Project More at Sunset Trail

On September 6th, 2019, 8 students from Project More High School left Tucson to find the Highest Biome in the Sonoran Desert. This was the first expedition of the semester for these students, and they weren’t sure what to expect. The goals were to introduce students to the Seeds of Stewardship program, the Arizona Trail Association, and The Arizona Trail, to educate them on hiking and outdoor-classroom ethics, and to teach lessons about Sky Island ecology and its influence on the greater Sonoran Desert Ecosystem. 

We stopped at the mountain foothills to see the range from a close perspective. Most of the students had been to the top of the mountain before, but none of them had observed the different biome layers that are stacked along the way. Together we defined the word biome, then discussed characteristic examples of each. I explained 5 we would move through and asked the students to keep an eye out for the transitions along the way. This first stop was an opportunity for us to practice answering questions, breaking the ice, and getting the first glimpse into our adventure and program. 

After some time, we made it to the top of the mountain. When we unloaded, we were flooded by the sweet smell of pine trees and the hypnotizing sight of sunlight filtered by canopies left us stunned. The students were perplexed by the temperature difference too, which had them jumping and running around with joy. We hiked to a grassy clearing surrounded by big ponderosa pine trees and sat to have our first real introduction of the day. This intro gave the students a clear understanding as to what these trips would feel like, how the teaching would be, what their responsibilities were, and how to behave in the outdoors. LNT practices were discussed along with safety rules. 

Our hike led us to a silver ponderosa pine tree that had fallen, crushing everything underneath it. To my surprise, the students were curious about it, “why did it fall” some asked, others echoed. It is not a question you hear asked often, rather it is just assumed that something made it fall. I loved the questions so much, I asked them the same question. “Why do you think?” I told them that in order to know, we would have to observe the tree with multiple senses, and the mind of a detective.  So together we crawled all over it, looking at the bark, the roots, the soil. We observed the trees around it that were killed or damaged by the fallen matriarch. “Why?” The students all had amazing answers, coming from many different angles, and each one more than plausible – beetles, wind, storms, unstable soil, old age. When they asked for the answer, I said: “I don’t know”. I think this frustrated them, now more than ever they wanted to know, but I explained that without tools, longer observation, and a deeper understanding of the area and the ponderosa pine, we really couldn’t know. The point wasn’t to find the answer, it was to practice getting answers from deep pondering and observation. 

We pushed on and found pine trees bigger than anyone had ever seen. Fungi that came in all kinds of shapes and colors, perplexing the students in texture and sight. We hiked underneath riparian canopies and crossed gushing creeks of water. “Why is water coming from the top of the mountain? It didn’t rain?” The students answered “spring!” How do those work? What is a spring anyway? And where is it getting its water? This was confusing for the students, but they eventually began to get to the right conclusion. We discussed the formation of mountains and their structural composure, water from aquafers and the rise and fall of groundwater tables, compression from rock, lunar tidal forces, and the absorption high desert mountains have of any atmospheric moisture. All of these lead to the collection, compression, and seepage of water. The students seemed surprised and excited to learn all of this info, and at the end of the trip, they reported it was one of their favorite parts.

At the end of the day, we circled up and debriefed the expedition. We reflected upon our goals, identified our favorite parts of the day, and discussed what it was that we learned. For the first expedition of the semester, it was amazing. None of these students had have engaged in outdoor learning quite like this before, but all of them loved it. We hit all of our goals and more, thoroughly experiencing the mixed coniferous and riparian area of Sunset Trail, comparing and observing different biomes in the Sonoran Desert, and observing our place within these environments. It was a wonderful day, with plenty more to come.