A Superior Day in the Pinal Mountains

On September 2, 2019, 9 students from Superior Jr/Sr High School came to school prepared for an adventure. This was the 1st of 4 expeditions this semester and the students were incredibly excited. Our goal was to use Six Shooter Canyon Trail to explore the Pinal Mountains. We hoped to use this area as a classroom to discuss and learn about biomes, sky islands, ecological systems, and the flora and fauna within it all. Without a moment’s hesitation the shared their excitement with me, seeking all the adventure and knowledge I could provide. 

We left the thornscrub biome that the city of Superior sits in, and found ourselves in a chaparral forest when we arrived to the Pinal Mountains. This biome consisted mainly of manzanita, yucca, agave, and some juniper. We circled up and I began to describe to the students how these expeditions go and the rules for safety and etiquette. I told them about the methods which we would be using to learn and the topics we would learn about. We started on our walk and paused to look out over the immense vista that showed the transition between high desert and grasslands, oak juniper forests, and mixed conifer forests above us. It was the silence and smiles on their faces that told me they were already enjoying themselves. 

The trail took past an oak tree that held colonies of lichen on its bark. This is a perfect opportunity to discuss ecological systems with the students. When I asked them what they thought this was, students responded with moss and mold. It was a shocker to learn that this was a mutualist relationship between algae and fungi, colonies in the millions composed of just a small bunch lichen.  In addition, I led the students toward the understanding of a mycelium network of many varieties that has symbiotic relationships with trees under the soil. This too was a shocker, and it was this lesson that students later described as their favorite. 

With the lesson of systems underway, it became easy to analyze scat, tracks, and birds. To observe small insects that create habitat in plants, and scorpions that hunt in the small places we would never think to look. Our hike led us to a place where we could begin a conversation about sky islands. At the base of a damn surrounded by pine trees, cottonwoods, junipers, and sycamores, we discussed biomes on a much larger scale. Observing how geological formations created such large mountains, and how over time and climate change, pine forests fled from warming valleys to mountain tops. This layered system became an exclusive habitat for plants and animals, some of which use these Sky Islands as migratory stops along their larger route. This mass system was a very different one than the microsystems we had been observing previously.

Our hike back helped us reflect upon all that we had learned. As we moved, the sun continued to blare done on us, making shade the most valuable resource. When we returned to the vehicles, we found shade and circled up and discussed the day, what we had learned, our favorite parts and what we were hoping to experience next time. The students all felt they had a really awesome experience and loved the opportunity to hike, explore, and learn. Our future expeditions will compound on this one, using all we had learned to better understand the landscapes around us.