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Local students go snowshoeing at Heavenly, learn about Tahoe’s ecosystem

A group of kids walks in a straight line with their backs to the camera through the snow and into a forest up ahead.
Jose Davila IV
The students start their trek at Heavenly largely equipped with old-school snowshoes in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. on Wednesday, Mar. 29, 2023.

Local fifth graders have been heading up the Heavenly Gondola this winter to snowshoe and learn about Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem. KUNR joined one group on their trek.

Twenty-eight kids trudged through the snow above the gondola at Heavenly. They were getting used to the old-school rawhide and wood snowshoes that they got from trek leaders.

But their excitement about being outdoors among the pines and snowbanks was palpable.

The fifth graders were from Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School and Elevated Digital Academy, both schools in California's Lake Tahoe Unified School District. The trip was part of a long-standing collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service, Heavenly, Great Basin Institute, the Lake Tahoe Visitor Authority, and local schools.

On the way up the gondola, magnet school fifth grader John Sizemore struggled with his fear of heights. He even sat facing the mountain, to avoid looking down at the lake. But that did not dampen his excitement for the day’s hike.

“I’m excited for just going out with my friends and teachers and just everybody and having a blast in the snow,” Sizemore said.

Many of his friends echoed the same feelings. Some shared how they had never been snowshoeing at Heavenly before. Others were happy to be getting out of the classroom and into the outdoors.

Outdoor learning opportunities are especially important for the magnet school, given its environmental focus. The elementary school even has a dedicated science lab.

Maggie Fowle, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, expressed her excitement as they rode the gondola.

“These students will be able to have an experience getting out seeing nature, connecting with each other, of course, and learning new things in a beautiful environment,” Fowle said.

Fowle said that getting out of the classroom and learning from other educators will serve them well as they prepare for middle school.

The group was one of many that Adilene Negrete has led on this trek. She is the conservation education program specialist for the Forest Service.

“It’s important because especially with all of the students being from around the area, you know, they might not know the different tree species or the different types of animals that we have or might not have too good of an idea on what animals are doing during the winter time to survive, so it’s really cool to be able to take them up there,” she said.

Negrete grew up in Lake Tahoe but her parents did not know much about the region’s ecosystem. She said this program helps kids learn about the environment around them.

Students do not just learn about the area’s animal and plant life. Negrete and volunteers also teach about how animals interact with their habitats. At one stop on the hike, Negrete pointed out a dead tree to the students and called it a “hotel” for animals that use it for shelter.

At another stop, students and chaperones were treated to an expansive view of the lake. Here, they heard about the hydrology of the region. Morgan Pacheco from the magnet school said she wants to learn more about how the lake’s water is so clear.

“I kind of found it interesting that I didn’t know that meadows were how the water got filtered so I would want to learn more about that,” she said.

Negrete aligns what she teaches with the multistate Next Generation Science Standards to make it easier for teachers like Fowle to incorporate learning from the trek into classroom instruction.

Michael Wojciechowski was one of the parent chaperones on the trip. He thinks programs like these are important because they allow all kids to get out in nature.

“I think it’s important for all kids to get a chance to get outside, especially living in a town like this and get to experience the outdoors,” he said. “Not everyone has the time and means to get out so I think it’s important for the schools to take the initiative to make sure that the kids get to enjoy it.”

He and Fowle both said that a trip like this can inspire students to consider careers in the outdoors as well.

Both California and Nevada students have done this field trip, including some from the Douglas and Washoe County School Districts.

And after a morning of having a blast in the snow, John even overcame his fear of heights to briefly look over his shoulder at the lake on the way back down the mountain in the gondola.

Jose Davila IV is a corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Jose Davila IV is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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