Seeing the Change

On October 10th, 2018, 19 students from Mountain Vista Elementary School took the long journey up Catalina Highway to explore Mt. Lemmon’s gorgeous landscapes. The top of this mountain has remained unexplored for most of these students, and with the changing season comes the gems of colors and fragrance. The youth were incredibly excited to learn and adventure in these unique mountaintops, not quite knowing just how incredible it was going to be.

When we arrived, we circled up to discuss how to operate in the mountains. Elevation makes hiking difficult, and the students would soon find this out. The students were confident, but as they ran forward determined to climb with gusto, their pace quickly slowed. Once as chattery as a Mexican Jay, their voices were soon replaced with heavy breaths and complaints. This was their first lesson into Sky Islands, and how elevation effects animals, plants, and weather. After some time, our respiratory system made the adjustment.

We were able to hike easier, letting our attention wander. With near screams, the students exploded as a large Abert’s Squirrel bounded up a tree and stopped from an overhanging branch. The youth had never seen a squirrel like this, and most of them did not recognize it to be one. Squirrels up here look different than they do down in the valley. The trail ran parallel to the creek below, giving us a tall view of the riparian ribbon consisting of maple, sycamore, and many more deciduous trees alike. The colors filled our eyes as the sweet smell of fallen leaves wafted through our noses. Here became a perfect platform to discuss photosynthesis, deciduous plants, and what the heck is color anyway? The students were stumped with this question, playfully thinking in circles and firing ideas from the hip as soon as their minds were loaded. Together above the canopy, we understood why the leaves change colors, what the fallen leaves do for soils, and how understanding light and color can help us interpret the natural landscapes around us.

Lunch was enjoyed next to the creek, with our ears filled with the sounds of tiny cascading waterfalls and busy birds. Deep in the creek, the gorge walls were covered in a carpet of leaves as was the canopy above and the floor below. At this moment it seemed like we were in apastel room of reds and oranges. While the kids ate, we talked about seed adaptations in forests, and how fire, wind, and water all play important and necessary roles in order for them to become giants. 

When lunch was finished, we began to make our way along the creek. We discussed the fragility of mountain pools, and their incredible diversity of flora and fauna. The youth were impressed to realize how important these veins of water are to thdry desert valleys below. That the water up here feeds the local wildlife down below, including us. Peering into the pools we saw a variety of arthropods, canyon tree frogs, mosses and algae. Using the metaphor of “homes” from our previous trip, I now related these micro-ecosystems to whole cities. “Can you see the homes? Farms? Neighborhoods?” One student shouted,  “I see the grocery store!” We all took extra caution moving forward.

The mixed coniferous forest hybridized with the riparian ribbon made a lush and wonderful experience. It is a long journey from Mountain Vista Elementary to Marshall Gulch Trailhead, but well worth it considering the lessons learned and adventure experienced. The students, worn out, still held expressions of joy and awe when we returned to the vehicle. Before departing, we circled and debriefed the day. The kids described their favorite part of the day, and the most interesting thing they learned. Everyone seemed to have something unique to say, not surprised considering Mt. Lemmon and the Arizona Trail might be the best classroom there is.

Thanks to Resolution Copper for their support of this outing!