Happy trails comes to an end
It’s a chance for fourth-graders to find out more about the natural world around them while getting a couple of days off from school.
It’s also a chance for Steve Elgersma to do what he loves.
Elgersma, who is retiring at the end of the school year as a fourth-grade teacher at the Waupaca Learning Center, led a group of more than 50 students on his final field trip to Trees for Tomorrow, an environmental education center in Eagle River.
He has been taking students to the center for more than 20 years. This year’s trip, from May 8-10, was his last.
“We originally started our environmental ed program in third grade and decided to do the overnight program in fourth grade, thinking that would be about the right age for them to get away and be independent,” he said in a Trees for Tomorrow classroom shortly before helping to line students up for the three-hour bus ride back to Waupaca.
This year’s trip included several activities from a trip to a bog near the Wisconsin/Michigan border to a hike through the nearby Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest to games that stress teamwork.
“The programs have changed a little bit according to what’s going on in the state,” Elgersma said. “For example, wolves have become a big issue, so they’ve introduced a wolves talk. Bats have become more of an issue since their illnesses have been taking place, so they’re trying to inform kids about bats.
“My science program all year long is designed to prepare them for their experience here,” he added. “We do a lot of talking about water quality, water usage and conservation and do a lot of environmental studies in the classroom. A lot of this is the hands-on part of them learning about the environment. I don’t like to steal the thunder away from the camp. I want them to present things the way they want to because these people have been trained in their area and know what they’re talking about.”
Take a hike
A highlight of each of Elgersma’s field trips has been a hike through the nearby forest.
Trees for Tomorrow teacher and naturalist Troy Walters led hikers and chaperones down the Anvil National Recreation Trail about 10 miles east of Eagle River. Each chaperone teamed up with five or six students and they all had to use a compass to find their way back to Military Road, where Walters waited with a bus. The morning hikers had to deal with countless downed trees and branches and an occasional wetland, while the afternoon group hiked in the pouring rain.
All eventually found the road and bus, but Elgersma said there have been some search parties organized in the past.
“We’ve had some adults that thought they knew how to use a compass or decided to just go their own way and didn’t make it back to the bus in a timely fashion,” he said. “We spent a little over an hour waiting for them.”
Walters prepared the students for the hike with a talk on how to properly use a compass.
“I think we underestimate a lot of times what kids are able to learn,” Elgersma said. “When we present it to them and do it in a way that brings it down to their level, they catch on pretty quick.”
Besides the hike, bog trip, classroom time and a visit to the Trees for Tomorrow store, there was also an opportunity to gather around a campfire for s’mores.
Students helped raise funds for the trip by selling cookie dough and cheesecakes last fall. The School District of Waupaca also provides funding, as do sponsors like the Wisconsin Energy Foundation.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Elgersma said. “We’ve had a pretty good environmental program in Waupaca with a lot of support from administration and the school board to have a good program. When we decided to come up here, the doors were open for us and they allowed us to keep coming up here. We certainly hope it continues.”
Now that Elgersma has more than 20 annual trips in the books, he’s starting to see the second generation.
“I get it all the time,” he said. “There are several families where I had the mothers and fathers and their sons and daughters. They still talk about it.”
Away from home
Some of the kids are away from home for the first time, which can present some challenges, according to Elgersma.
“We have to spend some time being their mother or their father, but by and large, the kids at this level do a really good job of being away from home,” he said. “We find it’s a growing up experience for them. The parents are nervous, but they usually find out that their kids were successful. It kind of starts a new phase for some of the children. When we tell them about it at the beginning of the year, they look forward to it all year long.”
Elgersma has taken students to the camp at different times of the year.
“What I like about this time of the year is we’ve already had a chance to learn a lot of things in the classroom,” he said. “They’ve had a chance to grow up and mature. The weather’s a little nicer. I know the children better and they know me. By coming up a little later, we’ve been able to add some programs that we weren’t able to do in the winter, like the bog walk.
“We have brought them up when there was snow,” he said. “We’ve had kids up here in March and April to snowshoe on trails in two or three feet of snow. It was the same program, the same camp, just a different time of the year.”
In all of the years of going on the trip, Elgersma never had to cancel an activity because of rain. That streak ended on the final night of his final camp, as pouring rain caused a night hike to be called off.
“The odds were against me and they finally caught up,” he said.
As the kids waited in line to climb on the bus for the ride home, they presented Elgersma with a Trees for Tomorrow T-shirt that the students and chaperones had signed.
“By and large, all the experiences we’ve had have been fun,” he said. “We’ve never had any tragic things. I don’t think I ever had to send anybody back because of behavior or illness.
“It’s been a good experience for me and I think it’s been a good experience for the children,” he added. “I just hope it’s something that other teachers will value. I’m hoping the school district will continue to support the program because it’s a worthwhile program.”