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Expedition Yellowstone: An adventure like no other

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By Jeremy Harder EBS Contributor

Expedition Yellowstone, affectionately termed “EY” by our fourth graders in Big Sky, is a curriculum-based, residential, outdoor program offered by the National Park Service for students, teachers and chaperones. Each year, Ophir School’s fourth graders earn the right to call this expedition their own.  

The program, originally guided by former fourth grade teacher Alec Nisbet, has been part of Ophir’s curriculum since 1998. I took the reins when I accepted the fourth-grade position in the fall of 2000, and I just completed my 16th trip to Yellowstone.  

Starting in January, my co-teacher Renee Zimmerman and I prepared students by setting up weekly clan challenges. Clans are small groups of students who work together on learning activities, meal preparation and camp clean up. Each clan also performs a legendary skit the last night of their adventure. Weekly challenges stretch the students’ ability to problem solve, practice collaboration and compromise—necessary skills for the students’ time in Yellowstone.  

A “typical day” on the expedition includes waking up early to prepare meals, sitting down together for breakfast, attending morning and evening classes, hiking through the park, researching pH levels of the hot springs, finding evidence of ecological niches and discovering the impact of humans throughout the centuries. I’ve found that the greatest lessons are learned as students clean up after each other, pack their own backpacks for the day, fill their water bottles, and otherwise develop a sense of personal responsibility without the over-indulgence of help from adults. When students realize they are a part of something larger than themselves, it’s really cool to watch. I like to term this human ecology.

The expedition does allow for chaperones or guides to attend the trip to help the students manage these life skills. Some of the most difficult choices Zimmerman and I must make center on choosing the right adult chaperones for the expedition. Luckily for us, Big Sky is filled with hundreds of qualified leaders.  

Many of the guides are parents of students at Ophir, but not of students participating in EY that year. I adamantly support my stand on not bringing family members of current students, as it disturbs the natural dynamics of the group. Other chaperones include local business owners, avid outdoors people and, of course, adults who have strong managerial skills and are a positive influence on young students. My list becomes longer every year, as many local residents desire to go on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. Similar to the students’ reactions to the oddities of the natural world, I see the same “ah-ha!” moments in the adult guides.

One of the secrets behind such an amazing and seamless experience is the extraordinary assistant I’ve found in Lone Peak High social studies teacher Tony Coppola. He has attended more than a dozen times and plays a crucial role in the success of the trip.

Finally, this trip could never happen without generous community and family support with fundraisers and preparations. The financial component of this trip is mostly overseen by the Big Sky PTO, while the supplemental costs are raised by the students in various “FUN” raisers such as a bowl-a-thon, hat sale and read-a-thon.

It’s a community effort, and I’ve found it to be a life-changing event for our attendees. As our town grows, our school serves as one of those foundational forces we must keep alive and healthy, similar to those of a healthy Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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