FRENCHTOWN — To a second-grader, everything outside the school door looks like wilderness.
Especially at Frenchtown Elementary School, where the playground has actual cattail wetlands and the occasional bear wandering through. Nevertheless, Lane Long’s class of children seemed fully prepared to discuss the finer points of wildland management when the U.S. Forest Service came to call Wednesday.
“The capital-W Wilderness is wilderness that’s protected by the Wilderness Act,” explained Payton Hicks, 8, as he waited to visit with Ninemile Ranger District staff about horsepacking and firefighting in the nation’s most pristine backcountry. Hicks was part of a novel learning opportunity developed by student teacher Lizzy Douglas, who was testing its ideas with Lane’s students.
So in addition to studying the history of John Muir and Bob Marshall and other wilderness advocates, the kids got an up-close-and-personal look at the challenges of working in places where wheels and motors must be left at the border. Forest Service packer Casey Burns brought his pals, Palmer the mule and Longshanks the horse, to demonstrate the challenges.
“He’s a real-life animal packer – one of them salty guys,” joked ranger Tim Staufer. “He chews up rocks for breakfast. You believe that?”
The kids weren’t so sure, and they also were dubious of the tan pouches of food – MREs – Burns said smokejumpers eat in the wilderness while on fire duty. With practiced ease, he boxed and lashed three big cartons of food for loading on Palmer’s pack saddle. In another crate, he added a hard day’s worth of Pulaskis and other hand tools for digging fire line.
“Can you take bikes in the wilderness,” he asked the students. No, came the reply – no wheels allowed.
“What about flashlights?” Yes, the law allows battery-powered devices.
“What about battery-powered drills?” Tricky. A power drill doesn’t qualify as a primitive tool, so it has to stay behind.
The horse and mule paid no attention to the squirming crowd of children as Burns loaded them. Staufer explained their symbiotic relationship – people need the animals to carry gear and animals need the care they get from people.
“Is that like the clown fish and the aneome?” asked Mercedes Cruz, a third-grader in Darlene Normand’s class. Just like it, said a slightly taken-aback Staufer.
“This is such a great opportunity to get students out of the classroom and learning,” Douglas said as the children peppered Burns and Staufer with questions. She designed the Wilderness Investigations curriculum as part of her requirement to get a master’s degree in education at the University of Montana. A chance meeting with Long at a conference last summer led to Douglas landing a student-teacher internship at Frenchtown, where she got to try out the lessons in a classroom setting.
“I grew up doing a lot of hiking and camping in northern Wisconsin,” Douglas said. “I think children should be aware of the natural history of the wilderness and natural resources. Especially since next year is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964.”