Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 1 of 4

I went on the Lincoln School 5th Grade Science Camp as an adult chaperone for the second time. Last year was my first time— I was available, and as always I was interested in new experiences. I’d never chaperoned a multi-day school field trip before. It turned out to be fun and rewarding.

I had thought it would be a one-off thing. But one year later, I was still idle, and my pre-requisite clearances — TB test and Livescan review — still had remaining shelf-life. So at the last minute, I signed up for a second tour of duty. There was another plus: Mom had already signed up as a chaperone, for her first time.

Lincoln Elementary School is located in Oakland Chinatown.  The institution has been there for about a hundred years, with a predominantly Chinese-American/Asian student population. It currently runs kindergarten through 5th grade.

The blue and white main building is twice a landmark in my memory. When I was in pre-school nearby, we would occasionally walk to Lincoln School for activities. The one I liked most was inside the multi-purpose room, where we flapped a giant nylon parachute madly up and down, and then ran under its billowing roof in giddy exhilaration.

Much, much later, my mom served as the principal of Lincoln School, in the late 1990’s. As I was working in downtown Oakland at the time, I would occasionally walk over to visit her there. [1] As a 4 year-old, I could have never imagined that one day, my mother would be the principal of the school.  That was probably a good thing; I would have been so proud and insufferably boastful about it.

About ten years ago, there was a push to expose Lincoln School kids to environment science and the great outdoors.  Living in densely urban Oakland, science camp would be the first time most kids encountered nature on its own turf.  The inception of 5th Grade Science Camp was spearheaded by three 5th grade teachers: Belinda Fong, Derek MacLeod and Becky Wong. [2] By dint of hard work, and a stroke of fate, an endowment foundation was set up with a considerable bequest from Nancy J. Lee to fund the annual science camp for 5th graders. LEAAF (Lincoln Environmental Education and Arts Fund) has helped send roughly 100 Lincoln 5th graders each year to camp at at sites such as Angel Island, Marin Headlands, Westminster Woods, and Yosemite National Park.

Ms. Fong and Mr. MacLeod are still the lead organizers for the science camp program. Becky is retired, but still heavily involved, especially with LEAAF. (Amongst other things, Becky is a genius at chaperone recruitment.) Nowadays, there are four fifth-grade classes taught by Mr. MacLeod, Ms. Fong, Rob Fong (unrelated?) and Brooke Guinney. It is a lot of work on top of a teacher’s normal workload. They start organizing for next year’s camp right after they get back from this year.

Lincoln is a Title I school, which means it is considered low-income and receives state and federal funding. The actual cost per child (including transportation) is around $500 for the week-long camp. Parents are asked to donate $175 per child to help with expenses, but it is not mandatory. (Title I schools cannot require fees.) Generally, parents donate what they can.


For 100 students, there needs to be about 10-15 chaperones. (It breaks down to roughly 2 chaperones per trail group of 12-14 kids.) Getting enough chaperones for science camp is a challenge. Parents — the most likely and abundant pool — are not allowed to chaperone [3], [4]. “Too many parents wanted to come, especially to Yosemite, making it difficult to choose. And then most of the parent chaperones weren’t very effective, they’d just be standing around.” one teacher told me.  There’s also the time commitment: science camp is 4-5 days out of town; it’s not simply taking kids on BART to the museum for an afternoon.  If you didn’t have a kid at Lincoln, you’d have little motivation to go. So most chaperones are retirees. [5]

Most of the chaperones are current and former teachers/principals – most of them have been faithfully chaperoning for years. Then there are the FOBs (Friends of Becky), people Becky met through her qi going class, dance class, etc. In fact that’s how I got roped in last year — I got to know Becky through Mom; we had gone on hiking trips in Oregon and Grand Canyon a few years ago.

One chaperone who was neither a professional educator nor an FOB was Wayland Lew.

Last year, when I saw Wayland Lew’s name on the chaperones list, I emailed him. “Are you chaperoning the Yosemite trip for Lincoln School in late January? I saw your name on the list. Or maybe there’s another Wayland Lew in the Bay Area.”

He replied mock-gradiosely: “There can only be one Wayland Lew in the Bay Area!  Yes, I’m chaperoning.”

Wayland — who looks like Papa Noël-in-training — and I had worked together at a transit agency a few years ago. We got along very well together, because we liked to talk about travel, and had kept in touch after we left the agency. Coincidentally, neither of us had children. I was surprised that he was volunteering without an apparent connection to Lincoln (he had grown up in San Francisco Chinatown), but I was also not surprised. He had often talked about doing volunteer work with kids when he retired.


Wayland – my co-chaperone

As it turned out, Frances Joe, the counselor at Lincoln, was his kindergarten classmate, and had got him signed up. Wayland had signed up again this year, and we were both assigned to the Trail Group 3. I was glad to be co-chaperoning with my former colleague; Wayland was practical, meticulous and droll.

It also felt like a promotion; all the rookie chaperones were paired with current or former teachers. (Even Mom was paired with Mr. MacLeod.) Neither Wayland nor I had ever been teachers, but we must have done well enough last year to now be entrusted with the care and keep of 14 ten-year olds.

Wayland and I each had a secret weapon this year.  The week before camp, Wayland had visited Lincoln School to familiarize with some of the kids in our trail group, and got additional notes from Frances on the kids. I didn’t look at those notes until after the second day of camp, and was struck by how spot-on Frances’ assessments were. [6] I had also chaperoned the last year’s 4th grade camp, so I was familiar with some faces, names, and personalities of this year’s 5th graders in my trail group.

There was one buddy pair in our trail group that were identical twins: Aidan was in Ms. Guinney’s class; Adrian was in Ms. Fong’s. With such similar-sounding names, it was hard to remember who was who when you addressed them. [7]  Aidan and Adrian had similar haircuts and the same clothes, often wearing similar outfits on the same day.  On the first day, Jenna (our trail group naturalist) and I had figured out that the one wearing Air Jordans was Adrian; a quick glance at his feet would identify him. The next day, to our chagrin, both Adrian and Aidan wore the same sneakers. Since the kids had name tags on their backpacks, we often tried to read those, but most of the time they were obscured by being flipped over.

Of the kids in this year’s trail group, I had known Anne, Mathilda and Harold from my 4th grade camp groups. Anne and Mathilda were the oddest-looking of the buddies, one tall, one short, both equally dependable. Anne was quiet. Mathilda talked more, but what she had to say was always very thoughtful.

Harold had been one of the worst disruptors in my group last year. He talked a lot, paid little attention, and had frequently claimed “I need use the facilitree” as an excuse to go goof off during the outdoor class activities. I wondered if he was like that in school as well, constantly asking to use the bathroom pass.  But to my surprise, he had matured since last year, and was actually helpful in reining his buddy Liam, who turned out to be the biggest handful. As it turned out, we only had Liam and Harold for a day before we traded them in. It boiled down to a cabin key.

At Yosemite Science Camp, we stayed in the tent-cabins in one section of Camp Curry.  Each cabin either housed 4 kids, or 1-3 adults. The wood-framed cabins were walled with thick plastic tarps. Inside each there was a wall heater, an electric light, and an electric outlet.  They also came with towels, bedsheets and blankets for the camp beds, which few people used. It was more deluxe than tent camping. Outside each cabin was a bear-proof locker for storing ‘smellies’ – food and toiletries that might attract bears and other animals.

There was a large communal shower house/toilets about 2 minute’s walk away.

The adults were interspersed amongst the kids.  If any kid needed to go to the bathroom after 10 PM, they were supposed to go knock on an chaperone’s door (preferably a classroom teacher) to let them know. Other times, kids were supposed to go the bathroom with their buddy. Ms. Fong had made name signs for posting on each cabin door, so it was easy to find people.

The Camp Curry cabins each had a heavy padlock for the door, which came with two keys.  You could only remove the key from the padlock when it was in the locked/closed position, so you couldn’t lock your key inside. The keys had no holes in them, so you couldn’t thread them onto a key chain for safe-keeping — they were frequently misplaced.  The camp managers claimed that with a hole in the key, people would frequently forget to return their keys before leaving camp. We wondered why they didn’t simply charge a hefty key deposit, say $20, to motivate people to return the keys.  Replacement keys were readily available from the front office, for only $3!

Ever practical and resourceful, Becky had made dozens of neck pouches out of fuzzy fleece in which to carry the keys.  Each buddy pair would decide which of the two would keep the key pouch.  This reduced the rate of lost keys somewhat.

WAYLAND HAD HAD A TOUGHER DAY THAN I. While it was technically the second day of camp, it was the first full day of nature activities (the first day of camp was mostly spent in transit on the bus.) We had walked around extensively, from El Capitan Meadow to Swinging Bridge and back to Camp Curry. Jenna, as the naturalist, was always in the lead;  I hung out in the middle of the pack, with Wayland at the end as the sweep.  Liam, the worst kid in our group, was mostly at the back, so Wayland had borne the brunt of managing him.  Francis had warned that Liam would need firm boundaries, and be difficult to handle. She was right.

“I think we should consider having Liam go to Mr. Fong’s group,” Wayland said grimly when the kids had swarmed off to free time before dinner. He looked beat. Wayland wasn’t the type to give up easily, so it had to be serious.  Having been rather insulated from Liam that day, I offered to swap spots with Wayland and be the sweep, keeping Liam close to me.  But we would also talk to Mr. Fong.

Mr. Fong — the classroom teacher for our trail group kids — was reserved and quiet, with a dry, puckish sense of humor. While Mr. Fong’s students treated him with familiarity, they did abide by him when he laid down the law.

One night, Anne had developed an allergic reaction to something. Her face was puffy and itchy. We were trying to figure out what and why.

Mr. Fong: What did you eat for dinner?
Anne: Salad. Chicken. Chocolate cake.
Mr. Fong: And you’re not allergic to any of those foods?
Anne: No.
Mr. Fong: When did you start feeling the symptoms?
Anne: After lunch, early afternoon.
Mr. Fong: Afternoon? Maybe it was the sunscreen.  Well, hey, your shirt matches your complexion now.
Anne: [Gives him an exasperated look.] You’re meeaan, Mr. Fong.

Wayland and I explained our concern to Mr. Fong at dinner: we were going into Spider Cave the next day.  Wayland wasn’t going to be able to go inside, due to his back injury.  We would be short one adult inside Spider Cave — exactly when Liam might be more disruptive and in need of more supervision.  Mr. Fong agreed with Wayland that we should swap out Liam (and Harold) for two others in his trail group. As Liam’s classroom teacher, it would be easier for Mr. Fong to manage him.

There was one snag: Mr. Fong’s trail group had already gone to Spider Cave earlier that day.  If Liam and Harold were sent to Mr. Fong’s group, they would miss out on one of the highlights of Yosemite Science Camp.

Spider Cave was formed by rockfall, a pitch dark tunnel with two ends.  It is not open to the public; the Nature Bridge program has exclusive use of it. There is no sign post; you have to know where to turn off the path to get to it.

Getting through Spider Cave involves climbing, contorting, squeezing through narrow gaps, crawling, sliding — hence the name; here’s no arachnids inside.  It’s obstacle course that takes 5-10 minutes to get from end to end — if you could see with light.  In the blind, it takes more work, not just physically, but mentally.

Last year, the kids did various activities in the lead up to Spider Cave, honing skills they would need to get through it successfully — in the dark. They each took turns guiding a blindfolded buddy for a walk in the woods, by giving them verbal directions. “Turn left a little.  Take two more steps.” They played Chinese Whispers, where kids gather in a circle and one whispers a message to their neighbor, who passes it on in turn. A successful round is when the message has been passed from the first to last kid without distortion.

When going into Spider Cave, the naturalist and the chaperone(s) each have a flashlight, and the kid in the middle is usually given an electric tea candle as a ‘security blanket’ in case there’s any panic. But the goal is to complete the course solely on the merits of kids’ cooperation, communication and coordination, without resorting to light. Towards the end of the cave, the naturalist switches on the flashlight, so kids can see what the chamber they’ve just climbed through looks like.

Even though Liam was likely to be troublesome, I felt sorry for him if he were to miss Spider Cave. Worse yet, Harold would be miss Spider Cave through no fault of his own. I was not thinking about the long-term yet, just whether we might swap Liam and Harold out after Spider Cave.

We still had the night sky/star gazing activity after dinner. I suggested I would keep a close watch on Liam (to relieve Wayland), see how that went and make a decision afterwards. I was sure Liam could be managed.

Alas, the course of true intentions never did run smooth.

Two trails groups — ours and Dynasty’s — walked together a short distance to what was previously the dumping grounds for Camp Curry. It had also been the landing site of the historic Firefall — a flat open patch of packed/hardened sand. There was relatively little night-light pollution in Yosemite, compared to the Bay Area, just a few lights from the shower house through the trees. This would be the first time most kids had seen the stars so brightly and clearly against an inky-black sky.

As the children settled to sit down in a circle under the stars, Jenna asked them to put their flashlights away, as she would be pointing out the constellations with a laser pointer.  (The kids carried flashlights after dinner, as we often walked in the dark to evening activities.)  Naturally it took a while for the kids to settle down –  a few last swings of their light sabers before they were switched off.  Liam was the last holdout.

I had positioned myself at close quarters behind him.
“Switch off your flashlight.” I whispered to him.
He did, but moments later switched it on again.
He did. And then it was on again.
“Switch it off!”
“I want it on.”
“Give me that. I’ll return it to you after we leave.” I hissed.
I confiscated it, and got a minute’s darkness.
Another weak beam emerged from Liam’s hands.
“What the . . ? Switch it off.”
The light snapped off. And then . . . on again.
“PUT IT away and pay attention!”
He left it on.
I got up and dragged him out of the circle.  Liam with a flashlight at star-gazing was already disastrous. Liam with two flashlights in Spider Cave would be a catastrophe.
“How many flashlights do you have!?”
“Three. Actually I lost my black one already. So I only have two left.” [8]
“Well, give me the second one now.” I grabbed it out of his hand. It resisted.
“This one is on a string around my neck.”
I groaned inwardly. In the dark, I fumbled with locating the flashlight neckstrap, which was tangled with the key pouch also hanging around his neck.
I finally liberated the flashlight, but Liam exclaimed, “I lost my key!”
The pouch was indeed empty.
“Did you have it before we got here?”
“I dunno,” he said without guile.
Now I was shrieked mutely. Had I caused the key to fall out when I pulled off the flashlight? And between him and Harold, how was it that he, and not Harold, got custody of the key! I cursed my luck.
“Can you check and see if it’s fallen in your jacket or shirt?”
He patted around. “No, it’s not on me.”
“Who else is in your cabin?”
“Terry and Peter.”
“I’ll look for the key after we’re done here. Go back and sit down.”

This was the last straw. Liam would be unanimously voted off the island. Wayland had held up for hours; I think I lasted only twenty minutes.

We got Doug and Josh for our replacements the next morning. But the matter didn’t end there.  A day later, Aidan and Adrian teased Harold for missing out on Spider Cave, and a row must have broken out.  Mr. Fong had to take them aside and give them a stern talking to. I felt bad for Harold —who had been the innocent, punished with the guilty.

Mischief abhors a vacuum. The day after Liam left our group, Tim and Josh replaced him as our most troublesome kids. Or maybe it became more obvious now that they weren’t overshadowed by Liam.

Liam ultimately redeemed himself with me.  I had brought an extra bandanna to camp; inevitably some kids hadn’t brought one from home, and would need a bandanna for a crumb-catcher.  In our group, that was Liam. On the last day of science camp, Liam made the conscientious effort to look for me to return the crumb-catcher not once, but twice.

“Hang onto it, you will still need it for today’s lunch,” I told him after breakfast, surprised at how thoughtful he was to return it without being prompted. “You can give back to me afterwards.”  Being a doubting Thomas, I’d been prepared to ‘lose’ the bandanna to any scatterbrain who didn’t bring one from home in the first place.

Later that evening back at school, in the mad frenzy of reuniting people with their luggage, and students with their parents, Liam combed through the crowd for me. He handed me the bandanna, damp from having rinsed off the jam and salsa stains. “Thank you!” I had forgotten all about it myself.

I’ve loaned things to adults who take them for granted, never bothering to remember what they’ve borrowed nor return them to me.  I was impressed by Liam’s sense of responsibility and respect for others’ belongings, especially at this young age.

Lunches at Yosemite Science Camp are ingenious, a well-thought out set-up.  Lunch is always eaten outdoors, with hands, no cutlery, somewhere on the trail.  Each morning, when each trail group meets up with the naturalist, she or he will have a big grocery tote with the food. (There are no drinks, everyone drinks water.) The menu theme varies: PB&J, Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean, etc.  The ingredients come in bagged packages. Bread, pita or tortillas for the starch.  Bags of finger vegetables: cherry tomatoes, carrot or celery sticks, cucumber slices, black olives. Spreads: sunflower-seed ‘nut’ butter (least likely to trigger allergies), jam, hummus, guacamole, tomato sauce, salsa, refried beans. (The only cutlery are the wooden tongue depressor spreaders.) Protein: pepperoni or salami slices, cheese.  And for a realistically balanced diet, there’s also salty and sweet snacks like cheese doodles, pretzel sticks, chips, and cookies.

The bags of food are distributed to spread the burden: each kid takes one bag to carry in their backpack for the morning.

Whenever we break for lunch, the entire group sits down in a circle. Each kid brings out their water bottle and lays out their bandanna as their lunch plate – called “crumb-catcher.” [9] It makes for a colorful and cheerful sight, quilt squares of different hues and patterns.

Yosemite crumbcatchers

Crumb-catchers – Mr. Fong is handing out the ‘pizzas’

Staying seated, the kids then take out the lunch ingredient they’ve been carrying in their backpack. The adults walk around, giving each kid a dab of hand sanitizer [10], and collect the ingredients, and then distribute a share of food on the crumb catcher of each kid. The adults literally wait on the kids hand-and foot, but this minimizes mishaps, like bumping into each other and kicking sand/dust onto the food.  The kids are allowed to eat the snacks, and ask for more/less or decline any food offered to them by the adults (to avoid wasting food.) But no one can eat the ‘main course’ until the adults are done serving and are seated themselves. Kids can ask for second helpings, which the adults serve. While you don’t want food wasted, you also want to have as much of it consumed as possible, so you don’t have to carry the weight back to camp.

At the end of the meal, each person gathers up the corners of their crumb catchers, forming a loose bundle. A now-empty ingredient plastic bag is passed around the circle, so that each person can shake the crumbs from their crumb catcher into the ‘garbage bag,’ which then gets carried back to camp to be thrown into trash.

The crumb-catchers are then returned to the backpacks; they are reused each day. If sticky or saucy foods got dripped onto the crumb catcher, the owner can wash it when they get back to camp, and hang it out to dry overnight, ready to use the next day.

It may seem excessive to go to such trouble to shake the crumbs into the garbage bag, instead of simply shaking them on the ground directly, as most of us might do on a beach.  The rationale is that leaving even small crumbs of human food repeatedly in the same areas will be found and eaten by wild animals. Those wild animals will become dependent on human food, which is unhealthy for them and lose their foraging/hunting skills through lack of use. It’s the same reason why there are bear-proof lockers everywhere in Yosemite, and the rules to store food and toiletries in them are strictly enforced.

In the morning, when lunch ingredients are distributed, the naturalist also hands out an apple to each person.  We are allowed to eat our apple at anytime during the day, whenever one needs a snack. If there are stickers on the apples, they are peeled off and collected by one kid, to be placed in the trash can at Camp Curry, before we set off for the day.  The canny kids will also remove the inedible stem at the same time.  The catch is (1) you can either eat it conventionally, leaving the core/seeds to carry back with you to throw away at camp, (2) or you can join the “Hard Core Club” and eat the core, seeds and all.   “Don’t worry, the apple seed won’t grow in your stomach to become a tree sticking out of your mouth,” the naturalists assured the kids.

I ought to do the same when I eat apples at home. But I revert to my city-slicker ways; the cores go into compost.

BACK TO POST [1] Actually I went mainly to see Floppy, the pet rabbit in the principal’s office.

BACK TO POST [2] These three teachers go way back at Lincoln. Derek MacLeod and Becky Wong were already at Lincoln when my mom became principal there in the late 1990’s. Belinda Fong was hired by my mom.

BACK TO POST [3] Gilbert Gong is the exception. He’s the director of Lincoln Park, right next door to the school, so he knows all the Lincoln kids. His three daughters went to Lincoln, went to 5th grade science camp, and he chaperones every year.

It was also ironic that I was the only one whose mom was also at science camp.

BACK TO POST[4] For 4th grade science camp, parents are encouraged to chaperone. There is a minimum required ratio of 2 adults per 6 children in the same cabin. Dads are in high demand, there are never enough male adults for the boys’ cabins. (All the cabins are single-sex.)

BACK TO POST [5] As one of the three youngest chaperones, I was appreciated for being able to sling lots of suitcases on and off the buses!

BACK TO POST [6] I had bunked with Frances and Peggy Harris last year at Yosemite. I liked Frances, she was very open and lively. We had had a little adventure together — trying to find the laundromat at Housekeeping Camp. A student’s sleeping bag had gotten wet in transit, and we needed to tumble dry it right away, so that the student could sleep that night. This year, Frances had gone to the 4th grade camp instead of coming to Yosemite (they were during the same week.)

BACK TO POST [7] To make things harder, there was another boy in our group with the same name as one of the twins. But I’ve given him a very different name in this blog.

BACK TO POST [8] Kids lose so much stuff. Each kid loses one item: toothbrush, glove, hat, water bottle, etc. Multiply by one hundred kids and you have enough stuff in ‘lost and found’ to outfit an entire Ukrainian orphanage. So Liam is kind of smart to have so many back ups!

BACK TO POST [9] It was a tongue-tripper for me, I kept saying ‘come-cratcher’. But I didn’t say ‘Cumberbatch.’

BACK TO POST [10] On principle, I think using hand sanitizer in ‘civilization’ is a lazy cop-out (and it helps bacteria to evolve resistance.) I can always find somewhere to wash my hands with soap and water, even if it takes some effort to find a restroom. Only while hiking and in the wilderness, where there are no facilities with soap and water — like at Yosemite Science Camp — do I condone the use of hand sanitizer.


One thought on “Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 1 of 4

  1. Pingback: Proper Placement | Fishface

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