Thursday, November 12, 2015

Drought, Beetles, and Fire, Oh My!

Have you noticed any trees with browning foliage in your area? When looking up towards Sierra Outdoor School from the town of Sonora, the hillsides are dotted with brown. Sometimes this color is from deciduous leaves preparing to drop from trees like California buckeye and black oak, however this year there is significantly more brown on the hillsides. As you drive up to the school you see that the brown color is from ponderosa pine trees that have died over this summer. How did this happen? What can be done about it? Is this a fire risk?

After four successive years of drought, these trees have suffered and have been unable to respond normally to environmental stresses. One thing that can stress the trees are bark beetles. These insects lay eggs underneath the bark and the larvae feed on the wood. A healthy tree responds to a bark beetle attack by filling the hole with a thick, sticky, fluid called pitch. When the trees are under water stress, as they have been due to this drought, they cannot produce enough pitch to fill the holes and keep the bark beetles out. Once a few beetles get under the bark and into the wood, they send out a chemical that lets other beetles know there's food to be had. They also lay eggs in the phloem, the layer between the bark and sapwood. The area where groups of eggs are laid is called a gallery. This gallery tunneling damages the phloem which carries sap throughout the tree, further inhibiting their ability to fend off bark beetles and stopping the flow of energy to growing parts of the tree. These beetles can also bring in a fungus that, in addition to damage from gallery construction and feeding, also contributes to tree mortality.

 Once the tree has died and the needles are all brown, it becomes a fire hazard because it is more flammable than green, living trees. However, once the dead foliage has dropped to the ground, the standing dead tree (or snag) does not pose an increased fire risk. In fact, snags provides great habitat for a variety of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Once the snag has fallen, though, it can become fuel for future fires.

There are things we can do to protect our forests and private property. Once you’ve identified the trees and the beetles they may be susceptible to, there are some steps you can take:
1) Thin tree stands:  reduces competition for resources, keeps the healthiest trees, keeps a variety of ages of trees, hinders the chemical communication between beetles, and allows you to keep more drought tolerant species.
2) Clean up blown down trees or green slash so you don’t attract beetles to this food source.
3) Be careful not to weaken trees through injury by digging near them or removing bark.
4) Remove any trees that have beetles in them and any green material >3” in diameter or chip, bury, or burn it promptly. (Depending on the beetle species, this tactic may or may not be effective)
5) Have a professional properly apply pesticides to unaffected, susceptible, or high value trees in extended drought periods. This may help the tree(s) in the long run, but it not a guarantee.
6) Water trees during extended droughts by saturating the soil down two feet near the outer edges of branches. Careful not to over water!

Much of this information comes from a USDA pamphlet, “Bark Beetles in California Conifers”.  For assistance in managing forests on private land, contact Cal Fire. For info on insect and forest management on public lands, contact the USDA Forest Service. Here is some additional information on bark beetles.

Stay tuned for the next post to see what Sierra Outdoor School has done with our ponderosa pine die-off and how we’ve managed this forest to limit the risk of forest fires. And learn how these actions affected the Oak Fire that broke out on September 8, and came within a mile of our school.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Environment-Focused Children's Literature

“And, under the trees, I saw Brown Bar-ba-loots frisking about in their Bar-ba-loot suits as they played in the shade and ate Truffula Fruits.”

While Bar-ba-loots and Truffula Fruits only exist on the pages of The Lorax, they help illustrate some very real ecological and economic principles. Children’s storybooks provide a fun and visually tantalizing way to take abstract concepts and bring them to life through storytelling. Books can also be a great way for students to teach themselves independently. Here are some storybooks we use here at Sierra Outdoor School:

The Wolves Are Back by Jean Craighead George

This book tells the real-life story of the persecution and near-extinction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park and the subsequent ecological imbalance that occurs as a result of their absence. The story describes the wolf reintroduction program, the rise in wolf population numbers and the ecological balance that returns. The story is useful in explaining the role of apex predators, the concept of interdependence and the importance of biodiversity. The author Jean Craighead George is best known for writing the “My Side of the Mountain” trilogy.

Just a Dream by Chris Van Allsburg

The story is centered around a boy named Walter who is disconnected from the environment and careless about his decisions (he is both a litterbug and a non-recycler!). He has a dream in which he sees some of the world’s wonders like Mt. Everest and The Grand Canyon degraded by pollution and development. You’ll have to read the book to find out how his life changes when he wakes up. This story helps young readers make connections between careless choices, environmental impact, conscious choices, and a better world. 

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

This story describes an apple tree and the many different resources she provides for a boy over the course of his life. The neat thing about this story is that it’s simplistic telling provides much room for interpretation and can be used to teach a wide range of concepts from the joy of giving to unconditional love. We use the story here at SOS to teach about forestry resources and mindful consumption of them.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

In typical Dr. Seuss fashion, he uses an imaginative cast of characters to describe a real-life issue. In this case the issue is the impact that industry and consumerism has on the environment. A man named the Onceler opens up a factory that manufactures thneeds, a panacea-like product that “everyone wants and everyone needs.” The product is made from Truffula trees which provide habitat for a variety of animals. The manufacturing of thneeds not only depletes the Truffula forest but also produces pollution like “smogulous smoke.” This story helps readers make connections between the consumption of products and the resources that it takes to produce them. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Meet The New Crew!

Our 2015-16 Naturalist Interns arrived about a month and half ago! They have just spent most of the month of August training and getting ready for school groups to arrive. We are super excited to have them join our team. If you are interested in what last year's interns are doing now, check out our previous blog. You are welcome to visit our Facebook page as well, to see updates and photos of how the last month of preparation and this school year has been going!

Andrew is currently a student at Fresno State University studying Recreation Administration.  He has lived in Fresno, CA most of his life and his natural habitat is outside.  He has worked as a white water river guide and a social media consultant at a mountain guiding company in southern Yosemite.  A few of his hobbies include photography, guitar, hiking, long boarding, and hammocking. Andrew came to SOS as a student, and is excited to be returning to SOS as an Intern so he can give kids the same great experience he had!
 Beth was born and raised in Red Bank, New Jersey, and earned her B.A. in Environmental Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She enjoys hiking, snowshoeing, archery, photography, and birding--a hobby she picked up while working in Minnesota for eight months. Since then, she has also sailed aboard a tall ship, taught field trips at a nature center, and worked at a YMCA camp. Beth is eager to learn a new set of animals and plants, and share what she already knows. She is also excited to work with the SOS staff members--both humans and birds!
 Cordele Glass grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and just graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Applied Developmental Psychology. Cordele is super excited about being here in the Stanislaus National Forest and teaching kids in a place where there is an endless pool for learning!  Cordele is a talented drummer and music producer, he loves to dance, rock climb, hike, and simply live in the moment!
 Emma graduated last December from the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY with a B.S. in Geology. She is thrilled to be working at SOS so she can combine her two greatest passions: science and the outdoors! Emma loves backpacking, cliff jumping, xc-skiing, water sports, crafts, playing the fiddle, hammocking, and going on adventures. Studying Geology has given Emma the opportunity to visit many different parts of the country, including researching paleo-landslides in Colorado and New Mexico, and spending a summer traversing, living and conducting research on the Juneau Icefield. This is her first time in the Sierra Nevada and she is taken by its beauty and vastness, especially the big trees. Emma was lucky enough to attend many camps and adventure programs while growing up, so she's very excited to be able to provide similar experiences to the students that attend SOS.

Laurel grew up in a small town in Northern California surrounded by something she believes is vital for every child: nature unspoiled by concrete, traffic, and litter clogged sidewalks… she’s been lucky enough to promote this belief and her deep love for the wilderness from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, to Nepal, to inner-city classrooms to slum neighborhoods in developing countries.  And now, she gets to do it at SOS!  Laurel has a B.A in Literature and Creative Writing and loves writing, poetry, art, and gardening. She also plays the cello and loves to dance!

While in high school, Madeleine Burke volunteered to teach hands-on science activities to 6th graders, and a passion was ignited!  She has since earned a B.A. in Social Science, a Masters degree in Special Education, and a Masters degree in Secondary Math Education.  She has spent the last two years teaching in high poverty, low achieving schools in Baltimore City and her favorite moments have been when she has taught lessons outside… so she is leaving the indoor classroom and taking a step towards her dream job, which is to be outside and inspiring kids to get connected to nature.  She also loves to rock climb, hike, and swim!

Lizzie Hoerauf grew up in Virginia, and just graduated in May from Duke University in NC with a B.S. degree in Environmental Science with a Biology Minor. She is super excited to lead lessons and naturalize with kids! She’s also looking forward to going down our zip line and learning about our raptors! In her spare time, Lizzie loves to to look for “herps”, rock climb, do arts and crafts, hike, teach, and explore new places!

Friday, June 12, 2015

2014-2015 Intern Projects

The school year has come to a close, and that means the interns are moving on. However, they have been working hard all year to leave behind a project that will benefit the school for years to come.

Let’s take a look at what this year’s interns accomplished…

Sarah channeled her love of laughter, music, and theatre to revamp Sierra Outdoor School’s campfire program. She searched far and wide for the most fun, educational, and interactive songs and skits related to SOS’s classes and organized them in a new staff campfire book. With activities specifically connected to each of SOS’s classes, campfires now provide students with the opportunity to cement and recall knowledge during an exciting evening of music and amusement!  Check out the student version of the campfire book on our website to find your favorite songs from SOS!

Tommy helped to beautify SOS’s campus and educate our visitors by painting a large map mural! The mural depicts the web of trails around main campus, accompanied by detailed illustrations highlighting unique organisms and areas. The mural’s final location is to be determined due to construction, but will be prominently displayed where visitors can enjoy it during free time.

Alli divided her time between three intern projects. First, she spruced up the “bird blind,” a teaching spot where students can sit, relatively hidden, and watch birds in the forest. At the beginning of the year, it was in need of some, the bird blind is an excellent place to hear songbirds and observe the forest! Second, Alli created a fun map for the new Gold Rush journal; kids love to locate themselves on the map and see where they are going next! Third, Alli created a PowerPoint version of our evening Campardy and Gold Rush Game Show classes. This new resource encourages higher student involvement and an atmosphere of fair and friendly competition. 

Britta loves trees, and decided that the students’ blacktop free time could incorporate some fun tree lessons as well. She designed, sketched, and painted signs that have local tree silhouettes drawn to scale, facts about them, and different ways to identify them.  These signs are located near the blacktop, giving students the option to learn about the trees of SOS during their free time, while also assisting in teaching about local trees during class. Take a look at these signs and quiz yourself: can you identify any of the trees by outline, cones, leaves, or flowers?

Jocelyn, along with a Naturlist, undertook the challenge of updating the SOS website. After many hours of designing, editing, writing, and enhancing website content with photos, the new website is up and running. The new website is designed for easy navigation, has more details about our program, and illustrates all our program has to offer with many new photos. Jocelyn also helped build the new Facebook page and has encouraged more staff involvement in posting on our online media so our students, teachers, and parents/guardians can get a better understanding of our day to day life here at SOS. Check out the website, Facebook, or this blog to learn something new about our program!

Deanna and Alicia love water and sustainability. When they arrived at SOS and realized that many students were purchasing single-use plastic water bottles to bring to classes, they decided those students should have another option. With Deanna’s design, they ordered two hundreds bottles as a test run… and they sold like crazy! The bottles are also BPA free, recyclable, made in the USA, and made from recycled materials. Drinking from a reusable water bottle is an easy way to reduce your waste! What else do you do at home or school to conserve your resources and practice sustainability?


Thanks for reading! Tune in next June to see what awesome projects the new interns create!

Friday, May 22, 2015

To Infinity and Beyond: Where The Interns Are Going Next!

After a fun and busy year spent learning and growing as interns at Sierra Outdoor School, our time on Big Hill is coming to a close. We are so thankful for all we have seen and experienced during the past ten months, and we will miss the great staff, students, programs, and facilities of SOS.  However, we are excited to bring our new skills and all we have learned to other communities and programs! Here’s where we are headed next…

Following her passions for the ocean and adventure programming, this summer Alli will be returning to her adopted home state of Washington to work on the San Juan Islands. As a returning staff member at YMCA Camp Orkila, she will be facilitating leadership development curriculum and weeklong sea kayaking expeditions with 15- 17 year olds.  After what is sure to be a salty summer of whale and bald eagle watching, Alli will continue working as a Naturalist at the YMCA East Bay Outdoor School at Camp Arroyo in Livermore, CA.  She can’t wait to continue teaching and is looking forward to more days spent facilitating high ropes courses,  leading garden and stream classes, and exploring the beautiful hills of the bay area and beyond!

Alicia is heading back to the coast and the redwoods to continue following her passion for getting kids outside and excited about the natural world. This summer, she will return to her favorite city of Santa Cruz as Assistant Director for Life Lab’s garden summer camp program. In September, she will begin working as a Naturalist at Exploring New Horizons at Loma Mar, a residential outdoor school nestled in the redwood forest of the Pescadero creek watershed. Alicia is excited to challenge herself and learn from these new positions, while applying the skills she has gained this past year at SOS. She is looking forward to new adventures and awesome communities this coming year.  

Britta is headed back to Seattle where she will be starting a Master’s In Teaching Math and Science graduate school program at Seattle Pacific University this coming summer, with hopes of teaching high school Biology and Environmental Science in the future. The past 1.5 years spent working in outdoor education have increased her passion for high-quality, hands-on science education and have taught her many valuable teaching skills and techniques, which she is excited to incorporate into classroom teaching. She is sad to leave SOS and the California sunshine, but is excited to return to the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and to continue learning and growing as an educator.

Deanna will be spending the summer camping and canoeing through some of Wisconsin’s beautiful lakes and rivers.  Starting in August she will be able to apply much of her new found knowledge from Sierra Outdoor School when she makes the move to the much wetter state of Washington to continue as an outdoor educator.  D will be teaching science classes focusing on ecology, marine life, birds, reptiles, and conservation.  She will also be leading adventure courses such as canoeing, climbing, and orienteering.  While she’s in Washington she will be making Britta (the Washingtonian) come hang out with her on the Puget Sound so they can reminisce about the great times shared at SOS!

Jocelyn is looking forward to another great adventure spending her summer working as an Environmental Educator for the Audubon Society of Portland. The position involves leading backpacking, kayaking, and archery adventures; as well as teaching about the forest, wildlife, and conservation. She will then begin working as a Naturalist at Exploring New Horizons in Sempervirens! Jocelyn is excited to further explore the Pacific Northwest, the ocean, and the redwood forest with children witnessing the wonders of the natural world and helping to create stewards of the environment. Jocelyn is appreciative of the Stanislaus forest and all she learned with her enlightening position at SOS, but is excited to take on these new positions, learn more, and see what exhilarating opportunities the future has in store.

Sarah will be taking the summer to finish her NC Environmental Education Certification, road trip around the Midwest, and eventually meander back to CA to continue pursuing her passion for connecting children to nature. Following her yearning for the ocean and love of music, she will be working at San Mateo Outdoor Education as a naturalist for the 2015-2016 school year. She is very excited to apply her teaching skills in a new context and continue to grow as an educator and naturalist. She is also stoked to adventure with Jocelyn, Alli, and Alicia in the Bay Area and visit SOS regularly!

Tommy will be living up his summer on Cape Cod, Massachusetts where he will spend his days fishing, kayaking and free diving. While nothing is written in stone, he will potentially be earning his scuba certification while also working at a youth center. Further, due to his family and friend ties, you may see the man traveling throughout the east coast, particularly to Boston and New York City. Afterwards he will hopefully be back on the west coast, working for a marine based outdoor school.  A mystery man since day one, he continues to inhabit the cobwebbed shadows of the future; however, one thing is certain: he will be eating a lot of fish while celebrating his Irish heritage.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

PHENOLOGY or Should I Say FUNology

Spring is that wonderful time of year when all types of new life are emerging. Beautiful birds, buzzing bugs, blooming blossoms, and many other interesting organisms are now flowing throughout the campus of Sierra Outdoor School.

Though it is very noticeable during these post-winter months, changes and "new life" appearances are happening year-round! The study of the timing of nature's cycles is called phenology. This can include life cycles, climate, weather, migration patterns, breeding, and flowering.

Let's check out some of the phenological happenings from around SOS:

We've all heard that April showers bring May flowers. The pictures below show our well known plant "bear clover" (aka mountain misery), which recently blossomed beautiful white flowers. This is the perfect time to see different parts of the flower's life cycle, from buds to blooms!

The new blooms have also been attracting many pollinators such as bees...

and butterflies! Which appear based on both interesting migration patterns and life cycles! PHENOLOGY!

Butterflies will often arrive based on a migration route like many birds. The destinations depend on where the best places are to breed, feed, or lay eggs at a given time of year. Below is an example of the migration route taken by monarch butterflies.

Life cycles are another factor for many insect appearances. Depending on the season you may see bugs in their stages as a pupa, larva or adult. Below are some examples of what these stages may look like.

The spring showers have also caused some cool fungi appearances!!! Turkey tail is the most commonly seen around camp, usually on fallen black oak tree branches.

Speaking of black oak trees, within the past few months, they have gone from bare to a stunning green with all of the bright new leaves!

The white leaf manzanita tree is not deciduous like the black oaks so they do not lose their leaves during the winter.  The most noticeable changes happen with the appearance of their "tiny apples" (as the name implies in Spanish).  They go through winter months without berries and in early spring they grow small pink flowers. 

Now the flowers have gone away and are growing into sweet, apple-like berries that will be red and ripe by mid-summer.

Now get off of the Internet and go be a backyard phenologist!  There are so many ways to experience the changing beauty right where you live!!!!

You can write, sketch, or just observe and ENJOY the changing world around you!
-Smell some flowers!
-Check out the migrating birds that pass through each season.
-Look for bugs!
-Keep notes on all of the new changes each week.
-Sketch a deciduous tree now and re-sketch it in 6 months!
-What changes are happening in your own backyard?
-Are there new blooms around your neighborhood?
-Find different stages of a plant life cycles in your garden or a community park!
-Take pictures of spring, summer, winter, and autumn changes!!!!
-BREATHE in that fresh air *cough* *cough* oh yeah, allergy season... because of PHENOLOGY!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Eureka! There’s Gold in them there Hills!

Every year, over 2300 students and adults visit Sierra Outdoor School to experience the Gold Rush in the heart of the Motherlode country. Although SOS was founded as an outdoor based science and exploration program, we began welcoming students from around the state to our hands-on Gold Rush program in 2012. Read on to learn more details about our Gold Rush Experience, or call now if you're interested in booking your school: The Gold Rush Experience highlights a unique and impactful period in California’s history, and visiting students have the opportunity to try their hands at a wide range of both mining and Me Wuk activities.  At the center of our Gold Rush program is an emphasis on hands-on learning where students are able to feel and experience what life was like during the 1850’s.

During their stay, students are transported back in time during a visit to Columbia State Historic Park, which contains the largest single collection of existing Gold Rush era structures in the entire state of California (

The merchants working in Columbia State Park and the naturalist teaching staff from Sierra Outdoor School don 1850’s outfits, bringing the mining community of Columbia to life.  Students take a historical tour through the “Diggins,” a replica of what Columbia looked like in its early days.  The tour then continues into the historic town to visit various businesses of the time, including: the Wells Fargo Bank, stagecoach office, Chinese general store, blacksmith’s shop, fire engine company, and more.  Students are also guided by SOS staff through Columbia’s cemetery in order to highlight the challenging life that miners faced and the diverse communities formed by miners from all over the world.

While in Columbia, some school groups will also visit the historic schoolhouse that was in use from 1860-1937. Here they have an opportunity to experience what school was like for the children of Columbia. With an SOS naturalist assuming the role of either Miss Nelson or Mr. Graham, the original grade school teacher and principal respectively, students are taught lessons in the style of the 1860’s, write on slates with chalk, and explore the schoolhouse.

Up on the SOS campus, students try their hands at using traditional mining tools such as long toms, cradle-rockers, and pans, with the actual possibility of finding some gold!  They also learn about the daily life of a miner by building shelters, learning about food and daily tasks, and creatively writing a letter home from the perspective of a Gold Rush miner or merchant to highlight the trials and tribulations they encountered during the Gold Rush.


An important component of the Gold Rush Experience is the focus on the Me Wuk people, the Native American tribe from this area. Students learn about their daily lives while visiting our Me Wuk village, complete with recreated traditional structures.There they learn traditional games and songs, make cordage, and pound acorns (a staple in the Me Wuk diet). While hiking along the ditch (a waterway dug by the miners) students also learn about traditional Me Wuk uses of local plants, as well as words from the Me Wuk language. These experiences allow students to compare and contrast the traditional lives of the Me Wuk with those of the miners.

We've had a blast taking fourth graders back in time to this pivotal point in California's history during our Gold Rush Experience and look forward to future programs. Check out this video to see more of what we have to offer and contact us if you'd like to bring the Gold Rush to life for your students.