Many Ways to do the Same Thing

On January 30, 2018, 9 students from Empire High School in Vail, Arizona, traveled to the nearby Santa Rita Mountains. Previously, the students studied Sky Island ecology by exploring desert arroyos and high rocky grasslands in the Little Rincon Mountains. On this trip, we fully immersed ourselves in Sky Island ecology by climbing high to Josephine’s Saddle. This particular trip presented the students with a few options of varying challenges. All would require the necessary and steep elevation gain to reach the Sky Island ecosystem, but they differed in the amount of mileage. We decided to play it by ear and see where the day took us.

The eager students took off from the Old Baldy Trailhead and began the 2.5-mile upward trek to Josephine Saddle. Although we maintained a steady pace, the students took strategic breaks to study the changing flora as we increased in elevation. This trail also provided opportunities to practice trail etiquette and other hiking skills. Because of the fantastic birding near Madera Canyon and the high popularity of the trail, the students learned how to be considerate of other visitors and respect a multi-use recreation environment. The steepness of the trail was initially hard to get used to, but students learned how to make that easier by maintaining a slow and steady pace versus walking fast and taking frequent breaks. Ultimately, we gained 1,774 feet in 2.5 miles! That’s steep!

What I love the most about these outings is the “challenge by choice” atmosphere and allowing each student to decide what level of challenge is best for them. Students had the freedom to make this decision; therefore, different activities were born out of the original hike.  Some students focused on learning more about Sky Island ecology and differentiating between the different flora and tree species in the area. We determined that Alligator junipers, Douglas firs, Ponderosa pines, Arizona madrones and many types of oak trees were the dominant species. By taking the time to walk at a peaceful pace, students were allowed to fully experience their immediate environment.

Other students learned about their environment through a fast-paced and vigorous hike to Josephine’s Saddle. It was a long an arduous hike, with more switchbacks around every corner. Up and up we went, and the trail seemed to go on endlessly. Initially, there was some apprehension about if we were able to make it to the top in time. However, I had faith in my students and their abilities and I knew they could achieve anything they put their minds to.

We finally made it to the top of Josephine’s Saddle (7,083 ft. elevation) and the students stopped to enjoy lunch, relax, and take in the amazing views. After a quick lunch, the group that hiked to the saddle started hiking back down the Old Baldy Trail and met up with the ecology-explorer group that stopped earlier on the trail. We all hiked back together to the trailhead and had a group reflection experience down by the water. Closing our eyes, we envisioned what we had just experienced today. We thought about what came easy to us and what came with more difficulty. We pondered how challenges make us feel and how to appreciate and overcome those challenges. As the water trickled by and the breeze stirred the grass, we sat in silence and enjoyed the stillness.

After this peaceful moment, we loaded back up into the adventure van to head back to school. The quick drive back was enjoyable as we rambled through the forests, the mesquites, the grasslands, and the saguaros. We looked back one last