Paddling through the Past

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

Name and School: Daniel Macfarlane, Western Michigan University

Course: ENVS 4500: Kalamazoo River (Fall 2017). This is a senior capstone seminar for environmental studies majors. There were 7 students in the class, which met once a week for 2.5 hours. The topic for this course can change each semester, but is intended to revolve around a discrete environmental issue. In the past I’ve taught this course on other topics (e.g. Great Lakes water policy; Flint Water Crisis) but in Fall 2017 the focus was on environmental issues concerning the Kalamazoo River, including the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill. 

Trip destination: Paddling a stretch of the Kalamazoo River impacted by the oil spill. The class met on campus around noon and we drove to government offices for a presentation from federal and state officials who had dealt with the spill and the aftermath. Then we drove about 40 minutes to a put-in spot on the river near Marshall, Michigan. Several state officials led our float, and we paddled west until we arrived at the former site of the Ceresco Dam. Afterwards, we retired to the famed Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo for supper and debriefing. 

Figure 1. Map of oil spill. MLive

What is the Kalamazoo River oil spill? 

This spill took place east of Kalamazoo (near Marshall) in July 2010 when Pipeline 6B burst, sending more than 1 million gallons of Alberta diluted bitumen (dilbit) into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. It was either the largest or second-largest inland oil spill in American history. Built in 1968, Line 6B is almost 300 miles long and runs from Sarnia to Indiana, part of Enbridge’s Lakehead system. Enbridge was ordered to clean up the tar sands oil and rehabilitate the affected area – the multi-year clean-up cost the company over $1.2 billion, plus more than $80 million in fines.

Figure 2. Aerial view of oil spill. Wikipedia

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

The reason for the float was to examine first-hand the stretch of the river impacted by the 2010 oil spill. The rationale was experiential learning, getting the students excited about the subject, exposing the students to practitioners and methods in the environmental field, and giving the class a memorable outdoor experience. In the month leading up to the field trip, the students in ENVS 4500 did a range of readings on the Kalamazoo River, which we discussed weekly in a roundtable seminar setting. In addition to our paddling trip, the class also did a field trip to an in-progress rehabilitation of a Superfund site (PCBs from paper mills) on a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. For some of our seminars, we were joined by officials from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality as well as the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. Professionalization was also a goal of this course and the river trip: directly interacting with environmental professionals gives students an opportunity to consider whether they could see themselves in similar careers.

What actually happened?

This field trip largely went as planned. The students found the experience rewarding, and the complicated logistics worked out. We had to get the students to multiple locations and bring enough vehicles to accommodate the kayaks, canoes, and a stand-up paddleboard. 

Figure 3. ENVS 4500 class on the water. Photo by Noah Hall

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

I’m a big believer in the immersive value of field trips and I’ve used them in almost every class I’ve taught. Field trips are a very useful form of placed-based experiential learning: students better retain the things they learn, and are often motivated to dig deeper on their own time. Seeing the area affected by the spill first-hand, and seeing it from the water line, really helped the students understand what happened on a deeper level and better comprehend the magnitude, scope, obstacles, and contingencies of the spill and its aftermath. And this deeper understanding was obvious in subsequent class discussions and the ways that students approached their final research projects about the watershed.

Our guides told us a lot about the techniques and challenges that were involved with cleaning up after the spill, giving the class real insight into that process. The students learned to better read a landscape – for example, though much of the shoreline and riverbed looked natural, most of it had been modified or engineered in the previous years. But the students also learned an unintended but valuable lesson about a concept, policy capture, that we had discussed in class. I was really proud of my students for independently picking up on that vis-à-vis Enbridge.

One of the most useful pedagogical aspects of a successful field trip is the camaraderie or esprit de corps (in this case, maybe esprit de course?) it builds amongst the class. This bonding creates a more effective pedagogical environment for the rest of the semester – afterwards, students are more comfortable sharing their thoughts in class, work better in groups, and are more comfortable with their instructor once they’ve interacted with them outside the classroom. Through field experiences, students also tend to form positive associations towards their academic program.

What would (or will) you do differently? What words of advice do you have about field trips for environmental history classes?  

I’ve taught a variety of other types of field trips which presented different types of challenges depending on time, distance, and class size. For example, when I taught in Ottawa, I took other seminars (all under 15 students) to the Ottawa River, LeBreton Flats, Rideau Canal, and St. Lawrence River (which I’ve previously blogged about). In my introduction to environmental studies class here at WMU (20-30 students) we go camping every semester for a few days (which requires a whole other level of coordination and planning), and I’ve also taken a different version of the ENVS 4500 seminar to Flint.

Part of the reason I chose to discuss the Kalamazoo River trip in this post is precisely because it went so well. Granted, it worked because of several factors, some of which were just good luck, and some of which I’d like to think were the product of my planning and past excursion experiences. I’ll relay some of these factors that might be useful to others thinking about the logistics of implementing a field trip:

  • Availability of expert guides.
  • A small class size. I would run field trips quite differently for class sizes larger than 30 students, and I’m not sure I would even try them for classes larger than 50 students.
  • Financial support from my department
  • Ample travel time and student buy-in. I gave the students a class off in exchange for the field trip which, all told, took an entire afternoon and almost 100 miles of driving.
  • Time in class to both prepare students for what they would encounter, and to talk afterward about what they did encounter
  • Access to vehicles and kayaks, as well as students who were able and willing (e.g., paddling skills) to take on this type of outing. Granted, this raises important questions that I didn’t have to address: how to accommodate students who for a variety of reasons might not be comfortable with this excursion?
  • Good weather! 
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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of five books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be released in 2024. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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