I drove the school van slowly south on Forest Road (FR) 152 headed to our field base, Tracy Lake School Forest, like we do at least once every week during the school year and several weeks each summer. The gravel gurgled as it bumped up against the tire treads followed by the squishy sound of a soupy dirt road relinquishing its frozen bed. FR 152 reminded me of childhood trips down Marsh Road with my dad. The old Farmall Model A tractor swam in the mushy dirt, the steering wheel jiggling left and right with the rhythm of the sliding and the jarring of the potholes as the exhaust stack belched. Dad and I were on our way to The Forty as we called it, forty acres of wooded hunting land, complete with a manmade pond, about a mile from our hobby farmstead.
I smiled at the school van’s windshield remembering how much I loved those trips out to The Forty walking in the woods behind Dad. “Walk in my footsteps, heel then toe, so the leaves don’t crunch,” he said. I concentrated real hard, “heel, toe, heel, toe,” as I took child leaps to land my half-pint foot in the impression left behind by his full-size boot. He raised his left arm once in a while, a signal I should freeze in my tracks--his tracks--while he listened to the sounds of the woods. He cradled a single-shot .410 in his right arm, his head cocked like a labrador retriever as he strained to hear something. I was never quite sure what. Often when we resumed walking, his hushed voice taught me which hardwoods made the best pulp for paper, which tracks were grouse or fox, which voices were gray squirrels, and which were red, which way to point a compass due north to get myself back out of the woods if I was ever lost. He fed my endless curiosity with his natural love for teaching and his passion for conserving natural resources. Dad told me time and again, “You can learn anything from the woods.”
The sunlight returned a smile as it bounced off FR 152’s snowy mud surface and reached for me with its brightness and warmth. I squinted and pressed the widening crow’s foot at the corner of one eye. No sunglasses, again, but I didn’t care if a new wrinkle emerged. We were out of the school building on a warm spring day. Soon we would be in the forest which would make up for any vain distractions.
A trio of high schoolers sat on the bench seats behind me chatting and laughing. My mouth curled at the edges, pleased they were relaxed and enthusiastic for the work ahead of us. I thought about how much fun Dad would have if he could be in the woods with my kids--my students--how much they would learn from him, how proud he would be of me. I imagined Aldo Leopold seated next to me in the passenger seat swapping stories about young people, their passion for the northwoods, our passion for them. I thought about the generations of Park Falls School District (now Chequamegon School District) teachers before me who taught children with the outdoors as the foundation of their lessons.
I flitted between the road and Leopold’s apparition and recalled something Wisconsin’s most notable teacher and conservationist of the 1930s wrote: “Raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise.” A project-based learning (PBL) high school like Class ACT Charter School witnesses Leopold’s truth whether three or thirty students interact with the wildness of Tracy Lake. I know this because I’ve watched kids dig in the rocky ground to plant trees and wipe their sweaty faces with dirty T-shirts. I’ve heard their proud voices settle upon the land like early morning dew as they realize the impact their learning and good work has on the woods they love and the community they won’t leave.
Leopold said science didn’t know with certainty the home ranges of animals or how those home ranges may change as the animals adapt to new landscapes. I know with certainty, from listening to the voices of my students, this place called Tracy Lake, short for Tracy Lake School Forest, is a mainstay of their home range. It’s where they flourish. It’s their community. Their people.
Yet, Class ACT’s home range shrunk from seventy-five miles to zero when COVID-19 clipped our wings this past spring. We adapted to our virtual landscape like the animals of the forest adapt to a blowdown or a fire, but I still heard the desperate cries of my students at the loss of their Tracy Lake field experiences. I remembered the autumn evenings of my childhood when I went with Dad as he hunted squirrels and game birds near the fringes of the Moccasin Creek. He told me to listen to the landscape surrounding me, especially the weakest or most distant voices or those in the margins of our hearing, and in listening to them, I would hear my own voice. And I did hear it. My voice. Thirty years later at Tracy Lake when I empowered teenagers, many of them marginalized, to speak for themselves and create their own learning paths. Being a teacher for two decades has exposed my creativity by giving me a landscape to pass on Dad’s lessons and ultimately Leopold’s philosophy: There must be an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature.
I looked in the van’s rearview mirror and called out to Brian, a sophomore and avid outdoorsman who leads the mapping portion of the Ruffed Grouse Team project. “Hey, Brian. What’s the mapping data shown you so far about the home range of the grouse we’re tracking?”
Class ACT students track ruffed grouse, while at the same time, they diversify tree and plant species at Tracy Lake to make the habitat suitable for grouse year-round. Ruffed grouse are wild game birds indigenous to Wisconsin and considered king of all game birds because of their elusiveness. In fact, Aldo Leopold said, “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed grouse hunting,” and he would agree these birds are crucial to northern Wisconsin economies. Hundreds of bird hunters and their sporting dogs from around the United States and Europe flock each fall to the Grouse Capital of the World to land upon the sunburst forests in search of the gray-phase and red-phase ruffed grouse.
To do the important, ongoing work of improving habitat for grouse and other wildlife in the north woods, students collaborate with the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS), Chequamegon School District, Ashland County Forestry, and many other land and wildlife advocates to realize their land and wildlife goals for the school forest.
“If our readings ain’t screwed up, and we get good enough bearings to make a small triangle, we can get to within three or four miles of the birds. Still a pretty big area if we’re gonna try to find a bird. I mean. Think about it. Hikin’ through the tag alder swamp three yards is hard, let alone three miles,” Brian said.
I turned the van left off the road and onto the driveway leading to a magical place: swamps and bogs, streams and a lake, acres and acres of trees and wildflowers and trails, the humanities and science, gratitude and solitude, teamwork and joy, awe and wonder. Here, we are all learners and teachers working together to interpret the school forest’s lessons. My passengers--Shyanne, Brian, and Kale--hung their heads out the open windows like their furry dog pals on a ride into town.
“I love the smell of the air, Mrs. Zwicke,” Shyanne said.
“Spring,” the kids said in near unison.
I watched them in the rearview mirror with their noses tilted into the wind, deep inhales, slow exhales. I felt so lucky to be with them outside today for school. Their anticipation of a few hours in the woods resembled a ruffed grouse’s satisfaction as it plucks red berries from one of the highbush cranberry shrubs we planted several years ago.
This day’s assignment was to hike to three or four geographic locations on or near the property. At each site, students document the GPS coordinates and compass bearings of six ruffed grouse we trapped last fall with live traps, then fitted the birds with electronic tracking necklaces (collars) acting as transmitters. Students hear the radio frequencies emitted by the collars using a receiver and antenna (radio telemetry). I looked to the passenger seat again and Leopold’s apparition. One of his favorite field studies was trapping and banding the chickadees on his land, each one getting a number. He then documented how often he caught the birds in successive winters. Number 65290 was Leopold’s most frequent capture. As he hypothesized what made 65290 so special because it lived so long, Leopold said he couldn’t see any particular genius in the bird. I wondered if Leopold would think of our technology as genius--telemetry equipment, iPad, computer mapping software--as we recorded our data and hypothesized ourselves. If he walked with us from location to location collecting not-so-different data than him, would he ask the same question as us? Why does bird 148.300 stay on the Tracy Lake property through the winter, and bird 148.381 doesn’t?
I pumped the brakes as we descended the slushy hill just past the iron entrance gate as the kids oohed and ahhed with the mini roller coaster ride. Gravel covered the tops of the snow berms like chocolate sprinkles on ice cream cones, hindering snow melt at least for now. I imagined what it must have been like from 1934 to 1944 when this one-lane road snaked through the woods as a single-tracked trail. It was 1947 before the State of Wisconsin and U.S. Forest Service built a road to the lake. Since then the road has been improved a couple more times.
I wondered if the 1930s and 1940s students and their teachers gabbed as they hiked single-file on what must have resembled a deer trail more than a road. Dad and I walked single-file too, sometimes trails, often bushwacking, but we never gabbed. Dad said I was to walk in his footsteps without making a sound, not even from a russling leaf. If I made noise, he said we’d hear animals scatter and lose fresh meat for supper. Not in the woods to hunt, the students of yesteryear surely eavesdropped on the wind singing to the land. They must have stopped to sit on stumps to write notes in their field journals or sketch the land dotted with young pine seedlings planted by kids before them. I remembered last fall’s all-school exploration of water ecology defining the filtration systems at work in the wetlands. Kids in rubber boots, some held clipboards with lab sheets, others knelt to scoop water samples into vials, chatting about their discoveries, like the kids of generations before this one, and I thought how lucky we are to have this beautiful gift of a forest with such a robust history.
Tracy Lake wasn’t the only land gifted to the School District. From 1932 to 2009, it received land parcels donated by government agencies and prominent area individuals and absorbed properties during school consolidations. Today, the Chequamegon School District owns about 620 acres with the Tracy Lake property making up 320 of the total. Public K-12 school districts throughout the state received land like this after a 1927 state law made it possible to gift abandoned wild land to them for the education of children.
The grooved tire tracks of the driveway past the roller-coaster hill, dense and gray, crackled as the school van broke fragile honeycombs of the last remnants of winter. No radio blared. No iPhone chimed. Just three kids and a teacher catching the pungent dampness of the earth and the welcome serenade of black-capped chickadees chirping from the edges of the lane.
As I parked the van near the woody boulevard adjacent to the pavilion and shut the engine off, I thought again about the children and educators who expanded their home ranges by coming to the school forest for nine decades. Like the generations of elementary students who planted pine trees every Arbor Day since the late 1800s. Like the high schoolers who planted 50,000 trees by hand from 1928 to 1936. Like Roger Reas, lifelong resident of Park Falls and retired Park Falls School District teacher who as a teenager cleaned up storm damage in 1951 and planted thousands of trees himself, all as a member of the Park Falls High School Junior Foresters’ Club. Like teacher Roger Reas who, in the 1970s, taught his students how to operate a chain saw and how to select-cut and clear-cut trees. Like teenager and later teacher Chuck Woelfel who in the 1990s taught kids tree species identification and, of course, planted more trees. Like former student and now forester, Matt Schultz, who today teaches kids how logging and young forest management for wildlife habitat can coexist. Like Class ACT students and teachers who planted highbush cranberry, American mountain ash, and silky dogwood to diversify tree species and increase winter staples for ruffed grouse and other wildlife.
I grinned as I thought about one recent summer school orientation when students gathered deadfall and built debris shelters as their overnight homes. For the first time in my chaperoning life, teenagers wanted to go to bed. I remembered Dad encouraging my sisters and I to build forts in the red pine plantation to the west of our house. We would work all day gathering brush and stacking it circular like a bunker above ground, laughing and fighting as siblings do, bragging who would sleep there that night. This time at Tracy Lake I heard the noises of the night mixed with the giggles of kids living a sensory life unlike any they’d ever had. A night in the woods sheltered by only what they built.
Their experiences in the school forest last a lifetime because they had the freedom to make discoveries in an ecosystem that listened to them. Their perspectives increased. Their decisions impacted.
“Mrs. Zwicke. Are you ready?” Shyanne asked.
I jumped out of the van and into the small covey of kids. I took a minute to pull up the socks at the bottom of my Muck boots and zip my down vest. Shyanne stood with the clipboard pinched between her knees as she tied her pink-painted blonde locks into a messy ponytail and slapped a Carhartt beanie over the top. She jammed her hands into her Castle jacket pockets and retrieved her work gloves before extracting the clipboard. The two boys gathered up the telemetry equipment and cooed about the breeze streaming in front of them like campfire smoke. Brian bent to re-tie one of his leather boots, screwed his worn brown baseball cap tighter to his head, and pushed his glasses closer to his face. His bulky hands stuck out from the ends of his Carhartt jacket like chunks of firewood. Kale strapped the receiver crossbody and held the collapsed metal antenna in his ungloved right hand. His black baseball cap perched on his head, yellow wisps of hair protruding above his ears, as he rambled a litany about a recent snowmobile repair he completed on his own. In just minutes the Ruffed Grouse Team headed out to record tracking data for their research project.
We walked on the surface of the crusty trail, jibber jabbering as we weaved around the iron gate of the walking trail, a gate built by a Grouse Team alum and his father four years earlier. Shyanne, Brian, and Kale made up one-half of the Ruffed Grouse Team, and the Ruffed Grouse Team made up one-sixth of a half dozen teams of students, all working on school forest development projects, all led by students and facilitated by teachers and local experts as part of their day-to-day school. We call this work project-based learning or PBL.
“Hey, slow down up there, you guys. Are you in a hurry to get back to the school building?” I asked.
Shyanne and Kale stopped and turned toward Brian and me. “No way. What were we thinking?” Shyanne laughed. The hikes to and from these sites have become some of the best opportunities to build relationships with each other. It’s part of what makes us unique. What makes us a family. What makes learning fun.
As we neared the first clearing, I stopped a moment as we came upon a single massive white pine. The fatherly tree’s knobby arms and twisted fingers swayed and creaked in the breeze like a rusty hinge, its rhythm interrupted only by the perturbed gray squirrel at the base of its trunk. The tree towered above all the other pines and hardwoods nearby. I realized this elder must be an offspring of the giants felled by the lumber barons in the early 1900s. I remembered Roger Reas saying, when he was a youngster in 1935, his neighbor, Mabel Hardy, a housewife and writer for The Park Falls Herald, told him the landscape she saw from her kitchen window was nothing but “black and burned and stumps.” This giant pine stands in the place of its predecessor, and along with the artificial versions of all the other giants, represents reforestation.
Yet, rising from the cutover land came the story of the Tracy Lake School Forest, and its story is our story. I pictured Aldo Leopold walking beside me as we approached the first clearing saying, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” He believed the hope of restoring the vast forests of northern Wisconsin from stumps to trees to pulp and lumber again rested with its youngsters. The enormous pine, non-typical in its shape, bears witness to Leopold’s truth from nine decades of stewardship and tens of thousands of trees planted by thousands of kids from the School District.
Dad taught me reforestation, too. After he logged the popple trees and sold the pulpwood to the paper mill, he left the cutover land to regenerate naturally. He said, “Just you wait. Three or four years and this brush will be seedling sprouts, and two decades later a forest of wildlife.” Dad showed me logging is a necessary component of healthy, balanced forests as if Leopold spoke to Dad directly. Generations of students and teachers learned similar principles, then went on to promote conservation at Tracy Lake as well as on their own land.
Truly, the youngsters have reforested northern Wisconsin as Leopold envisioned, and the Tracy Lake property not only benefited but became healthier the more we practiced Leopold’s balance of interactions between wilderness and humans.
“Mrs. Zwicke, we’re at Four Corners,” Kale said as he readied his half of the telemetry equipment. Brian got the other half ready, and Shyanne and I walked to the border between the opening we called Four Corners and the fifteen-year-old aspens surrounding the clearing. Shyanne and I searched for fluorescent orange flags hanging in the snow drifts but actually tied to young shrubs and trees. Finding one, we brushed the snow from the highbush cranberry and uncovered several red marble berries, imposters of real cranberries, which must have escaped the sharp eyes of wintering grouse or deer.
“This bush looks pretty healthy. A few branch tips have been torn off by deer, maybe the lower ones clipped off by rabbits, don’t you think?” asked Shyanne as she held the branch for me to see.
“I think you’re right. What about the berries?” I asked her.
“Only these three that I can see. I bet 148.493 ate some of the berries too because we’ve tracked him to this area all winter,” she said.
I continued around the perimeter, while Shyanne returned to the boys to record the readings on the data collection sheet as the boys said them aloud to her. We moved on about 200 yards to the South to the next opening for a second set of readings. While the kids listened intently for the solid pinging which confirmed the grouse were alive as well as their locations, I continued surveilling the young plants bordering the clearing.
My mind drifted to the students now graduated when these shrubs and trees were planted and the trails widened. A new crop of kids will plant the next ones and tie on the orange ribbons. The succession of learners in this vibrant setting reminded me of the philosophy of education I read in the former Park Falls School District’s 1955 school forest plan. The superintendent of schools at the time, F. G. MacLachlan, said, “The laboratory provided by the school forest is as much a part of educational experience that boys and girls of the area have a right to expect as any laboratory in the school building.” I thought about the truth of his statement in the examples I see every school year. Students learned how to till and seed an opening with native winter-mix grass and then gauge its growth through the seasons. They learned how to identify tag alder brush and why sheering sections of it would increase suitable wildlife habitat. They learned to map trails with a GPS and compass and what makes trails accessible to everyone and anyone. They pulled invasive plants like buckthorn and purple loosestrife; photographed or filmed field work to create movies; wrote songs and poetry; and sketched nature in art.
By now, the Ruffed Grouse Team had finished its last readings, and we had neared the end of our round trip. I sighed as I stopped a moment to look at the crumbling stone fireplace standing alone in the old cabin foundation on the lake loop. Sources vary on the exact date the cabin was built, but most say the Junior Foresters’ Club erected it in the mid-1930s. The timber walls are gone, by fire or perhaps disintegration from brutal northern Wisconsin weather, but I imagine this place as a monument to our School District’s legacy which continues with each passing generation. Two years ago, a student team uncovered the footings and fragments of the cabin’s foundation, measured its footprint, and drafted a blueprint of the cabin as it may have appeared when the Junior Foresters’ Club built it. I hope next year’s team can use the drawings to rebuild the cabin and fireplace and restore it to its glory.
“Let’s go, Mrs. Zwicke,” Brian hollered. He and the others stood just ahead of me, jackets unzipped, hair dampened at the edges of their hats.
“I’ll be right there,” I shouted back. I stepped forward to the fireplace and brushed my hand along its mosaic stones. The sharp edges and deep-pitted grooves, absent chunks of mortar like peeling paint, is a portal to the past nine decades. I imagined someone stoking the fire, while several others sat at a tiny table playing cards. At some point, the Club abandoned the cabin, and it became a hovel for a logger’s draft horse, a hay manger replacing the card table. I puffed with pride for my School District, for my role as a conservationist and teacher, and for this community I have come to call my home.
Humans and land must be balanced, Leopold said. Land ethics and conservation, he called it. County forester Matt Schultz reminded me about his experience this past fall with a high schooler who shadowed him. Schultz realized the pine seedlings planted in the school forest by students from the Junior Foresters’ Club in 1955 were thinned in the early 2000s. In 2019, Schultz marked this same mature stand once again for thinning, this time a young protege of a different decade in toe. Just like the adaptation of the forest to its environment, the adaptation of forestry practices to reforest Tracy Lake, and the adaptation of students to innovative ways to do school, Leopold and wise School District educators invested their faith and resources in the passionate young people of its District. Together, we have all learned the story of conservation and rediscovered the joy of nature.
My father taught me it was my responsibility to teach others so they appreciate nature, too. He reminded me to listen to the voices of the forest to find my own voice. What he didn’t know is I would fulfill Mr. MacLachlan’s vision by showing students how to learn academic subjects with the tools of the school forest. Students would make tremendous gains on standardized tests in reading and writing and math because of the work they did in the woods. They would revel in the first ruffed grouse of the spring they heard drumming or the first live grouse they touched in the fall traps. They would trade textbooks for Muck boots and work gloves.
I leaped over the northwest corner stone of the cabin foundation and ran down the path toward the van and my waiting students.
“Ready guys?” I asked, catching my breath.
“I guess so. It’s just so nice out here, Mrs. Zwicke,” Shyanne said. The wind lifted the strands of blonde from around her hat in a slow wave.
“It sure is,” I added. We all took our seats in the van, and I turned the engine on.
I hesitated before I put the van in drive.
I don’t need to wonder any longer who will listen to the landscape and tell its future stories. I walk with the storytellers every day. They share their lives with me, their hopes and dreams, and I share some of mine. They will tell their children how proud they are of the principles they practiced at a very different kind of school in a school district that knows the value of project-based learning resources.
They will tell their children they had the greatest teacher ever.
Her name is Tracy Lake.