Twinkies, Bug Spray, and Frisbees: Planning For Successful Field Trips

The author (with Brian Donahue and students) at Aldo Leopold's shack, Wisconsin

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This is the sixth in a series called “Get Outside!” about field trips and teaching environmental history outside the classroom. You can find the other posts here.

My favorite memory from grade school was a field trip to the Hostess Cupcakes Factory. Not only did we get to see cupcakes bouncing along conveyor belts, each of us was handed a little bag filled with Twinkies at the end of the tour. Riding on the chaotic bus back to the school, sucking the gummy white icing out of the spongy center: what could be more perfect? 

This fond memory must be why I try to organize at least two field trips each year for my students. Some years these just last half a day, but I’ve also led my fair share of 4- to 5-day field trips, which present much greater challenges and potential rewards.

Field trips can change lives. That said, field trips can also be tedious, buggy, hot, frigid, frightening, disorienting, and anxiety-producing—often all on the same day. The post-field trip exhaustion makes me wonder why I bother. Yet at the beginning of the next year, I plan another couple of field trips. Why? Because I believe in their power to transform. While the Twinkie trip didn’t turn me into an industrial baker, a field trip to Lake Superior shaped my decision to change research trajectories and move to the watershed. A field trip in the Kakagon Sloughs of the Bad River Reservation transformed Republican WI state representative Dale Shultz from a supporter of pro-mining legislation to one of the state’s most avid conservationists. Each of us could probably come up with similar examples.

In the winter, my undergraduate environmental history class goes for a snowshoe midterm. We start in the headwaters of Lily Creek, now a Superfund site filled with toxic tailings deposited by the long-abandoned Franklin copper mine. We weave through recovering white pine forests, then we make our way across an meadow that once supported potato fields to feed those hungry miners, ending up on a hill overlooking Lake Superior. Standing in the snow, I hope to help my students understand that Lake Superior’s fate will shape their future, in a world where freshwater is becoming increasingly vulnerable to threats of climate change, pollution, and over-consumption. When we get back to my house, I bake the students a pie from the apples they picked in the feral orchard, while they work with aerial photos, historic photos, and maps to make sense of the places where they just snowshoed. At the end of each semester, students invariably invoke the field trip when I ask them what they learned from class.

Each fall, my water history seminar paddles on the Sturgeon River, which runs through wildlife refuges and wetlands. When the Sturgeon River joins the Portage River that bisects the Keweenaw Peninsula, we reach into the water and grasp the remnants of the sunken wood cribs that guided the great pine logs down the Sturgeon to the mills in Chassell. Last year the wind whipped up into a sudden squall, and we ducked into the protection of a side channel. We entertained ourselves by telling stories about other river trips and other storms. I passed around chunks of smoked lake trout from the Anishinabeg fish store on top of Quincy Hill, and we talked about the encroachments of the European settlers that displaced the Anishinabe from their fisheries, the court cases that recognized fishing rights and tribal sovereignty in the mid 20th century, and the toxic threats that persist. 

When the squall passed, once again the sloughs stirred into life. Great blue herons rose up, broad-winged hawks screamed, a raft of mallards lifted off the water before us. Yet for all its watery abundance, the students recognized that the waters—and the lake trout we ate that had been caught in these waters—were laden with toxins from the Anthropocene. As we dipped our paddles into the water, we talked about what it meant to have allowed the wastes of industrial development to proliferate into Michigan’s waters. 

When a group of anglers motored their fishing boat past us into the shallow backwaters, and solvents from the fuel tanks added to the chemical soup, one student asked: “Will any of this hurt us?” 

I couldn’t give him a certain answer. “Well, we’re all in this together,” the student said as he picked up his paddle. He’s right: the mercury from urban coal combustion ends up in the lake, the fish, and finally the eagles, loons, and people that eat the fish. 

Field trips are not just an introduction to the particular places that we’re studying in class. Rather, they become an immersion (sometimes literally so, when someone trips over their snowshoes and face plants into the snow or falls out of their kayak at the landing) into the complex and changing relationships that shape our shared environmental histories.

After more than two decades leading student field trips, I can offer some suggestions: 

FOOD

•           Bring lots of snacks, the junkier the better. Tired and hungry students get cranky, and their moods can always be improved with a liberal dose of Doritos or Snickers bars. No matter how cold, wet, buggy, or ferocious the weather, junk food makes students happier.

•           Try using Google Docs for planning meals and chores. On my overnight trips, students form teams that are responsible for each meal and cleanup. Make sure the women don’t end up doing all the food chores.

•           Always provide a hand-washing station before camp meals, including hand sanitizer, and remind students how important it is to use it. Bring food that won’t go bad and give folks food poisoning. Consider taking a class to learn how to minimize the risk of food poisoning.

SAFETY

•           No matter the temperature when you start, in the north bring spare clothes and rain gear. In the winter bring spare wool socks, mittens, and hats. Hypothermia is always a risk. 

•           Bring sunscreen—and do your best to persuade students to use it. On river trips, insist that students bring sun hats and sun glasses. 

•           Bring lots of bug spray. Make sure your students are taking tick precautions. This is not negotiable on my field trips any more, given the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. On walks during our 7 month tick season, I insist that students wear light colored socks, light colored pants (tucked into those socks), and light colored shirts. I provide a variety of insect repellent choices, from DEET to picaridin, and I urge students to do tick checks at the end of each day.

•           Scout out the trips in advance—I always paddle the route, or walk the trails, or find a camp site in advance. I bring a GPS with the routes marked out as well, and spare headlamps.

•           Bring a first aid kit and know how to use it. Make sure your cell phone is charged, and in the winter, keep it warm. For trips on the Great Lakes or coasts, I bring a handheld marine VHF for calling the Coast Guard.

ACCESSIBILITY

•           Make your trips accessible when possible. One way to learned how to do this is to volunteer for a group or company that provides adaptive field trips. I volunteered, for example, as a kayak guide for Wilderness Inquiry, a company that specializes in adaptive kayak and canoe trips. After assisting in a kayak tour for people with paralyzed lower limbs, I realized how narrow my conceptions of what’s possible were. There are reputable groups that help people with disabilities explore wild places—they can help you plan. 

SCHEDULING

•           Schedule visits with communities and experts, but don’t overschedule. Assume that everything will take longer than you expect, and plan in spare time for that. Bring a frisbee or hackie sack for the rare times you get ahead of schedule.

•           Schedule lots of bathroom (or tree) breaks. It’s a rare man who remembers to schedule enough bathroom breaks for the women in the group. 

•           Give students lots of down time, where they can simply absorb, explore, paddle, walk, and play. Not every moment needs to be scheduled. 

•           Be sensitive to complex social interactions, particularly for students who are introverted. I find bringing a friendly dog helps enormously on camping trips, because shyer students can hang out with the dog and not feel excluded. 

COSTS

•           I have planned my share of four-day field trips with budgets in the thousands. These included a big bus with driver, dozens of participants, rooms at colleges  or YMCA camps, meals prepared by someone else. 

•           But most of my trips have been much cheaper, typically $25-$50/day per person for food, transport, and lodging. We buy simple, cheap food in bulk and cook in teams. When the university provides vans, we use them, and I can often persuade a department chair to cover the van cost so the students don’t have to. Sometimes students drive their own cars, and passengers pitch in for gas. University outing clubs can provide cheap gear rental. I’ve accumulated a lot of extra camping gear that I loan out. If you check well in advance, state parks will often waive the entrance fees for students from state universities.

•           We often camp, and I always bring a tarp so students don’t have to huddle in their tents during rain storms. In shoulder seasons, staying inside makes planning easier and storms less problematic. Dorms in field stations are often extremely inexpensive for university trips. Our local land trust has cabins in amazing places for members to borrow—yours might as well. 

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Nancy Langston is an environmental historian who explores the connections between toxics, environmental health, and industrial changes in Lake Superior and other boreal watersheds.

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