It becomes a large story when describing the formation of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I tried to offer the following lessons in a light and general. Regardless, it was still shocking to the group to learn that the range we stood on was formed due to volcanism, and before The Catalinas became as we know them now, were once a volcano themselves. They split into three parts and formed the valley which Tucson currently sits. These lessons are general and operate on such a large scale of time and geography that it is hard to grasp, for both adults and kids. Never the less, being on the mountains as we talk about their life is the best way to begin to understand them.

Understanding Sky Islands are a wonderful teaching tool because they force the learner to consider the significance of its geology, biology, and climate. These focuses can be micro and macro, to some stunning degrees. The aquatic ecosystems were particularly interesting to the students. I asked each student to lie down on their bellies so that their faces were hovering over the pools of water. Once in position, I asked them to view deep inside the water as I began to tell them a story. I described a basic food chain system, and related the predatory insects to terrestrial carnivores the kids could better relate to. We looked at the variety of aquatic plants that shelter, breath, and provide food to this habitat. We observed tadpoles and frogs, dragonflies water striders. Once some of the layers were set, I began to describe how fragile and delicate this ecosystem is. I pointed out to the students that these plants and animals are nearly confined to these pools. “What would happen if I were to splash into the water, or dump soda or food into it?” The kids were quick to understand that it would be harmful to the little ecosystem “like air pollution!”

This was a good time and topic to then begin our travels back the vehicle. We followed the creek back, observing how things looked when the water was stagnant versus flowing. From below we were able to view massive stands of deciduous and evergreen trees, and break down the differences between the two. Most of all though, we had fun. Following the creek became a game of staying dry. We were forced to shimmy across narrow rock ledges, hugging onto a rock wall so we did not fall backward  . We removed our shoes, and felt the earth the way our ancestors had. Sometimes our travels forced us to walk across moss covered logs that tested our balance. This type of learning is not well understood in most schools. Barefoot learning is about breathing hard while walking through ice cold water, holding onto branches for support all the while trying to get a clue as to what the red slippery stinky stuff is that grows on the rocks beneath our feet is. It is a type of learning that is so engaging and has so much information to process, that a person can do nothing but experience it in the moment so that they may process it later. This type of learning is what kids do best, and it is how they truly became experienced with the Catalina Mountains.