SummerQuest; A Grade-School Journey Into the Tetons

“Do you see that? Those fallen trees over there? A ‘Diptosillius Rex’ did that. Running probably. At 150 miles per hour.”

“If we dig far enough down, we’ll definitely find gold on this hill!”

“Did you hear that? That was a Diptosillius too. Chasing us.”

“Are you a mom?”

These are just a few of the choice lines I’ve heard over the past few weeks while joining the students of Jackson Middle School and Colter Elementary for their summer school participation in the Wildlife Film Festival’s SummerQuest.

We’ve hiked up to Crystal Butte, around the Craig Thomas Visitor center in Moose, down to Taggart Lake in the national park, and to various destinations around town.

In each of these places, the students took pictures.

Below are just a few examples, but all of the photos were great.   So great, in fact, that many of the students won prizes in the Teton County Fair photography contest.

Photo submitted by student Carlos NavaGonzalez
Photo submitted by student Carlos NavaGonzalez
Photo submitted by Catrina Carlson
Photo submitted by Catrina Carlson
Photo submitted by student Alexis Sanchez
Photo submitted by student Alexis Sanchez

The images that the students chose and edited themselves exhibit their impressive eye for nature documentation. However, these are the polished, finish product; they don’t capture the behind-the-scenes conversations and general activity that went on while getting their “final shots”.

I was fortunate enough to be present for this “behind-the-scenes”, watching as the kids knelt to the ground to secure a good angle or ran 50 feet away to get the frame they desired. I watched as they photographed flowers, gravel, grass, fence posts, the school bus, and the Tetons. Whether they saw ants on a log or a bald eagle in a tree, they approached these photography sessions with ample enthusiasm, raw skill, and, of course, hilarity.

The comments like the ‘diptosillius rex’ one mentioned above were endless.

Not once, but twice, a student tried to convince me that a monster was living beneath the surface of Swan Lake. Another boy spent upwards of 20 minutes teaching me about holes in the ground, espousing ceaseless knowledge of snakes and other burrowing animals all the while. Sticks were repurposed as swords, rocks became homes for “humans” only 1 inch tall, and rustling in the bushes was the product of migrating wildebeasts.

While these remarks were, of course, amusing, it was also heartening to see their imaginations at work. They were learning about the nature of the area in the traditional sense, but at the same time, producing images that literally showcased their perspective. At the Film Festival, we aim to showcase the films that blend both conservation and art; with the students, they exhibited an eagerness to take part in this blend too.

Of course, none of these outings would have been possible without the help of dedicated Bridger Teton National Forest Rangers, Melissa Early, Jess Shaw, and Lauren Sullivan. Along with Stephanie Thompson, Jeannie Keefe, David Farren and their first grade class, Jess and Lauren led us up Crystal Butte, teaching the students (and me) all about the very definition of a natural habit along the way.

IMG_2921     IMG_2924

(Above: The rangers had us build a tower, consisting of “nature blocks”, including everything from “education” to “spiritual inspiration.”)

Then there was Megan Kohli, the Education Director at the Craig Thomas Visitor Center in the Grand Teton National Park. Two days in a row, she led 25 first graders on hikes, along with teachers Kelly Keefe, Neida Mendoza, Mike Schaefer, Emmy Farrow, and Jim Sandstead. We ventured along the Snake River and down toward Taggart Lake. Megan kept the students engaged and excited about their surroundings, often stopping to explain the importance of “leave no trace” or to point out the remnants of a wildfire that occurred 25 years ago.


It was really exceptional to be present as some of these classes saw the Tetons for the first time. Likewise, watching the students’ faces light up at the sight of a bug or fox or mushroom reminded me of the true majesty of the nature that surrounds us, on all scales.

From what I saw, these young students appreciate the environment in the same way we do: as something worth preserving and worth celebrating.


We would also like to thank Hannah Horigan and Bill Wiley at Jackson Middle School; Hannah orchestrated more than 70 students’ entries into the County Fair photography contest this year, integrating SummerQuest’s mission into her classroom for the entire month of July.

Finally, thank you to Penny Maldonado for presenting to the 6th and 8th graders of Jackson Middle on all that CougarFund does.

SummerQuest 2015 was both successful and rewarding. We can’t wait until 2016!


Post courtesy of JHWFF Intern Lizzie Stallings

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