This past Wednesday, my 11 year old son and I were on a three mile hike in the Arbuckle Mountains of south-central Oklahoma, heading to “three falls” about a mile from from Camp Classen. I turned to him and said, “Wow, isn’t this amazing? Just think, you could be sitting in school today, and here we are hiking in the woods… But wait a minute, you ARE in school! We laughed and continued on our hike to the falls with about 35 other classmates, parents and teachers.

A trail in the woods at Camp Classen

Three Falls

Climbing the ridge by three falls at Camp Classen

Welcome to YMCA Camp Classen

Thanks to the hard work of many teachers and parents, 148 sixth graders from Classen School of Advanced Studies (a public magnet school) in Oklahoma City Public Schools spent a VERY memorable 4 days together in “outdoor school” this week learning about geology, meteorology, hydrology, fossil hunting, and much more in the best science classroom of all: The great outdoors! Here are a few highlights and reflections from our week of outdoor camp.

Water and rain played a big role in our week, but thankfully it did not impede any of our major activities. On our “three falls” hike, we had to ford or otherwise walk across streams (on rocks or logs) six different times. This was a novel experience for MANY of the students in our group, and probably some of the 28 adults who were sponsors and chaperones. It reminded me of backpacking on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, where (in the summer of 1987) I spent many hours hiking up river valleys and crossing streams. No, the topography of the Arbuckles does not equal New Zealand– but few things can beat the opportunity to experience the challenges and thrills of the great outdoors firsthand, wherever you may live! Many of Alexander’s classmates at Classen may never get a chance to hike in New Zealand, but now they can all proudly say they’ve been hiking– a LOT– in Oklahoma’s Arbuckle mountains!

Preparing to ford the stream

Crossing the stream

Hiking on the top of the ridge by Camp Classen

Our activities were organized on a “matrix” schedule designed by Mr. Ed Holtzberger, who has been taking Oklahoma City Public School students to outdoor camps for several decades. I really can’t praise “Mr. H” enough, along with all the other teachers from Classen SAS who made this week possible. While my son has had a variety of previous outdoor experiences thanks to his involvement in Boy Scouting as well as our own family camping trips, it was phenomenal for him to be able to experience “outdoor school” with his new Classen classmates and be exposed to so much contextually-rich, experiential learning in one of the most beautiful parts of our wonderful state. I wish every student could be so fortunate to have a “Mr. H” working MANY, MANY extra hours to provide an outdoor school experience for so many students and parents. It was a week I’m sure we’ll never forget.

Our first scheduled activity was boating on the waterfront, in rowboats and canoes.

Canoeing at Camp Classen

For the majority of boys in our cabin (14 in all) this was their first experience paddling or rowing on a lake. No one capsized, but we did have some high stress levels when a caterpillar dropped down onto the life preserver of one of our students! From his reaction, you’d have thought a crocodile had his leg in his jaws! Lots of memorable experiences were had by all, and many of the most memorable were not expected or predicted! When you get a group of students, teachers and parents together in an environment like this with a flexible schedule for learning, amazing things are bound to happen — and of course, they did!

The archery range was definitely a favorite of many of our students this week. Again, many had never had an opportunity to shoot a bow and arrow previously. The archery range was always open for use during free time, and just required a parent to supervise and manage the range when students used it. I think our cabin group shot at the archery range at least 4 – 5 times this week, to include a final trip this morning after they finished packing and cleaning up our cabin.

Three of our proud 6th grade archers

My archery target

A big highlight was learning about fossils and actually finding them. Most of the fossils we found were crinoids, estimated at 400 million years of age. It’s pretty amazing to find something that old yourself in the dirt, hold it in your hand, and have permission to take it home (up to four per student) so you can show your family as well as examine them further.

Learning about fossils in the Classen Camp Fossil Pit

Fossils in the rock

Snakes and other creepy/crawly animals and insects are always a sure way to get the attention of young people, and Mr. Preston did a great job sharing his knowledge and collection of snakes with our kids. Some students were able to hold snakes. Usually each one would ask as they received the snake, “It won’t bite, will it?” to which Mr. Preston would truthfully respond, “Now I didn’t say that…” (No one got bit, however.)

Holding a snake

Mr Preston holding a snake

Mr. Preston’s presentation on “skins and skulls” was one of my personal favorites. This next photo is Alexander with Mr Preston, with Alexander holding a black bear skull (which has molars as well as carnivore teeth, since it’s an omnivore) and Mr. Preston holding a wolf skull, which just has flesh-tearing and eating incisors since it’s 100% predator.

Alexander and Mr Preston, holding a bear skull (left) and wolf skull (right)

In this next image, Mr. Preston compares a wolf skull (on the left) with a much smaller coyote skull (on the right.) What a difference!

Mr Preston comparing a wolf skull to a coyote skull

Here are two of my favorite images from the week: This is Mr. Holzberger teaching the kids on the fossil hike about the age of our earth. This is an image of an amazing science teacher, teaching in what must be one of best science classrooms in the world for geology: the Arbuckle mountains!

Mr Holtzberger in his element: Teaching geology at outdoor school at Camp Classen

In this activity, students took 1 step for every 100 million years of earth history, and Mr. Holtzberger had different parents stop and remain at different key times in geologic history. This was a great method for trying to help others visualize just how HUGE geologic time is, especially compared to our short, human history.

Visualizing the age of the earth

I really enjoyed leading some optional geocaching activities for campers and parents on both Wednesday and Thursday. These were the GPS units we used: Five Garmin eTrex units and my Garmin eTrex Legend.

Our GPS units for geocaching at Camp Classen

Our groups found four of the five geocaches hidden by Camp Classen staff around the camp. They used small Pelican cases for their geocaches, and each was secured to the ground with a metal wire and stake to prevent it from “walking off” with a camper or an unsuspecting muggle.

A successful geocache find!

One of the caches had not been properly closed by the previous finders, and the effects of water as well as bugs made a clear visual aide for making the point to our students: Be sure to securely close the geocache after you sign the find log!

Don't leave the geocache open!

I could recount more experiences and memories, but I’ll close by again noting how VERY appreciative I am to Mr. H, Mrs. Carlton, and many, many others who made this week’s outdoor school experience possible. Alexander and I are quite proud to now call ourselves Classen Comets, and we’re likely to never forget this week’s experiences in the Arbuckles with his Classen classmates in the Class of 2016!

Our Sandstones Cabin Group

Wesley Fryer and Alexander Fryer at Camp Classen

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  • That is the coolest field trip ever. It actually makes me want to change from kindergarten to an older grade just to have so many more opportunities. We only venture out to the vernal pool behind the school but the idea of a full day walking in nature and discussing all that we see is amazing. Taking a few flip cameras along for the kids perspective would be another option with lots of extensions. Great thinkers out there in Oklahoma! Kudos to you all.

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Made with Love in Oklahoma City