“It was cloudy with the color of sun between the cracks of the clouds. The snow under the snowshoes sounded like firecrackers walking underneath us.”

So wrote a fifth-grader from Lake Superior Elementary, after I visited their school for a winter hike and writing workshop.

Mrs. Correll and Mrs. Norton invited me to visit their classes after reading one of my articles in the newspaper. Mrs. Correll explained in an email that, “I am in no way an expert in any area of the outdoors, but I do believe students need to experience as much time outside in our beautiful Northland as possible, and I love to give them the opportunity to learn about the history of our area and form an appreciation for it and why it's important to protect and conserve all of our natural resources.”

How could I argue with that?

The playground snow was indeed crunchy and loud as one class of fifth-graders bypassed the slides and swings to meet me by a shrub at the head of a trail leading into the woods. I was thrilled when a girl looked up into the tips of the willow twigs and asked, “What are those pine cones doing there?”

Willow pine cone galls are always a fun observation. The midge larva that burrowed into the stem last spring prevented the willow twig from extending. Instead, leaves once destined to flutter along a twig are now layered together in the cone-like structures that caught our attention. At the center of all those layers could be the cocoon of the midge, or any of 31 other species that sometimes wiggle into the galls’ layers for shelter.

The students were both attentive to my teaching and scanning their environment for more. Before I’d finished talking about pine cone galls, I had a different willow gall thrust into my hand. This small, football-shaped gall was a swelling of the stem material instead of a cluster of leaves. I carefully opened a multi-tool and pried open the prize.

“On some trees I can see galls,” recounted a student. “They are little bumps on trees and you have to use a special tool to open it. On the inside there might be a little orange larva. It makes me want to learn more about the larvae and how galls form.”

With the teachers, I’d talked about focusing in on the sensory experiences of being outdoors. So, naturally, I suggested to the kids that they all find a nice, tender willow twig at eye level and chew on it for a second. Their puckered faces and exclamations of “ew, gross!” were exactly what I’d expected. Willow tastes like uncoated aspirin tablets because it contains chemicals that are the basis for aspirin. John Pastor, an ecologist from Duluth, later told me that he thinks deer and moose might seek out willow twigs as winter forage specifically for the painkiller properties.

The willows were great, but the wide path into the open aspen forest looked inviting, too. We crunched on into the woods. “As I walk on the trail, I see some beautiful trees. If I listen closely, I can hear the crunch under my feet and the wind blowing. I can also hear my heavy breathing,” wrote a student.

Deer tracks perforated the wide path. When the lead students gave a shout, I wasn’t surprised to see that they’d found two deer beds in the middle of the trail. The packed ovals were sprinkled with pebbles of brown scat and stained with yellow snow. Of their own accord, the kids took turns kneeling down and sniffing the deer pee. Turns out, they’d read a chapter in my Natural Connections book about smelling fox urine, and most (but not all) were excited to try it themselves.

One student wrote, “As I walked around the bend, I saw people circling a hole like a herd of animals eating deer. I had no clue what was going on, so I stopped to see a hole with poop and pee. I heard Emily Stone say, ‘Smell the pee or poop if you want to.’ I was scared to do it, but I smelt the pee. It smelt like raw milk and smelly fart.”

As we wound among the aspen trunks, I was happy to see a rainbow of green and orange lichens at eye level. Mrs. Correll and Mrs. Norton had already introduced lichens as a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga, but I couldn’t resist telling my favorite story. “Alice Alga and Freddy Fungus took a 'lichen' to each other. They moved to the sticks, and their marriage has been on the rocks ever since!”

To my right, a girl gave a theatrical groan. I reveled in the moment. Not only was she experienced at groaning through dad jokes, but she’d grasped the concept and the humor fast enough to react.

Overall, I was impressed by the learning community that Mrs. Correll and Mrs. Norton are creating. Back in the classroom, I shared a few tips on writing, and over the next week or so the teachers guided the students in putting their outdoor experiences into words. They did a great job, so I’ll leave you with a few more of their thoughts.

“Now that you know what I saw, you should pay more attention to what's out in the woods because there may be something cool that you could ask an expert, or Google it to learn more.”

“Sometimes it's good to go outside and see what’s out there.”

“In conclusion, hopefully you learn about nature every day!”

Emily Stone is a naturalist and education director at the Cable Natural History Museum.