"It couldn't have happened on a nicer day," said Paul Kimpling, the U.S. Forest Service Youth Conservation Corps leader with the Paonia Ranger District, while dozens of North Fork area fourth-grade students explored the Lost Lake area of Kebler Pass. The weather was perfect, and the trees were at their peak of color.
The field trip was attended by all North Fork area fourth-grade classes and was sponsored by the Paonia Ranger District and Grand Mesa, Montrose, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests, in partnership with the Paonia-based Western Slope Conservation Center, as part of a new federal Every Kid in a Park initiative. The event was also held in honor of National Public Lands Day, which was Saturday, Sept. 26.
Through the initiative, fourth-grade students throughout the nation can obtain a free pass granting them and their families (three accompanying adults or an entire car for drive-in parks) free access to more than 2,000 federally managed sites nationwide. Passes are valid through Aug. 31, 2016.
A lot of kids don't have many opportunities to get out into the forests and learn about wilderness, said Kimpling. "The goal is to get kids out into the forest," to get them excited about public lands, and to create future stewards of the land by giving them first-hand experiences within them.
Throughout the day, students visited five different educational stations to learn about geology, trees, and the Leave No Trace land ethic principals. They also helped build bat houses to install at their respective schools.
Kimpling said this is the first time for the field trip, and one he hopes will become an annual event. And it's a great way to get some exercise, added Kimpling.
A total of 35 adults, including 10 community volunteers, helped keep the event running smoothly. Students, teachers and parent volunteers split into groups and took turns visiting each of five educational stations set up around the lake, hiking to the upper Lost Lake, and meeting pack mule brothers Bruce and Jimmy.
Pack mules are a big part of Forest Service heritage and history and are still used today for hauling gear and building supplies into and out of the wilderness, where motorized vehicles are prohibited, said Barrett Funka, a Natural Resources Specialist and Wilderness Manager for the forest service Paonia Field Office. Barrett has worked extensively with the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Regional Pack String, and said that each animal can carry upwards of 200 pounds of materials.
Barrett paraded a string of mules at the 2014 Cherry Days in Paonia, and said that the animals also packed out some 500 pounds of trash from the Raggeds Wilderness area last summer.
Mules are part of the history and heritage of the forest service, and are "a good face for the Forest Service," said Funka. Despite their imposing size, they are also gentle with children.
The pack mule station also displayed some of the tools used in managing wilderness, including axes, crosscut saws (also called tie hacks), and hammers, since power tools are prohibited in the wilderness.
At the geology station, kids identified the three types of rocks. Geologists Liane Matson and Jessica Lopez Pearce explained how Lost Lake is a moraine lake and how it was formed by glaciers.
Paonia Elementary School principal Sam Cox said the program is a nice compliment to other programs that local agencies and the school are offering this fall, including last week's sixth-grade "Cottonwood Days" and an upcoming third-grade trip to Escalante Canyon, sponsored by the Colorado Canyons Association.
The Forest Service also sends educational materials and suggestions for follow-up activities back to the schools, and Cox said he planned to ask kids to observe the changing landscapes on the bus ride back to the school. "But the best way to learn is by hands-on experience and by being in the environment."