Students wade into nature and discovery
By Betsy Kepes
The high school students take off their shoes and socks and step into the water of the north branch of the Grasse River. They can’t see the bottom as the water is golden brown, steeped in tannins from bogs upstream.
Crossing the north branch is the first challenge of their AP Environmental Science final exam. All year they’ve been studying at Canton High School with their teacher, Tom Van de Water. They’ve been on field trips, but never one like this. On this trip they must make all the decisions—how to get across the north branch of the Grasse River, how to bushwhack to the Main Branch of the Grasse, how to set up a low impact campsite.
Most of the students have never been backpacking. Some of them wear their school daypacks and carry sleeping bags in their arms. They’re nervous but also excited to be out in the woods.
The first students wade out into the north branch and the water pushes against their legs, the strong current lapping at their knees. They race to the other side then raise their arms in triumph. Others struggle across, the rocky riverbed poking into their bare feet.
When they’re all on the other side they sit in the shade, the lush plants of mid-June surrounding them while they put their shoes back on. They consult their maps and discuss the best route to the main branch of the Grasse River. They’ve worked with map and compass and a confident few lead the class up the riverbank.
Their progress through the deep woods is slow as they check their maps and argue about which way to go. Someone points out a large bear scat, fresh. These woods, a short bus ride from school, are rich with wildlife in an undisturbed landscape.
When the students in the lead see a river ahead, they whoop with the joy of success. The class gathers on bedrock next to the river to take a break. Water the color of light maple syrup pours over waterfalls then widens into a placid flow, flanked by walls of trees.
The paper maps are flattened out as the class decides what to do next. A mark on the map indicates a campsite but it’s upriver and there’s still no trail. The students put their packs back on and straggle through waist-high bracken.
Van de Water walks behind, letting the students find the way. He’s been taking his AP class here for years and he believes it’s a far better experience for them than a written exam. When I ask him why he ends his class with this outdoor challenge, he tells me that much of the environmental science curriculum is depressing: climate change, overpopulation, invasive species. This journey into the beauty of the northern woods allows the students to remember why the world is worth saving.
It’s late afternoon by the time the students find their camping place at a flat spot below a waterfall. Soon woodsmoke spirals through the trees. A few students enter the water and plunge in.
As the long day ends, stars emerge in the dark sky. It’s inky black in this place where no human lights dilute the darkness. A student rests in a hammock and when the moon rises he marvels at how it moves across the sky, a journey he has never before noticed.
In the morning the students put away their gear and no-trace the area by picking up anything brought with them. Their photocopied maps end at the campsite, so they are surprised when they turn up at an old road, covered in grass that leads to the remains of a bridge. They gather to talk about their first day and what they’ve noticed about the woods, the river, and themselves.
From the old road a trail parallels the river, heading north for a mile and into a stand of stately white pine. As the trail curves around a small waterfall a student in the lead shouts out, “It’s Lampson Falls!”
The group pushes toward a place many of them know. They stand and marvel as the Grasse River plunges 40 feet in a curtain of water that stretches the length of a basketball court.
The mood of the group changes from fatigue to delight.
Last night, in the dark woods, some students experienced fear, others euphoria. All of them thought they’d hiked deep into a trailless wilderness. For most of them it was the farthest from civilization they had ever been, or would ever be. And they’d gotten there by themselves with what they needed to survive.
There’s no hurry now. It’s an easy half-mile walk out to where the school bus will meet them on Route 27. This is the last time the students will be together as a class and they goof around for a group photo, giddy with the success of their adventure.
They don’t know it yet, but they will all pass the final exam.
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