Snowy subjects

Sawyer students visit Pictured Rocks

MUNISING — Thursday’s lessons for Sawyer Elementary School third-graders focused on snow snakes, touching deer antlers and walking like a penguin, not reading, penmanship and addition.

Not that reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic aren’t the basics of a good early education. It’s just that sometimes kids have to learn about what’s outside the classroom walls.

Sawyer third-graders visited Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for a special field trip that involved games, biology lessons and snowshoeing.

One of the park rangers in charge of the day was Melissa O’Donnell, who said the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded the program with bus money and park staff time.

“All of our field trips that come to the park are grant-funded with bus money,” O’Donnell said. “We have another grant source from the National Park Foundation that brings out fourth-graders to the park, as well as Hiawatha National Forest and Seney National Wildlife Refuge.

“Schools just don’t have the money for field trips anymore, and being the rural U.P., we have a long distance to travel. Buses cost a little more too.”

The Upper Peninsula has its share of snow, but kids don’t always get the chance to learn about how wildlife adapts to it.

One of Thursday’s activities dealt with just that concept.

Park ranger Zach Gostlin led several games that focused on snakes, three of which are common at Pictured Rocks: the smooth green snake, the northern red-bellied snake and the Eastern garter snake.

The students took part in a game called “snow snakes,” also played by the Ojibwe tribe. Youngster pushed long sticks, each with smooth and rough sides, down snow pathways.

“The goal of the game is to see how far you can get your snow snake to go,” Gostlin said.

The activity was competitive, but the “snake” itself was fascinating to third-grader Zaina Crosby.

“This is taller than me!” she exclaimed.

Another activity was more biological in nature.

Through Gostlin’s talk, they learned snakes, in fact, a “big pile of them,” stay in a hibernaculum underneath the frost line during the winter, with their body temperatures dropping to 41 degrees Fahrenheit to conserve energy.

A little play-acting was involved, with some students crawling on the ground across an imaginary road as snakes, and others pretending to be moving vehicles on that road. Another student was a predatory hawk.

One added wrinkle was if the weather were cold, resulting in the snakes moving more slowly.

Yet another scenario was mentioned.

“What would happen if we added more roads?” Gostlin asked.

They understood it would be more difficult for the snakes to cross them and survive.

And it’s important for snakes to exist in the world since they have their biological niche.

“Sometimes they actually hunt a lot of different mice, and they hunt a lot of pests that we normally kind of don’t like as much,” Gostlin said.

Park rangers Faith Sulich and Taylor Mace helped out during the field day, with kids taking to the woods to snowshoe and spending time inside learning about wildlife.

“If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” Mace told the kids in her group.

There were a few challenges, of course, such as removing the snowshoes and walking on top of the snow — and there was lots of it.

It helped, though, if they followed Mace’s advice: to walk like a penguin.

During an indoor lesson, the youngsters learned about how white-tailed deer adapt to winter, such as growing longer fur that also changes to a lighter color for camouflage in the snow.

They also learned a deer needs 2¢ pounds of food a day. To get an idea of that amount of food, they were given sticks, which they gathered into bundles of what they believed was that amount of food.

After weigh-ins, many bundles were shown to be way underestimated.

It was one way for a youngster to see first-hand how much food a deer requires.

Third-grade teacher Linda Wagner, who went along for the trip, said the event allowed the students to get out of their hometown to experience parts of the area they read about in social studies — “to see it in life” — plus the third-grade classes mingled with each other.

Snowshoeing also was new to many students, as was seeing a real park ranger.

“Even to learn about the science and ecology and the different aspects of the bigger world outside of Sawyer,” Wagner said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is