Dip, Dip, and Swing

Students canoe on String Lake in Grand Teton National Park

What do students take home with them when they leave Teton Science Schools? How do we know we’re making a difference in our students’ lives?

As field educators who only see our students for five days before they head home again, these are the hardest questions to answer. It takes a lot of trust: trust that we’re planting seeds, trust that the seeds will grow – in a year, ten years, twenty years – into a love of the outdoors, or a career as a scientist, or a lifelong commitment to stewardship. Perhaps the hardest part is trusting that while the students are here with us, a seed is enough.

I recently joined a group of students in canoes on the green waters of String Lake. Tucked against the base of the Tetons, with views of the fault that separates the mountains from the valley, String Lake is the perfect place to teach both geology and canoeing. We tackled canoeing first, learning how to stay safe on the water, naming parts of a canoe, going over bow and stern teamwork. Then it was time for paddle strokes, and here’s where my trust started to waiver. “To make the boat turn left, paddle on the right,” the instructor said. “To make the boat turn right, paddle on the left.” I’ve spent years perfecting and teaching canoe strokes, from the fine art of the J-stroke, to the advanced rhythms of the Northwoods stroke, to the technical back-paddle, draw, cross-draw . . . the list goes on. Paddling on the right to make the boat go left works, but it’s akin to limiting yourself to just one guitar string and ignoring the freedom and refinement of the rest of the instrument. That said, for all that I’ve taught canoeing, I’ve never had to squeeze the lesson into less than a day. I’ve never just planted the seed.

The chaos of any first canoeing experience is a sight to behold, but it was well contained on String Lake, the instructors were patient, and the options – paddle on the left or paddle on the right – were simple. It wasn’t long before we were zigzagging our way down the lake, students calling out directions to their paddling partners. The zigzags soon got smaller and smaller. We even navigated a narrow, rock-filled passage and made it around a huge sandbar without a J-stroke to be seen. Piling back into the canoes after lunch for some geology lessons, the students looked comfortable and even confident, the feel of the canoes internalized enough for them to focus on faults, glaciers, and rock types. The canoeing seed had been planted.

But was the seed enough? Was paddling right to go left enough?

I wasn’t sure of the answer until the next morning, when I felt a familiar soreness in my arms. Like me, the students took home the muscle ache of first canoe strokes. That means that the dip, dip, and swing will feel familiar the next time. And while an understanding of the Teton fault and the sight of the diabase dike and sedimentary cap on Mount Moran likely didn’t ache, those seeds were also tucked away for some later time, when observing the natural world would feel as familiar as a forward paddle.

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