Teaching in the Rockies and Foothills

Teck Coal Operation in Cardinal River, Alberta. H. Green.

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This is the first in a series called “Get Outside!” about fields trips and teaching environmental history outside of the classroom.

Name and School:
Heather Green, currently at McMaster University, but I co-organized this field trip with Dr. Liza Piper and Hereward Longley, a PhD candidate, both at the University of Alberta, in April of 2018 while I was a PhD Candidate at the UofA as well.

The trip was part of Liza Piper’s HIST 460/660 “Histories of the Rocky Mountains” course, which examined histories of the Rocky Mountains drawing on primary source materials and secondary literature from environmental history, studies of parks and protected areas, Indigenous history, and recreation and tourism studies.

Trip destination:

The Rocky Mountains in Jasper National Park. Photo by H. Green.

Jasper National Park was the main destination, but we included stops in Hinton and the Teck Coal mining operation at Cardinal River as well, to better integrate histories of mining and natural resources into the itinerary.

How would you describe it one word? 
It’s difficult to sum a 3-day trip in one word, but if I had to chose, I’d say “Eventful.”

What was the rationale for the trip? How did it fit in the course? What did you hope to accomplish?

The field trip took place over a three-day weekend and included a mix of presentations and experiential learning. For the full itinerary, you can check out the trip schedule on Liza Piper’s website here. We wanted to provide an opportunity for students to engage with what they were studying in the classroom on a more practical level. For example, students had learned about the removal of First Nations from Jasper National Park’s boundaries in their reading, and going to the site of some of their homesteads and speaking with folks affected by the removal (as well as seeing the generational impact of this) allowed a richer understanding of these events beyond secondary reading.

Our goals were to critically engage students with history outside the classroom and to actively engage in learning. Our pedagogical purposes were three-fold: 1) We hoped students would witness some of the changes they had studied in the classroom first-hand. 2) Experiencing history in this manner would help students think about the value of field research (as opposed to archival research) in the study of history. 3) The trip would expose students to different groups and individuals with significant interests in, and impacts on, Jasper National Park and the adjacent foothills and to understand more directly the multiple perspectives that shape the past and present of these places.

What actually happened?
For a more detailed reflection on the events of the field trip, you can read my longer post on Active History here, but in brief, the trip went off pretty closely to what we had planned. We toured the Teck Coal mine, and we met with Elders Colin Moberly and Garry McDonald from the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation who discussed the removal of their family from the boundaries of the Park in 1910. We learned about fire in national parks, and historical exclusions of Indigenous peoples from Jasper. We did a repeat photography workshop with Mary Sanseverino with the Mountain Legacy Project, and we spoke with the Jasper Environmental Association.

The Moberly Homestead. Photo by H. Green.

There were a few minor snags which required some schedule rearranging. For example, on the second day of the trip, we had a very busy morning schedule, and by the afternoon when we retreated inside to the Parks Canada offices after spending the morning in the cold winter air, the attention span (and ability to stay awake) for some of our students had seriously declined. In response, we decided to make the hiking and repeat photography part of the day optional, giving students the choice to sit out the hike up to Old Fort Point. This seemed to work well because all but two students chose to participate in this part of the day, and energy levels soared again as we made our way up in elevation.

The above photo is an example from the repeat photography workshop. Historic image provided courtesy of the Mountain Legacy Project and Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.

What was the most productive or effective part of the experience for your students?

The hand-ons experience of the repeat photography workshop was one of the most effective aspects of the trip for the students. Many of them remarked on how much they enjoyed learning about capturing landscape change over time and felt that this was an activity they could continue to do on their own.

Repeat photography workshop. Photo by H. Green.

Before heading back to Edmonton, we held a discussion and debrief with the students, which highlighted the high level of engagement from most of the students over the course of the trip. Some of the major topics of discussion among the students included links between historical issues they studied in class and contemporary issues today centred on the complex and varied relationships that humans have with the natural world. They also discussed how this trip exposed them to a range of perspectives and allowed them to understand that national parks are highly contested landscapes with tensions at play among various groups, and sites of potential conflict. Finally, they also noted the value of the presentations we heard and conversations we had from stakeholders mixed with the opportunity to go to these sites and connect with them first-hand.

One of the things that impressed us most about the trip was the level of camaraderie and support among the students on the trip. When planning an event such as this, you never know how things will go in terms of potential personality conflicts, but we found this group was very supportive and respectful of each other.

Up on Old Fort Point. Photo by M. Sanseverino.

What would (or will) you do differently? What words of advice do you have about field trips for environmental history classes?
Because this was a collaboratively planned trip it worked really well to have multiple people making decisions and keeping everything on track in the planning stages. While planning and organizing, myself, Liza, and Hereward divided up the work and assigned ourselves the task of taking care of certain areas (ie. arranging accommodations, booking the vans, communicating with speakers, selecting readings, etc). Once we had the bigger picture in place, we worked together on the itinerary. I think because this was such a collaborative process from the beginning and we were all on the same page that it helped to keep things running smoothly while on the trip. It also helped to have three “leaders” when it came time to corralling students for each of our activities, and it also meant we always had someone to go on ahead and get things set up for any parts of the trip that required it.

In future when I plan similar trips, the biggest thing I would do differently is to include a little more unstructured time. It seemed like we had a bit too much packed in on the third day for some of the students, so a bit more time to breathe and explore the area on their own might be beneficial. Of course, this depends on the nature of the trip. Another thing I would make sure to address better is to emphasize (and overemphasize) the importance of packing extra layers! A few students did not come prepared for April weather in Jasper, which meant the organizers had to supply some extra layers or cut activities a little short.

Overall, field trips are a really beneficial way for students to study environmental history. Just as we travel to our places of research to get a lay of the land and experience the place, taking students to some of the places they hear about in class gets them more interested and connected with the subject. If you have the institutional support, field trips are wonderful additions to your pedagogical arsenal. Though a trip of this extent is not something I will plan myself until/unless I have a more secure position, I am excited to learn from this experience in shorter trips I have planned for my Intro to Environmental History class at McMaster this spring, such as a class on the trails of Coote’s Paradise, a visit to the McMaster nuclear reactor, and a tour of the Hamilton Harbour led by Dr. Nancy Bouchier!

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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. She is interested in the intersections of environmental and Indigenous histories, histories of Indigenous and Settler Relations, and mining history, particularly in the Canadian North. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.


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