A late spring trip showcased the natural beauty of the nation’s oldest national park for a small group of Oakdale Junior High School students, teachers, and chaperones, offering them a firsthand experience with mountain wildlife and geological wonders.
The group of four students, three parents, and three teachers recently returned from a non-school educational trip to Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, and the Snake River. The students finished their seventh grade classes and left the same week school got out to embark on the trip that took place May 26-30.
OJHS seventh grade science teacher Fred Yerzy has organized a handful of annual non-school educational trips to areas in and around the Grand Canyon, the Florida everglades, and Hawaii. He said the trip to Yellowstone was yet another unique expedition, which was also co-led by OJHS history teacher Rachel Torres. The tour company Grand Classrooms coordinated the trip.
This trip was different than in past years because the students went after school finished in May, as opposed to traveling during spring break. The tour company brought to Yerzy’s attention that if the group traveled any earlier in the spring, they may experience road closures due to heavy snow and rainfall and the Snake River would be unsafe to raft down at that time, too.
Yerzy and Torres shared that Yellowstone is the country’s first national park, declared by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, and is widely held to be the first national park in the world. The park is located primarily in Wyoming but also covers parts of Idaho and Montana.
Along with being fun, the trip contained both science and history topics for the students where they were able to connect the dots of their classroom learning with in-the-field observations. Historical content involved the history of the park, facts about the states, how trappers first explored the Snake River, the invention of rubber rafts and the role it played in future river rafting. The science portions related to earth science, chemistry, astronomy, paleontology, and biology. Each traveler had a “field guide” for the trip for background information on their different stops, as well as pages for them to record their observations.
The group kicked off their tour in Salt Lake City, Utah. Their first destination was Great Salt Lake Park where they checked out the lake’s oolitic sand beach and performed a little chemistry experiment.
Yerzy explained that a person can float effortlessly on the surface of the Great Salt Lake due to the high salt content, making a person buoyant. Disappointingly, wind and heavy rains at the time of the group’s visit thwarted their plans of experiencing the concept of floating in the lake.
“However, we did do a pretty neat lab on the beach while at the famous Great Salt Lake,” Yerzy said. “Under hand-lenses, we looked at the sand on the beach. It is different from most sandy beaches. Normally sand grains are made up of silica, but these sand grains were made up of calcium carbonate and shaped like round ball-bearing like grains... Since this sand is made up of calcium carbonate, it gave my class a chance to do some rock and mineral testing. I explained to them that sometimes geologists or ‘rock hounds’ can identify what some materials are made up of by doing a simple chemical test with acids. For example, we squeezed the juice out of a lemon to see if the weak acid from this fruit would produce a chemical reaction with the oolitic sand. We also used vinegar. Both times it created a very visible reaction. It fizzed and tickled the palm of your hand. It was very cool to see and feel.”
The group arrived at Yellowstone in Wyoming later that evening. Yerzy noted that geology is especially rich in that part of the country.
“In Yellowstone we have geothermal activity such as mud pots, geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs,” he said. “The whole Yellowstone park lies pretty much in a ‘super volcano’s’ caldera. The continental crust is normally 20 to 30 miles thick but in the Yellowstone area the Earth’s crust is only three to five miles thick, which is one of the reasons there is so much geothermal activity. We also talked about the formation of the mountains around us and how the Continental Divide dictates which way the rivers flow.”
The second day they entered Yellowstone and toured the mud volcano, Hayden Valley, the Grand Canyon on Yellowstone, the Obsidian Cliffs, and Mammoth Hot Springs. They also toured the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.
“We saw, up close, grizzlies wrestling each other and wolves staring right at you eye-to-eye, which made me feel a little uncomfortable but mesmerized at the same time with only a glass window to shield you from this wild animal,” Yerzy recalled about the center.
Some of the highlights for the students included seeing the famous and most frequently erupting big geyser in the park, Old Faithful, on the third day of the trip and visiting Yellowstone Canyon and Falls. They also saw a bison walk toward their vehicle on the road and a bear foraging for food in the woods not more than 100 feet away from their vehicle, Yerzy said.
The students later hiked along the Continental Divide and then drove through the park on the bus taking in the sights as they made their way to Grand Teton National Park. That afternoon they set off for the Snake River and took a scenic float trip through the Upper Snake River Canyon and spotted a couple of bald eagles.
They also camped in tent cabins along the Snake River. While taking a hike around their campsite area, they found skeletal remains of an elk and reconstructed them, developing theories about how the animal may have died. Later the group shared campfire tales and made S’mores. Another highlight was whitewater rafting through class 3 and class 4 rapids on the Snake River on the fourth day. They later ferried across Jenny Lake, hiked to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, and then headed into the town of Jackson Hole. Yerzy added that they also enjoyed seeing how the snow had made the Grand Tetons appear even more majestic.
The group departed from Jackson on the fifth and final day and headed for Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming where they observed a rich abundance of plant and fish fossils. Yerzy said the fossil record there showed them how environments change over time and the possibility of continental drift or movement of the Earth’s oceanic and continental plate movement is possible. Then they traveled back into Utah to catch the airplane for the trip home.