Eagle River Elementary students get in touch with nature in Ottawa National ForestSubmitted: 04/30/2018
Lane Kimble
Lane Kimble
News Director

Eagle River Elementary students get in touch with nature in Ottawa National Forest
WATERSMEET, MI - Whether rustling through the leaves, stomping through the snow, or getting up close and personal with some tree bark, Eagle River Elementary students really got to know the land on Monday.

"Their own backyard, in many cases," Ottawa National Forest Conservation Education Coordinator Joe Panci said.

But that land sits in another state.  The group of nearly 60 fourth-grade students took a field trip up to the Ottawa National Forest in Watersmeet, Michigan.  It's part of a year-long nature education during which the students have taken various field trips, including a visit to Madison.  The goal on this trip was simple: get outside and actually get in touch with nature.

"There are times where maybe a group walks away and I go, 'I don't know. Did they really learn much? What did they take away and retain?'" Panci said of leading past tour groups. "Other times, I think, 'Oh, there's hope!'"

Panci and fellow U.S. Forest Service worker Randi Ellsworth led an "alphabet hike" through the forest and animal identification tours, then awarded students with their own free passes to a national park. The passes came thanks to the federal "Every Kid in a Park" program, which started in 2015.

"Hopefully, they'll be better stewards of the land when they're in charge, making decisions," Panci said of the fourth graders.

It was on land a little closer to their own back yards that the students brought some of what they learned in the Upper Peninsula to their school forest a few miles north of Eagle River.

"They're becoming one with their surroundings, rather than just woods and dirt and leaves," teacher Nicole Musial said.

Musial hoped to have her students plant trees in the school forest along Highway 45 on Monday afternoon, but the ground was too frozen still to allow it. Instead, they improvised by starting a nature-based scavenger hunt and finding symmetry in forest items.

"There's just so much to do... You just get to adventure off with some of your friends and you're not with a teacher the whole time," student Josh Graves said.

Teachers -- keeping a close watch on the adventure-driven students -- agreed, it's nice to get out of the classroom and into a learning space that will become their students' place to teach in and protect soon enough.

"You can see the excitement, you can see how they're really getting into this... They're gonna probably share those memories for the rest of their life," Musial said.

Those memories will get put to the test next month. Eagle River Elementary will host its first ever Conservation Fair, where each student today will need to present on a different topic. The fair is on May 16 from 4-5:30 p.m. at the elementary school. It is open to the public.

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