By Mike Bienkowski
It is early June, and we are five minutes into our first day of San Juan Mountains Association’s “San Juan Ramblers” nature camp.
Twenty kids have gathered in a small field near the upper Junction Creek Trailhead. They play games, search the high grass for insects and make nature journals from a box of craft supplies. A typical enough scene for a Monday morning, but my colleague and I exchange apprehensive glances. We are already exhausted. This is the most human contact any of us have had in months, and undoubtedly everyone, counselors and kids alike, is already thinking, “And we have how many more hours of this?”
We begin to walk, and within minutes everyone has dropped back into the wonder of the present moment. Blooming flowers, verdant green, the golden filtered light and the popping colors of butterflies quickly erase any anxiety or apprehension.
After a day spent filling basins with nymphs collected from the stream, sketching wildflowers, building forts and lizard homes, and catching up with friends amid the safety of open air, the kids are all smiles as they return to the trailhead and their waiting parents, the colorful face-coverings the only indication that anything is different in the world.
I am amazed each day at how naturally learning happens in the outdoors. Young children are very much in their “explorer” phase of life. They are wired to connect to the world around them, which is still so new.
Their excitement shows up in many ways – from one child exuberantly declaring, “Lookit! We got a biggie big BIG big!” in reference to the giant stonefly nymph he just pulled from the stream to the enraptured silence of an entire group, as a harrier emerges from the ponderosas and circles us noiselessly before sweeping off toward a new clearing.
Learning in our programs tends to follow the same model – a memorable experience involving direct contact with something wild serves as an anchor point for learning. Once captured by the experience of the harrier circling, suddenly questions about flight adaptations, hunting strategies and predator-prey interactions become far more relevant and real.
While the benefits of outdoor learning are real and easily observable, the impacts go far beyond content and standards. These days, we live our lives amid a constellation of stimuli that pull our attention in multiple directions at once. We get caught up in stories about how things are different than we remembered them, or in anxieties about planning for an uncertain future. Mix this with the increased access to information afforded by technology, and we have a recipe for very unsettled energy indeed.
Children are not impervious to this energy – they absorb it, carry it and feel the weight of it, just like adults do. Nature offers a symphony of sights, sounds, smells, textures and sensations, which capture children’s attention, stimulate their senses and imaginations, and immerse them fully in the present moment so they can focus on what they are wired to do – explore, connect and learn to love.
SJMA continues to offer nature education year-round. Fall programming includes after-school hiking and outdoor science camps, school-based nature enrichment and teacher education workshops. For more information about our programming or to enroll your child, visit our After-School Program page.
By Harry Bellow
Oftentimes, our work leads us off trail, bushwhacking to high alpine lakes in the shadows of towering peaks. Odds are you have stumbled across our work at some point during your trips into the wilderness. Our work is often invisible unless you know what to look for: clear trails, litter-free campsites and the disappearance of illegal campsites. The life of a wilderness steward is not easy, but the rewarding nature of the work draws one into a vast array of uncomfortable situations.
Funded with donations to San Juan Mountains Association’s Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund, the task of the Wilderness Stewardship Team is to preserve, protect, monitor and educate people about wilderness principles. Our office is the wilderness areas around Durango, some of the most extreme terrain in the Lower 48.
On a typical week, we arrive at the Public Lands Center at 7 a.m. with backpacks filled with four days’ worth of supplies. We gather tools and team equipment, such as radios, crosscut saws, Pulaskis and shovels. Our drive out to the wilderness can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a whopping five hours. Sometimes, it is impossible to get all the way to a trailhead as the roads can be extreme in the rugged country. Upon arrival, the team suits up and begins work.
As we enter the wilderness area, we mark down the time and begin to count people we see. The data we collect about usage goes to classify the area in terms of impact. Pristine areas are relatively untouched by humans while semi-pristine areas are impacted by constant visitor use.
While we collect this data, we are monitoring campsites as well. Led by Asia Pfiefer, wilderness monitoring lead of the San Juan National Forest, the team is given GPS coordinates of existing campsites in the area. We find all of these campsites, survey them, pick up any litter and destroy them if they are illegal or have not been used for many seasons.
Commonly, we find aluminum foil in the fire rings, toilet paper in the bushes and forgotten frying pans. Most often, campsites are found along the trails and near a water source. Camping too close to a water source, less than 100 feet, dissuades wildlife from using it.
As we wander through the wilderness, we also complete trail work and make visitor contacts. Our mission is to protect the wilderness character. By clearing trails, we funnel the impact of visitors into a narrow area leaving most of the wilderness in its pristine state. We inform visitors about ways to minimize their impact so the wilderness character can be preserved for generations to come. All the while, mountains and the sounds of wind, birds and insects surround us.
As the sun sets, our work is finished. We often cook dinner, jump into lakes and sleep like the rocks surrounding us. I prefer to get in a nature run before the light fades. I am rewarded with the sights of deer and elk bounding away from me, and I am reminded of my visitor status. The sights I am privileged to see and the clean mountain air remind me of why I do what I do.
Harry Bellow works with San Juan Mountains Association as a wilderness steward.
By Lexie Stetson-Lee
San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is developing a pipeline of conservation education programs to connect the local community with their public lands. SJMA has long provided interpretive programs as a partner of the U.S. Forest Service, serving up glacial geology tours, edible plant hikes and volunteer crew training for adults with a passion for conservation. And
now, after the organization’s merger with Durango Nature Studies, we are able to pair youth education, from preschool to high school, with stewardship of local land.
This pipeline of programs is rooted in the idea that consistent, repeated outdoor experiences over one’s lifetime can have a transformative effect. A transformative effect on self-efficacy levels, technical skills, mental health and a sense of belonging. A transformative effect on how we react to, and relate to those using public lands differently than we do. A transformative effect on the local landscape as we decide to respect and steward our public lands.
You know the ingredients: backyard exploration, cultural stories, time by a creek, experience working with animals and agriculture, chopping wood, hiking the blackened Hermosa Creek Trail, and looking for fish in the Highland Mary Lakes. These are the building blocks for an ethic of stewardship. Developing good stewards of the land is a process—it takes time and effort.
Outdoor education has the power to do this work, especially in small, myriad ways. The other day, my four-year-old daughter shrieked: “Harold!” She named an ant found on the sagebrush hill behind our house. “Airwld.” Repeated my two-year-old son after her. Monkey see, monkey do. Small, consistent trips outside serve as medicine during this time of stay-at-home anxiety, in addition to providing educational opportunities. Lately, in our household, we’ve learned about Wilderness designation, local watersheds, and the Woolly Apple Aphid. I treasure outside time with my own children as it reasserts that they will have a connection to nature, and if not an interest in, at least a willingness to learn about life interwoven with the land. Their future will depend on our collective ability to live in harmony with the natural world. Southwestern Colorado’s identity, heritage, quality of life and economic well-being all stem from our connections to the spectacular public lands that surround us. I hope that through repeated connections to nature, my own children will be given a voice in these issues.
Public lands stewardship is a recognition of our collective responsibility. A timely idea as we process the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it. Seemingly, our collective responsibility for stewarding public lands is even more poignant—even more promising with a robust educational infrastructure. The small choices we make now, including educating ourselves and our community, are key steps towards a healthy land use future.
With Colorado Public Lands Day upon us, on May 16th , SJMA encourages everyone to recognize and celebrate the incredible access we have to open space and the outdoor education opportunities available in our region. In honor of Colorado Public Lands Day, SJMA is hosting a Facebook Live teach-in on the “Watersheds of the Weminuche Wilderness” at 10:00 AM on Thursday, May 14th . Join us to learn how the spectacular Weminuche Wilderness contains some of the West’s most important watersheds. We’re hopeful that your engagement will spur more interest in the land we all use and love.
by David Taft, Conservation Director, San Juan Mountains Association
As one of Durango’s longest running public lands education and stewardship organizations, San Juan Mountains Association has plenty of experience connecting folks with the outdoors and confronting challenges in the backcountry. However, just like everyone else, we are caught in the midst of the ongoing public health situation. We’re currently observing how it relates to our local public lands and the San Juans community, as well as figuring out how we will approach this season. We have been in close communications with our agency partners, fellow conservation organizations, and healthcare specialists to ensure that we can continue pursuing our mission of caring for our local public lands, while protecting the health of our staff and supporters.
This season we have planned on upping our efforts in the Weminuche Wilderness, and we continue working hard to ensure that these plans can go forward. This is especially important as people continue to retreat to the local mountains for their social distance, a trend likely to continue as weather warms and trails dry. In a collaborative effort with the San Juan National Forest, we will help manage a new San Juan Ranger crew thanks to generous donations from the local community. This crew will be backpacking through heavy use areas, documenting and maintaining trail conditions, restoring heavily impacted areas, engaging with the public (according to CDC guidelines), and ensuring that the SJNF has the information they need to make informed management decisions. We will be providing reports from the field over the course of the season so that we can all keep an eye on their progress.
While in-person volunteer events are off the table in the near term, there are still ways to get involved. Sign up for a webinar (we are hosting a Colorado Public Lands Day crosscut saw Zoom course!), stay informed about future volunteer outings through our E-News at SJMA.org, and share your stories and photos to stay positive. We encourage everyone looking to stay excited about our magnificent local public lands by sending in a short write up along with photos of a memorable trip to the San Juans. You can send these to us at our instagram @sjma_co, Facebook, or email@example.com.
As always, we will continue to offer visitor information for local public lands, and our staff will do their best to provide the clearest up to date guidance on trails, access, facilities, and regulations.
Thank you, be safe, be healthy, stay close to home.