USFS Madison Ranger District fire crew member Sarah Rife, helps Sheridan third grader David Reeves try on a typical wildfire fighter’s field backpack at Bear Creek Days Tuesday, May 14. (H. Kearse)Forth graders from Cardwell and Twin Bridges Schools at the annual Bear Creek Days huddle around Kevin Suzuki and a tub of water, as he shows them how to pan for gold and other rocks Tuesday, May 14. (H. Kearse)

Bear Creek Days

A conservation education

CAMERON – As students’ structured school days are about to melt into summer freedom, the urge to satisfy the itch to spend the fleeting days outside is nearly irresistible.

Yellow school buses rolled down the dirt road leading to the historic Bear Creek Ranger Station, Sphinx Mountain’s magnitude becoming more apparent by the minute. Where the foothills of the Madison Range begin to steeply climb and a few log buildings spread around a flowing creek, the 12th annual Bear Creek Days was ready.

Seven schools in the area from Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin counties attended the outdoor education program May 14 to 16. During those three days, 515 students participated in hands-on learning activities scattered throughout the property.

“It’s right before testing so this is a nice break,” Cardwell’s third and fourth grade teacher, Ashley Todd said. 

The U.S. Forest Service, Yellowstone National Park, Bozeman Raptor Center, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Madison River Foundation, Madison Valley Ranchland Group Weed Committee and the Madison Conservation District donated funds and structured outdoor presentations in an immersive environment. 

“We really can’t do it without our partners; it’s a group effort,” District Ranger Dale Olson said. 

Retired Forest Ranger, Rick Hafenfeld noticed funding for the event was slipping. He loves getting children off their screens and into nature. From childhood, Hafenfeld knew that he wanted to work outdoors because someone sparked that interest early in his life. 

“If we can spark an interest in these kids,” Hafenfeld said. “Further down the road they may want to work in conservation and outdoors.”

As Madison County Chapter Chairman for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Hafenfeld found another way to help. RMEF contributed one of the larger donations to help fund Bear Creek Days this year.

The aim of the event is to promote the respect, interest and appreciation for the outdoors. 

“For these kids to understand that these lands belong to them and to pass that along is so important,” Olson said.

The unpredictable weather of Montana’s spring has caused the event to cancel in the past, but rain or shine is the motto. This year was mostly shine and students’ laughter babbled along with the creek. 

Darcy Wheeler has participated with Bear Creek Days for three years as a forest ranger, but this year was her first time coordinating the event. Planning outdoor fun for young students was an ideal project for Wheeler. 

“Community outreach is the most important thing for conservation,” Wheeler said. “You have to teach kids why conservation is important.” 

Each grade has four different stations that are age appropriate. The Madison Ranger District fire crew spoke to third graders about the good and bad of wildfires, while holding relay races and letting the students try on their heavy field backpacks. Fourth graders plunged their hands into waters to search for rocks and catch river bugs, identifying what they’d plucked.

Retired Ennis Forest Ranger, Kevin Suzuki, has been fostering students’ interest in rocks at the annual field trip for 15 years, since before the U.S. Forest Service headed the event. When Fish and Game created the event in the ‘80s it was at the Wall Creek Station. Suzuki carried over his enthusiasm for conservation and the outdoors to Bear Creek.

“Anything you find in your pans you can keep because rocks are cool,” Suzuki said. 

Montana Raptor Conservation Center brought three of its raptors and spoke with fifth graders about the different species and the ways that humans affect them. The students were particularly excited about the great horned owl named Boo. 

“They knew quite a bit and had a lot to add to the conversation,” MRCC Education Specialist, Teresa Aldrich said. 

Madison River Foundation spoke with sixth graders about the basics of fly fishing. They practiced casting with Madison River Foundations volunteers and many of them already had solid technique – something they probably learned growing up along the Madison River.

Seventh graders scattered the property searching for medicinal and edible plants to make teas, while identifying how each plant can help certain ailments. 

“It’s [Bear Creek] a smorgasbord of medicinal and edible plants,” Montana Outdoor Science School Director, Jess Haas said. “You have a buffet in your backyard and most people don’t even know.”

Eighth graders were challenged with the most advanced stations of Bear Creek Days, dissecting fish and learning about biology.

The advancing activity stations provided 24 lessons and experiences on conservation and outdoor education.

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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