Posts Tagged ‘Teton Science School’

At 5:10am, my alarm went off.  I had already packed a day pack full of food and just had to jump into my car.  The dashboard read 39 degrees.  I love how many times the day and night temperatures vary by 40 degrees here.

I started driving toward town and dutifully went 45 miles per hour, the nighttime speed limit.  About fifteen minutes down the road, I had to slam on my breaks for two buck mule deer who came jumping out of nowhere.  When I finally reached town, I began by eating breakfast in my car while I waited for Christy, a fellow grad, and Marc to come out.

In no time, we piled into Marc’s van and headed into the Elk Refuge.  The rough road went okay until we turned up Curtis Canyon and then the going went a little slower.  We wound upward through the Elk Refuge into the National Forest past tents and large pot holes.  Reaching the trailhead, we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Throwing on our packs we began up the trail.  The first uphill slog, fireweed, indian paintbrush, tobacco brush, and sagebrush surrounded the trail.

“Wait.  If I’m hiking with two TSS grads, does that mean double the dorking out along trails?” Marc asked.

“Yes!” Christy and I both laughed.

Soon after, we topped a ridge covered in conifers.  We chatted back and forth listening to the red squirrels and trying to see how many wildflowers we could identify.  We saw no one.  Along the way, we saw a grouse and heard many pika.  Not long after the pika in the talus, we went into the Gros Ventre Wilderness.

After roughly three total miles, we got to Goodwin Lake.  A few people sat camping a little ways off the lake – the first people we saw all morning.  We took an extended snack break and used it as an opportunity to examine the map.  We knew that we needed to stay on the north side of the lake, then take a climbers trail that split off to the east.  The internet said the side trail would split about half a mile after the lake.

Elephant Head

Elephant Head

Setting off, we ran into a side trail splitting east almost instantly, but it seemed to only circumnavigate the lake.  We poked around to look, just in case and found some brilliant elephant head flowers.  Marc laughed as Christy and I examined it more closely.

We kept hiking for more than half a mile and began to examine the southern ridge.  The northern ridge that we approached before the lake looked like a lot of unstable scree, so we did not think that the trail would go up there.  On the way, we saw fields full of purple lupines and a white humble flower which we could not identify.

“Whoa! Mandy! Look at that banding!” Christy exclaimed mid conversation and pointed.

“Holy metamorphic rock!” I replied finding it.

Marc stopped, turned around, and said, “Really?!”

“It’s awesome!” Christy said.

“That’s the kind of example you hope to find to show students because the banding is so obvious,” I said.

At that point, we looked up at the southern ridge and discussed how we planned on going up.  We knew if we could get to the top of it, we could hike straight to the summit.  The question was, do we go straight up or do we look for a way to switchback our way up?  We decided to head down the trail a little bit further to get a better vantage point.

Not even five minutes up the trail, the side trail split off with a cairn switch-backing up the ridge steeply.  We laughed at how obvious the trail was.  We headed upward toward the southern ridge taking breathers to look at the map and pick out the surrounding peaks in the Gros Ventres.

We could see the summit.  We had heard that the last 100 feet or so to the summit was “a bit of a rock scramble.”  Lie.  The trail turned to loose talus and scree for the last 50 or so feet walking, not 100 vertical feet.  And it definitely was not a scramble…fun, but not a scramble.  As the first ones on the summit, we set about taking photos and eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches.

About fifteen minutes later, we heard something.  All three of us turned in the direction of the sound going silent instantly.

“Humans,” Christy said and we all went back to munching and ogling Sleeping Indian, the beautiful mountain to the north.  After the other hikers came up, we helped each other out taking group shots, then we headed back down.  We poked around at the flowers and found some more cool rocks with very apparent feldspar and quartz crystals imbedded in them.  As we passed probably 20 more hikers, we all agreed that our early start was a good thing.  We hit the summit at the right time with the right people.

Summit Cairn, Jackson Peak, WY. 10,741ft.

Summit Cairn, Jackson Peak, WY. 10,741ft.

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This title worked equally well for both a thru-hike and grad school.  In a thru-hike, the last two hundred miles or so begin to feel weird.  As the end of the trail gets nearer, an odd feeling comes up; the long, epic journey will stop in its current form and change directions.  The body rallies, excited to sit on a couch and eat for a week to regain lost weight and allow muscles to relax, but the mind begins to feel unrest.

My feet begin to hurt for a new round, probably because I should replace my sandals but I am stubborn and do not want to only for the last little bit.  My hips have absolutely no fat left on them and I’ve cut off a chunk of my sleeping pad and duct taped it to the hip belt of my pack for extra cushion.  My legs and arms show a summer full of scratched mosquito bites, gashes, scrapes, and bruises.  My stomach growls even after eating 800 calorie meals.

The destination feels great, but the mind and the body thirst for more, just moved to a new place after some rest because the journey made the highlights of the trail in its own right.

In TSS, the capstone represents the final push toward graduation.  Most of our grad class works field education in Kelly split into three teams: one team of six, one of five, and one of four (but the team of four has adopted other members).  I am in the team of four which created a course on Sustainability and Leadership, or SNL for short.  The course spans for three weeks, has nine Summer Search high school students, has two weeks in Kelly, one week front-country camping in Yellowstone National Park and visits a farm.

In true TSS style, we also had a group to teach the week before our capstone course so we work for a month straight.  Many, if not all, of those days are 12+ hour days.  Free time does not really exist.  In my “free time” right now, I’m working on this synthesis homework project…

My brain has hurt for a month straight.  My room has papers scattered everywhere.  I found a book in my bed one night.  I cannot process words very well without yerba mate in the morning.  My “to-do” list never ends and usually covers an entire page.  Teaching has somehow become more relaxing than logistics.  I’m not drinking from the fire hose, I am the fire hose!

This summer has taken the term “flexi-pants” to a whole new level.

Rainbow in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

Rainbow in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

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Reaching that moment when the mileage left drops from four digits to three digits allows a thru-hiker to breathe a bit easier.  Maybe we will beat the early winter snows!  Maybe our bodies will hold up long enough to reach the finish line!  Maybe we can continue eating oatmeal for another two and a half months even though we’ve eaten it for three months straight!  Maybe our new sandals or shoes will last until the end!

Bittersweet overall, this milestone always means that something great will eventually come to an end.  With a worn out body and perpetually sore feet, the drop in mileage provides a needed dose of motivation.  A new burst of energy comes with the excitement which will fuel another segment.  It becomes a reminder of how awesome life really is on trail: wake up, hike, eat, hike, eat, hike, eat, hike, go to bed under the stars with the fresh air.

This point at TSS comes with Spring Break.  A week off?  Really?  Whoa!  Returning back to campus, we have only two more classes (Spring Teaching Practicum and Advanced Elements of Field Ecology Course Design, abbreviated to AEFECD, but pronounced as affected) and a Summer Capstone.  The burst of energy after spring break combined with melting snow and longer days gives a new breath after the winter.  By melting snow, I mean that the snow is only about two or three feet deep around campus instead of somewhere around six feet.  Some of the sagebrush began poking out a few leaves above the glassy white snow blanket.

I struggled with the Spring Teaching Practicum because instead of field education in Kelly, I had to go on “Outreach.”  Instead of the kids coming to us, we went to the kids in their schools across the state of Wyoming.  Now usually, the complaints about Outreach deal with long travel time in vans, having to stay in hotels, and leaving the Kelly life behind.  My main complaint: I really just don’t like little kids in large groups.  Field Ed had an age range of 5th-12th grade.  In contrast, in Outreach, I taught 3rd grade, 1st grade, pre-k, and only two days of 6th grade.  Not to mention that the spring season means the beginning of thru-hiker season and I would not be thru-hiking.  Rough.  I could not wait to get back to teaching older kids.  At least they can zip up their own jackets.  Luckily, all summer I would be teaching high school and only one week of 5th grade.

The Tetons reflecting into Jackson Lake on my 60 mile bike ride.

The Tetons reflecting into Jackson Lake on my 60 mile bike ride.

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There comes a point in a thru-hike where a hiker’s metabolism passes the amount of calories that the hiker can carry.  Thru-hikers often run on a calorie deficit while in the woods, then need to binge on food in town to make up lost calories.  Let me say clearly that hikers will eat as much as they can carry comfortably and by no means try to limit the calories eaten on trail.  In fact, most food goes through a filter: each food item carried should have a minimum of 100 calories per ounce in order to maximize calories and minimize food weight.

Usually, I realize that I’ve come to this point when I need to eat three scoops of straight peanut butter immediately before bed or I’ll wake up at 2:00am so hungry that I have to eat.  Awhile later, there comes a point where I must find other foods with high calories because I’ll start to gag on peanut butter after eating one pound of it every four or five days.  The point without peanut butter becomes a critical one because it’s hard to beat 190 calories and 7 grams of protein in two Tbsp.  When this happens, I need olive oil to add to all food and I’ll drink the extra olive oil before leaving town.  On top of all the calorie deficits, my feet are probably starting to hurt again more than usual.

During the winter at TSS, I became so busy that I didn’t even have time to shower.  Between an intense class, Ecological Inquiry, and our Winter Teaching Practicum, I found myself accidentally going five or six days without showering.  I field taught for the first two weeks of the Winter Teaching Practicum as well as trying my best to spend my evenings working on Ecological Inquiry work.  After spending a whole day teaching kids how to cross-country ski or snow shoe while simultaneously teaching them about winter ecology, mammalian survival strategies, winter plant adaptations and keeping the kids warm when the temperature barely reaches -5 degrees Fahrenheit, the last thing that I wanted to do was homework for another class.

But wait! There’s more! The entire Ecological Inquiry class based itself in student group inquiry.  While I field taught in Kelly, two of my teammates taught young kids in Idaho, and another taught high schoolers in Jackson.  We had to communicate via google docs, email, and Facebook.  Let’s not forget sleep!  My brain began hurting again a bit more than it had.

There’s even more!  This winter, TSS popularized the term “flexi-pants.”  Every time snow changed our plans, all we would hear from any higher-ups was “Get your flexi-pants on!”  Imagine hearing that after not having time to shower for five days.

A moose outside my window.  The snow came up past the bottom of the window.

A moose outside my window. The snow came up past the bottom of the window.

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About half way through a thru-hike, one of the common questions that plague thru-hikers begins to nag on the thru-hiker’s conscious: What are you going to do after the trail?  Many times, I want to slap the person asking it even though they do not see the harm in the question.  Yes, I should figure my life out in more detail.  Yes, I should have a five year plan, or a ten year plan…. blah, blah, blah.  But, I would rather live in the present and try to enjoy the trail as a trail and not as a transitory period in which I discover what I want to do in the “real world” of jobs, money, bosses, rent, utilities and all of that stuff that does not matter on trail.

Most often asked by day hikers, or people not experiencing the intensity of a thru-hike, the question becomes like a mosquito that you cannot kill and it just keeps biting your forehead over and over.  It seems wrong to tell people that I have no idea what I want to do afterward.  This usually begins a slight panic mode.  What if I can’t find a job?  What if I have to move back in with my parents?  What if I run out of money sooner than I anticipated?  What do I want to do with the rest of my life?

Mid-way through the year at TSS, all grad students must begin thinking about what they want to do post-TSS.  The grad program only lasts one year in the Tetons and we need to apply to another school (out of roughly six choices) to finish a Master’s Degree.  Due to application deadlines, I had to begin thinking about what I wanted to do next year.  Everyone around me began talking about it.  All of our faculty kept asking us.  My parents kept asking me.  The question was everywhere.  Where I decided to apply would determine what degree I would end up getting.

Because the University of Wyoming accredits TSS, a firm push to apply to UW exists.  In fact, all grads had to visit UW for three days despite saying that I knew I did not want to go there or live in Laramie.  I took it as an entertaining trip and good excuse to get to know my fellow grads even better.  I decided not to apply.  Instead, I applied to Prescott College.  However, once I decided I wanted to go for the Prescott program, I had another challenge: the application requires that the student applying envision and outline three courses that he or she would like to create and take as a student there.  Not only would I have to figure out what program area I wanted to continue studying, I had to come up with three classes I would like to make up and take.  Now, talk about overwhelming!

Remembering back to the beginning of the year when we, as a grad class, completed an activity in which we had three concentric circles laid out on the ground, the center representing our “comfort zone,” the middle ring representing our “stretch zone,” and the final ring representing our “panic zone.”  One of our faculty read off a list of activities and sports while we placed ourselves in one of the circles to become more aware of ourselves and to show that one person’s comfort zone is another’s panic zone.  The question, “What are you doing after TSS?” threw me straight into the stretch zone/panic zone border depending upon the day.

Eventually, I came up with something and went with it with the help of many other grads and many long talks with my Mom.

From Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when I tried not to think about next year.

From Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when I tried not to think about next year.

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In a thru-hike, after 4-6 weeks, a hiker gets “trail legs.”  Trail legs give thru-hikers a sense of power and confidence because hiking 15 miles a day has suddenly become easy. To challenge a thru-hiker, the hiker needs to do more miles per day.  Instead of feeling happy with 15 miles, a hiker can feel lazy if they do not make 20 miles and pushes toward the 25 mile per day average.  A thru-hiker notices their trail legs have come in when they pass day hikers who have only a water bottle in their hand and are out of breath while the thru-hiker feels great and does not breathe hard with a full pack.

Trail legs feel great because, as a hiker, it brings a boost of confidence.  They make the challenge of hiking over 2,000 miles look like a reasonable challenge instead of nearly impossible.  Usually the leg muscles become larger as a physical representation of the hard work already done.  Foot pain still plagues the hiker, but the hiker may not say, “My feet hurt” as the first response to “How are you?”

A halved aphid gall off of a blue spruce.

A halved aphid gall off of a blue spruce.

In TSS, after so many times teaching a variety of age ranges about ecological communities, I barely even needed a lesson plan.  Having the ability to whip out any number of lessons on ecological communities of GTNP, gave me a huge boost of confidence.  From being terrified to teach to being comfortable doing so, I felt as if I really had learned a lot.  Just like trail legs, teaching a communities day became a staple of comfort and confidence.  As the fall teaching practicum progressed, suddenly one of the teaching days seemed like no problem at all.  Each time I taught it, I taught it a bit differently, but felt comfortable changing it at a whim.  I felt comfortable fielding any questions that students threw my way including: “Aren’t all the trees just pines?” or “What type of poop is that?” or “What are those marks that look like butterflies on aspen trees?”

To teach a communities day well, however, required a certain knowledge of on campus trails, none of which were marked.  Many had small spur trails to good teaching sites, but went nowhere else.  It also required a thorough understanding of the communities from our Community Ecology course.  To teach this day successfully, my brain needed to hurt for quite some time, then I needed to drink from the fire hose.

When the government shut down in October, we knew how to teach communities day on the Jackson Campus as well.

When the government shut down in October, we knew how to teach communities day on the Jackson Campus as well.

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In a thru-hike, after either my feet stop hurting or I become numb to their pain, I find myself studying trail maps.  The first two weeks of maps, I studied before I began hiking.  After that, I always needed to figure out the next few hundred miles of re-supply rations and where challenge points would show up.  Challenges to look for usually included a distance larger than 90 miles between resupplies, water gaps of 20 miles or longer, towns with no good resupply options, drastically changing terrain in terms of elevation, large river crossings, national parks or forests with special permit needs, etc.

By taking time to study not only the maps for the next day, but the larger overview gave me a better perspective on what would come soon and how I should prepare myself.  If I knew the terrain would have drastic changes in elevation, I would lower my expected daily mileage and therefore take more food out from town.  If I knew I would have two long stretches without water, I would grab an extra Gatorade bottle or two from the last town so I could carry more water.  If I knew a town would only have a gas station to resupply out of, I would usually have a mail drop of food to get more healthy calories.

In grad school, in order to prepare and understand the overview of the program, I had to listen to vast quantities of information and process it quickly.  At the beginning of our fall teaching practicum, our teaching team began to look overwhelmed from a mass intake of information and as one of our faculty, Matt said snickering, “It’s just like drinking from a fire hose!”  As if that was meant to make us feel better.

In order to teach effectively, we had to know the TSS systems inside and out to know where we would have difficulties and to know what we could and could not do with students.  At this point, I’d become numb to my brain hurting, and just began trying to continue absorbing more and more information.  No open toed shoes.  No swimming.  Stay 100 feet away from wildlife.  Then came the famous, “What would you do…WHAT would you do?” scenarios.  We had to constantly hear scenarios from past teaching situations and try to think about what we would have done in that situation, then find where it says what to do in the operations manual.  For example:

What would you do if you are in upper meadow and a thunderstorm rolls in?  You see lightning and heard thunder soon afterwards.  You have eight students and a chaperone.  Two students begin crying.  Where do you go and what do you do with the upset students?

TSS also took getting an overview to a whole new level.  Not only did we have to drink from the fire hose to learn how to teach effectively, we also had to juggle classwork on top of teaching.  We had to learn the local ecology, geology, fire regiments, glacial impacts, cultural history, and more.  To effectively teach students, we had to know the content inside and out.

The Tetons from the West, on our grad backcountry trip

The Tetons from the West, on our grad backcountry trip

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At the beginning of every thru-hike, my feet hurt so much that when someone asks, “How are you?” I can think of no other response besides “My feet hurt.”  It takes my feet several weeks before they either stop aching or I just become accustomed to a constant foot ache. I consistently find myself walking down the trail talking to my feet.  “Feet, you’ve done this before, you can do it again!”  “Come on feet, we have miles to walk before we sleep.”  “There’s a stream in four miles you can soak in, feet, just keep moving.”

"Hippie TV"

“Hippie TV”

At the beginning of grad school, we were told that if we felt slightly overwhelmed, that was normal.  The first few weeks, when asked “How are you?” I could only say, “My brain hurts.”  We had class from 9am-5pm Monday-Friday and sometimes we would hear, “Oh, you gus don’t mind a working lunch, do you?”  Topics ranged from WFR scenarios to aspen regeneration to TSS systems to risk management to glaciers to fire ecology and so much more.

My brain felt like it would explode.  I had to take notes or I could not remember everything.  I had to tell myself consistently, “I chose to go to grad school.”  I had to tell myself “keep listening” and “keep drinking yerba mate” in order to stay awake.  I had to tell myself “don’t worry, the weekend will come soon.”  TGIF had a whole new meaning.  At the very minimum a weekend meant that I could process information in my own way, at my own speed if nothing else.

Moose through a scope

Moose through a scope

After two years off from undergrad, my brain felt like it went through a blender.  Adjusting to going to class and doing homework made my brain just hurt, especially because class now lasted eight hours, not a series of hour and twenty minute sessions.  My body had become accustomed to physical challenge, not mental exhaustion so thorough that I would need extra sleep to recharge my brain.  Each night, I went to bed absolutely exhausted mentally, but restless physically.  My body did not know what to do.  I did not understand why I would become so tired when all I did was sit in a classroom or outside and listen.

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Over the past year, I have completed my first year of grad school at Teton Science Schools (TSS) in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP).  The program consisted of taking block scheduled classes and teaching field education to kids pre-k through 12th grade.  If I only had two words to describe the entire year, I would use “mentally exhausting.”

To top off the year, we needed to complete a final synthesis project.  In true TSS project fashion, the assignment is incredibly open ended and can take any form where reflection on the core competencies (knowledgeable field scientist, effective educator, innovative leader, and conscientious community member) can show.  Oh, and let’s not forget that our grade also depends on the uniqueness of the project.  Typically, with these kinds of projects, three phases exist: the initial freak-out where I have no ideas what-so-ever, the idea, and the implementation of the idea.  The longest phase is invariably the first phase.

Finally, the idea came: to revive my blog and reflect on the mentally exhausting year in terms of a physically exhausting thru-hike.  In the next seven posts, the first part of the title will show a typical challenge in thru-hiking while the second will show a mentally exhausting problem of grad school.

Welcome to my past year.


My cabin for the year: one room, no bathroom, no kitchen.

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