Project More with Sycamores

On October 29th, 2019, 9 students from Project More High School left for an adventure into the Santa Catalina Mountains. Using the Arizona Trail, we ventured into a wonderful landscape that was like nothing the students had seen before. We wanted to learn about high desert biomes and how riparian areas change the arid landscapes. For this, Sycamore Reservoir was the choice. It offered a challenging hike through two biomes and a lot of history, a perfect place to blend outdoor education, physical activity, and a perfect day on the Arizona Trail.

October brings awkward weather to the Tucson Area. The sun still pours strong radiation through clear blue skies, heating the body quickly. Though the air around might be cool, the body still cooks all the same. At 5000’ elevation, the atmospheric temperature drops significantly. Our hike started in perfect weather. Clouds dotted the sky and gave us continuous relief from the sun, enough relief that students complained about being too cold. It was the perfect introduction to sky island ecology and some of the larger forces that dictate biomes. We began our expedition by discussing our intentions and goals for the day and what we were excited to see or do. Most students previously wanted to learn and hike more. Easy enough.

Through the arroyo we went. Under cottonwood and sycamore trees. I asked the students to focus on characteristics about the landscape that stood out, and things that seemed to repeat themselves. Even dry, the arroyo at this elevation lent itself to deciduous trees. The leaves and size of sycamore trees were apparently different from the oaks and junipers that surrounded us. The students picked it up fast, and we discussed both of these as ambassador species for their respective biomes. Our hike forward supported our observations, but the steep incline kept us out of breath and unable to discuss the landscape very much. It wasn’t until we reached the saddle that we were able to break long enough to rest. We asked the students to take a moment and find a place to sit and relax alone, and spend time seeing, listening, and feeling the environment around them. They gladly did so each finding the spot that worked best for them. After 10 minutes, we gathered and described what we observed and noticed during our period of rest. Later in the day, a student would tell me football brings him total freedom and peace. The only other time he has felt a level of peace like that is when we did our quite rest on the saddle. 

The reservoir shines like the green of a june beetle back. It stands out, tucked into the yellow hills of the valley. We wandered down the trail falling into the canopy and submerging under it. We followed a secret path around the damn and to a series of pools where the valley walls close tight around us. Under an arizona cypress tree, surrounded by water flowing water, we discussed the history of Sycamore Reservoir. The students were surprised to learn that a prison camp existed here in the 1930s, holding Japanese citizens who were forced to build the Catalina Highway which leads to the top of the mountain, and most of the other structures we had seen along the way. The reservoir was used to hold water for the prisoners and guards, and since the camps dismantling and abandonment this area has become a riparian oasis in little time. I used this to demonstrate that these areas show and hold so much importance and habitat for both humans and wildlife. 

Our hike back was hard. The cold cloudy day we began with drained away to fill the basin with strong sun rays. Our bodies heated up quickly, making the hike far harder than expected. The students were ready for it though, and they pushed themselves excitedly. When we returned to our van, we paused and discussed the day, what we had learned, and what we were excited to experience on our next hike. The students loved the challenge and felt that learning about ripariana areas changed how they viewed water in the desert. The mindfulness was a crowd favorite, and they hoped for more hiking and mindfulness on the next hike. Considering we have so many more, with such a great group, I know we will have a special experience.