Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 2 of 4

Yosemite 17 falls

Fourteen of the 17 Falls

THE KIDS CAME UP WITH “17 Falls” for our trail group name. There were 14 kids and 3 adults, and the falls referred to waterfalls we saw in Yosemite, or the tumbles/spills we might take. I stuck to hollering ‘Trail Group 3’ whenever we had to gather them round for counting off, to ensure no one was missing. [11] The kids were paired as buddies, mainly for safety, to ensure no kid ever went off by themself; as well as cabin assignments. Another trail group named themselves ‘Cheap Squad.’ Every time we leapfrogged passed them on the Yosemite Falls hike, our kids would yell “Cheap! Cheap!” at them.

OUR TRAIL GROUP ONLY HAD FOUR GIRLS: Anne and Mathilda, Lizzie and Cindy. They were all housed in the same cabin, close to mine. On the second night at camp, they all came up to me after dinner.
“We’ve locked both our keys inside the cabin!” they chorused.
“How is that even possible? You’re not supposed to be able to remove the key without locking the door from outside!”
“Well, when we slammed the door, it locked, and our keys were inside.”
We were in a hurry to go meet with the rest of our group for the night sky/star gazing activity, so I asked them if they had enough warm clothes on them; we would deal with the cabin keys after we came back.

When we got back, the girls waited in my cabin, while Mr. Fong went to the key office. It turned out the girls’ cabin, along with the neighboring one, were unique in having door knobs with push button locks. To top it off, their door wasn’t hung straight, so you had to really slam hard to close it properly. It was possible to lock your keys inside the cabins after all.

I hospitably sat my visitors on the edge of the unoccupied bed, and piled blue wool blankets over them. Instead of a dreary wait, hanging out in the chaperone’s cabin seemed to be an unexpected treat for the girls.
“Who else is in this cabin with you?”
“Ms. Wendy. She’s actually my mom.” Mom had gone out to shower.
“Oooh,” their eyes widened. “Was she the one who said I didn’t have enough layers on and I might get cold?” asked Mathilda.
Cozily bundled up, we settled in to dish. The boys were so awful, always making scary noises outside their cabin. The girls had put up bedsheets to cover the windows to prevent Peeping Tom boys from taking photos of inside their cabin. We talked about lip balm. Cindy highly recommended her sparkly razzmatazz-berry-flavored unguent that came in a fuchsia-lavender plastic egg —in an earthquake, it doubled as an MRE. I used the whatever freebies they hand out at street fair outreach tables.
After the lip balm talk was exhausted, the girls looked around the room in appraisal. “Everything you have is from REI,” they pronounced with faint disappointment. [12] My roommate’s glamour [13] made up for it: Mom’s neon pink cell phone, the little red iPod shuffle that lullabied her to sleep were oohed and aahed over.

“It’s so funny, I’d forgotten how kids are so observant and up front about checking out people’s stuff,” I told Mom later, when it was just the two of us in the cabin.

Mom and I have gone on a lot of camping trips together. But this time it was ‘work’, rather than vacation. And I was happy that for once, I was not the organizer for the trip. Since Mom and I spent our days apart with different trail groups, so we only got to compare notes at night. This was Mom’s first time chaperoning at Yosemite, so I would be the one showing her some of the ropes, even though she’d been a principal/teacher before. I worried about her climbing through Spider Cave.

I told her about the girls’ visit in our cabin, and what they had said about using bedsheets to cover their windows.
“Boys don’t really do that, do they?” said Mom incredulously.
“Mom, don’t you know how naughty and crude boys can be?” I asked, equally incredulous that she didn’t know, even though she’d been an elementary school principal. [14]

My trail group had a majority of boys, which was more work to chaperone than her group, which was mostly girls. Plus Mr. MacLeod was their classroom teacher. “It’s easier for you,” I said.
“Not really,” Mom retorted.

Mom’s trail group had a trainee naturalist. “Her name is Shavi? Shabi? Something like that.” Mom told me. “Ask her if she’s named after Xabi Alonso the Spanish footballer, or Xavi Hernandez, the other Spanish footballer.” I joked. [15] Turned out her name was short for Zavijava which meant “September”.

Zavi was a rookie who had only started working three weeks ago in Yosemite. She probably got assigned to them because Mr. MacLeod was an old hand at science camp. So far, Mom didn’t think much of Zavi. “If I were the principal, I’d flunk her!” [16]

Zavi’s activities were stultifying, mostly seat work that happened to be in an outdoor setting. She did most of the talking, giving little airtime to the kids to speak, not noticing when the kids got fidgety from tedium.
“Well, kids always get fidgety.”
“Even I was getting fidgety.”

For one of the exercises where the kids had to write something and read it out loud to the group. Zavi video-recorded each kid, reviewed it and then said: “Oh, that didn’t come out very well. Read it again, so I can get a better clip.”
“She’s just doing this to pad her resume,” Mom said indignantly.

Most egregious, in Mom’s eyes, was how cavalier Zavi had been when they hiked the Yosemite Falls trail. “She never looked back to check the kids. There were six kids who fell. Six! She didn’t stop, she’d just call out casually ‘Are you OK?’, and keep going.”
“Kids are resilient.”
“When I go hiking with you, you’re always checking on and fussing over me when I slip and asking ‘Mom are you OK?’”
“Well, you’re my mother.”

Even if Mom might have been overly nit-picky, I started to feel sorry for the kids in her group. They probably weren’t going to get as much out of this trip, both in education and fun, as the other kids with more seasoned naturalists, like ours.

Nature Bridge (formerly Yosemite Institute) is a non-profit educational organization that puts on the science camp programs. They provide the ‘naturalists’ (or ‘educator’) for the ‘trail groups’ – the science camp classes. Nature Bridge also helps coordinates the logistics of lodging and meals. Most of the students they get are middle/junior/high schoolers; 5th grade is the youngest level they cover.

The naturalist is like a cross between teacher and camp counselor. She (most of them are women) leads the ‘activities’ (teaching and games), and provides the materials. She has lead authority over the trail group of a dozen students. She also manages the discipline, so good naturalists are the ones who are also savvy at dealing with children. There are usually one or two chaperones per trail group, for support.

Naturalists create their own activities and materials for whatever content they are asked to teach, based on the school-teachers’ advance requests. It’s a mix of many elements: environmental awareness, geology, Indian history, botany, concepts of scientific principles (hypotheses, testing, conclusions), safety (what to do in case of a rockfall), conservation stewardship, discipline, communication, learning to pay attention, respect, leadership, physical challenges and overcoming fears — it’s a densely-packed curriculum that unfolds in an ambulating outdoor classroom, as the trail groups roam from place to place through Yosemite Valley, mostly on foot.

Scheduling is complex, fixed and fluid. The school-wide activities such as breakfast, dinner and the evening programs are firmly scheduled. Between breakfast and dinner, when the trail groups each go on their own way, it’s more flexible. Lunch happens when we’re hungry and at a good picnic spot. For some site-specific activities, like Spider Cave, or story-telling at the museum, there are timed slots that the naturalists arrange amongst themselves. There is also a general spread by time and day, i.e. some trail groups will do the challenge hike to Vernal Falls, others to Yosemite Falls. Other than that, it’s flexible and on the fly, especially if the group needs to get somewhere by the free/public Valley Shuttle. They run every 20 minutes, and can fit at most two trail groups at a time. One time, when Jenna spotted three other trail groups at the shuttle stop, she simply had the kids play a hackey-sack game to pass time while we waited for the subsequent shuttle.

The naturalists have a very challenging job, in juggling so many moving parts. Yet it’s a competitive and coveted position, in part because it is at Yosemite. For the most part, they are young, knowledgeable, energetic, and enthusiastic about the outdoors. Many of them have worked with Nature Bridge programs at other locations, before applying and getting accepted to Yosemite. Some are off-season National Park Service rangers.

It always seems to be a fine dance for chaperones to figure out how much to step up to the plate, or avoid stepping on the naturalist’s toes. Communicating expectations, and checking-in with each other throughout the day works really well. After all, we all have the kids’ best interests at heart. And as chaperones, we don’t want the kids to give a bad impression of their school, and hope the naturalist doesn’t think us too incompetent. Wayland, Jenna and I got along pretty well — we found out we all went to Cal, albeit in very different eras.

Yosemite Fall and Half Dome

From Yosemite Falls to Half Dome

IDEALLY, CHAPERONES SHOULD BE CO-ED PAIRS, just like homeless census takers. When there are gender-sensitive issues like girls on their periods, girls may feel more comfortable asking a woman, and boys likewise talking to a man. It worked out well with our trail group. Wayland got stuck with a boy’s bear chasing gone awry. [17] I got to explain lactation.

I don’t suppose the National Geographic magazine is where kids get their first look at bare-breasted women anymore. Where then? At the Yosemite Visitor Center Museum. We were looking around, while waiting for Julia Parker. One of the exhibits was a life-sized diorama of an Indian mother and child sitting outside their bark hut.

“Eww . . . look at that woman, she’s naked and that baby is sucking on her…” Marcus and Timothy exclaimed in disgust. It was genuine surprise — they weren’t faking outrage simply to embarrass a grown-up.
“Well, how else do you think the Indians fed their babies? There was no powder formula back then. Besides mother’s milk is better for babies than formula, it’s got more nutrients. For all you know, maybe your mothers breast-fed you when you were babies.”

The looks of abject horror on the boys’ faces were priceless.

Our group was lucky to see real coyotes (three, alive) and bear (one, skinned). More often, we ‘chased’ them. Chasing coyotes (number 1) [18] and bears (number 2) are euphemisms for going to the toilet in nature. It’s also called ‘using the facilitrees’.

It was the first and foremost concept they cover at science camp. Both the naturalists who lead my trail groups in two years happened to be women, and both were good with matter-of-fact explanations. After the naturalists gave the general overview (you always have to go with a buddy), they sent the boys off on their first coyote (or wild goose) chase. Then she would discuss the feminine-specific details with just the girls. It does take more finesse and effort for girls to go in the woods. It’s more challenging to find locations that are well screened and comfortable enough. It was very helpful to have someone to explain squatting, width of the feet apart, type of floor surface, downslope angle, etc, etc, rather than learn through trial and error.

Above all, it helps kids get over their inhibitions of going in the woods. Most people are only used to built restrooms, with flushing toilets and sinks for washing hands. It’s better that you go when you need to go, whenever/wherever you are in nature, [19] rather than hold it in and wait (too long) before you can find a flush toilet in civilization. There are pit toilets around Yosemite Valley, but they can smell awful. Most kids preferred chasing coyotes instead.
Some children are paranoid, and hold it in, waiting to get home to use the toilet. They think that public toilets are dirty. It’s more common with girls, but there are boys with the same hang-up. I tend to blame this on parental misguidance. [20]

At science camp, you can be outdoors for 6-8 hours before you can get to a real toilet — it’s not sustainable to hold it that long. Holding number two in is not a healthy practice — it can lead to constipation, hemorrhoids and a few other problems. Holding urine in is not a healthy practice either — it can lead to a weakened bladder and urinary tract infections in the long term. But what’s worse is when people do not drink enough water when outside of the home, simply to avoid having to go to bathroom.

This human body needs constant hydration, especially when active, as our trail group was. It was unseasonably warm and sunny during our week in Yosemite. Drinking water will wash out the toxins and metabolic waste from your body. You can’t count on sweating alone to get rid of the accumulated waste, you should be drinking enough to urinate. [21] Dehydration symptoms include nosebleeds, headaches, tiredness, etc — all of which are preventable by drinking enough water.

“Yosemite is almost over,” the kids said wistfully on Wednesday. They enjoyed being at science camp, yet they also longed for home — both their families and the familiarities. Lizzie said she missed TV. She also missed mangoes, her favorite fruit, and mango chicken, which her father made for her.

At Yosemite, time moves too fast and too slow, never at an objective speed. There’s so much going on that the day is over before you know it. At the same time, there’s 緊張 tension of constant responsibility for someone else’s flesh-and-blood 心肝 from breakfast to bed-time. It feels like an egg-and-spoon marathon with a full dozen of eggs. Time doesn’t pass quickly enough for me to reach the end without any cracked eggs. Only then can I truly exhale, but to what avail at Yosemite?

Like Lizzie, I missed TV too (I was going to miss the Project Runway All Stars Finale!) — but I missed other grown-up privileges more.

There is no wifi, internet access or cellular coverage (unless you have 4G, so no email monitoring, nor Instagram updates of my cousin’s meals.) [22]

There is no alcohol; it’s a Nature Bridge program policy. I concur entirely with its soundness; even while off-duty we should be prepared to deal with any emergencies soberly. But sometimes, a beer would be very nice. Even the idea that I could have a beer might be enough.

There is no ‘lounge’: In the real world, that would be a bar. Here, I would settle for a cafe. There’s no food/beverage outlet where you could have a latte and hang out. [23] There isn’t anywhere to chill, except in one’s cabin (which is small, and dim) or outdoors (which is cold.)

All this leaves you with one permitted indulgence at Yosemite: hot showers. To heck with the drought, I took extravagantly long, excessively wasteful hot showers every night. The perk for chaperones is that instead of using the cramped and crowded shower house close to our tent-cabins, we sneak off to the Curry Village shower house that’s attached to the swimming pool. It’s a secret we don’t tell the kids about. It’s the one amenity Ms. Fong gleefully touts at each chaperone orientation meeting. It is a longer walk away, but worth it for the relative serenity, spaciousness — and the granite countertops. You never have to wait for a cubicle. In the summer, I think you have to pay $5 to use it; but in the winter you can walk right in.

The pool shower house also serves as a de facto women’s faculty lounge. The open area with benches, bright lights and heating combine to make it conducive to lingering. Some of adults would walk over together, and/or you would run into others inside and stay on to chit-chat — it was very convivial.

I’m not really complaining, I knew exactly what I was signing up for as a chaperone. Besides, the teachers have it harder — not only do they have to be teachers, but they also have to be the parents. While they don’t have to worry about lesson plans and homework, they’re on duty day and night, taking on homesickness, fish-out-of-water behaviors, prescription medications, lost items, and troubleshooting while in a national park.
When the girls lost a cabin key for the second time, they didn’t tell Mr. Fong.
“Why not?”
“He was in a bad mood.” With a constant stream of homesick students calling home on his phone, missing keys, and other student disruptions every night, Mr. Fong was entitled to a bout of grouchiness.

Going to one’s first science camp in elementary school (in 4th, 5th or 6th grade) is a rite of passage. [24] It’s usually the first time kids have been away from home without their parents or family. The challenges are homesickness, [25] and having to take responsibility for themselves (“at home, mom squeezes the toothpaste for me.”) The perks are the fun of hanging out with your classmates day and night, and being able to make choices for yourself. You don’t have to shower if you don’t want to. You can eat whatever you like.

Terry was in his pajamas, sitting up in his bed when I walked past his cabin on my way to go brush my teeth. Terry was a pint-sized boy with a disproportionate bushel of charm. During “Two Truths and a Lie,” he claimed to have three ex-girlfriends — which the rest of the kids could name. While hiking, he was always coming up with Yosemite-themed variations of “Ninety-Nine bottles of Beer On the Wall.”
“Ms. Celia!” he called out when he saw me.
“I’m itchy.”
“Have you taken a shower since you got here?” It was the third night at camp
“No,” he replied cheerily.

In Calvin and Hobbes and other cartoons, kids don’t like to take baths. Is this true in real life? I don’t know. [26] It’s hard for me to understand why kids don’t want to shower after traipsing around in the outdoors all day. Maybe they can’t be bothered to carry their toiletries, towels and clothes back and forth to the shower house. Maybe they think they will get cooties from the showers stalls. Maybe they have so much fun hanging out and playing, they don’t have time to go shower. Oh well. Not showering for a few days won’t kill you, and prepares you for future backpacking trips where you might go for longer without washing, if you don’t want to brave the ice cold waters of some alpine lake.

Marcus was the tallest of the kids in our group. He had the moody reluctance and dragging gait of an adolescent; he could have been the sixth member of “The Breakfast Club.” (Or an amalgamation of the original five).

At the same time, he was inattentive below his years, often needing to be prodded to follow directions. When we stopped for water breaks, he would fiddle around. Just as we were about to resume, he would take out his water bottle, which meant extra delay in starting up.

During the hikes, he constantly dawdled behind. But he also liked engaging with Wayland or I, talking with whichever chaperone sweeper was at the rear. He did quirky things for attention. “Look!” — he’d show you a photo of roast ducks hanging in a window on his camera, several times day. The gesture seemed to reassure him that people knew he was present.

One day, Marcus started telling me about a tiger and a boy and their adventures. When I said, “Wait, aren’t you talking about Calvin and Hobbes? He tries to eat enough boxes of Sugar Bombs cereal to collect the box tops for a beanie . . .” I’d made a friend for life (or at least until Friday.) It turned out Marcus had “Revenge of the Baby Sat” memorized backwards, forwards, sideways and upside-down. He was very happy to find someone who knew Calvin and Hobbes (he pronounced it ‘hobbies’, I always thought it was ‘hobs’) almost as well as he did. After that, he’d often come up and start telling me the plots of each story, almost reciting it line by line. “Remember when Calvin and his parents go camping and ….? Remember the one where Calvin’s house gets broken into and he gets worried that Hobbes is stolen …”

It seemed incongruous that a boy with the voice of a teenager should be so obsessed with the adventures of a first-grader and his stuffed toy tiger. But Calvin and Hobbes has a universal appeal, as cosy as Linus’ security blanket, whether you’re an off-keel adolescent or an almost-over-the-hill slacker.

I asked him if he ever tried drawing his own cartoons, or if he’d read all the Calvin & Hobbes, and when he said no. I told him I had the whole collection, and would get them to him. I needed to downsize my bookcase anyway, and sought appreciative homes for my books.

On the last day, before we boarded the bus at the Ahwahnee shuttle stop, we had told the kids to put their backpacks in front of them, so they wouldn’t inadvertently whack someone with their back. When we got on board, Marcus’ backpack was on his back, and almost hit a seated passenger (who, of course, was the girl who sustained a near-concussion the previous day). I ticked him off, reminding him it was a safety issue, and we had reminded everyone before we boarded the bus. He lashed out in a defensive burst, “So it’s my fault … I suppose you’re mad at me now and you’re not going to give me the Calvin and Hobbes books!”

I was neither surprised nor upset by his outburst. Still, I sighed inwardly. I recalled my own adolescence — hyper-sensitive and emotional reactions amplified. It had been an awfully trying time. I had no intention of breaking my word. I had the sense that if a grown-up promised Marcus something, and then broke that promise, it would make him resent adults for their inconsistencies. I wasn’t about to be that flaky adult that made him lose faith in all adults.

The food at Camp Curry is better than you’d expected for a facility geared towards mass feedings, especially one that’s run by DNC, the Yosemite concessionaire. [27] The cooks are good— they even whipped up a delicious vegan chocolate and fruit pudding for Peggy Harris, a chaperone, on her birthday with a day’s notice. The menus were nourishing, well balanced and there was always some sort of chocolate desert. Some of the chaperones noted that the selection was more limited than the previous year.

The all-American buffet is a novelty for (1) those kids who mostly eat their parents’ native foods at home, and (2) for all the kids, who get to eat as much or as little as they like of anything.

It was hilarious how ‘extreme’ kids eat when left on their own. I saw one kid painstakingly pick out broccoli bits from a vegetable medley. Some kids filled their plates with croutons and little else. Towers of pancakes and waffles drenched in syrup. Heaping bowls of Froot Loops swimming in milk. Ranch dressing and some salad. Macaroni and cheese. I saw one small girl with a large pile of breakfast sausages on her plate; I think she actually finished them all. At 4th grade science camp last year, there was a challenge for the whole camp against food waste, to take no more than you could finish. The ‘discards’ were collected and measured after each meal. I think/hope that the kids retained that lesson on their own this year at Yosemite.

BACK TO POST [11] Wayland and I made 17 Falls count off religiously. The one time we didn’t was naturally the time we almost left without Peter on the shuttle bus.

BACK TO POST [12] On another night, the girls saw me wearing my glasses, and went Anna Wintour on me. “Those glasses don’t look good on you. . . take them off . . . uh huh, you look better without them.”

BACK TO POST [13] On bus back to Oakland, a girl sitting across the aisle from us asked if the woman sitting next to me was my mom. I said yes. “She’s pretty!” Anaya declared. Mom was sound asleep. I was flattered for Mom, amused for both of us, and wryly bemused for me.

BACK TO POST [14] Mom grew up with mostly girls. I spent childhood vacations with a half-dozen boy cousins around my age. At our grandmother’s house, those punks would futilely try to peek through the ventilation slats in the bathroom door whenever I was inside.

BACK TO POST [15] Spain won the 2010 World Cup.

BACK TO POST [16] As a school principal, you get to hire and pink-slip teachers, not pass or flunk them like students. This was Mom’s shorthand for “I would pink-slip her.”

BACK TO POST [17] For his heroic performance of duty (and as a token of my everlasting relief), I told Wayland I’d buy him a beer after we got back.

BACK TO POST [18] The Thai slang for guys chasing coyotes is ‘shooting rabbits.’ (ยิงกระต่าย)

BACK TO POST [19] Most backcountry rules require it to be at least 200 feet from a water source/trail/campsite.

BACK TO POST [20] The earliest — and only — camping advice I ever got from Mom was about toilets. I was about four. We were camping with at some campground where the toilet seats were swarming with ladybugs. (Which is pretty weird — I’ve never seen ladybugs in bathrooms anywhere else.) “Don’t be scared,” Mom reassured me. “Ladybugs are good bugs. They don’t hurt us.” I’ve never worried about using outdoor toilets since.

BACK TO POST [21] Years ago at Burning Man, there was a memorable, pithy and effective “Piss Clear” PSA campaign. The message was you should drink enough water such that your urine is dilute and clear, rather than concentrated and dark; that’s how to tell you’re not dehydrated.

BACK TO POST [22] One time when I snagged internet access that week, I was floored to find out New York Times columnist David Carr had suddenly died.

BACK TO POST [23] Because it’s winter/weekday, visitor amenities are limited. At Camp Curry, there’s the general store that sells coffee and tea in to-go cups but that’s about it. The dining hall is only open at breakfast and dinner.

BACK TO POST [24] Decades after the fact, Joe’s sister Linda still holds a grudge against Joe for making her miss out on her 6th grade camping trip — he gave her chicken pox. Her mom had crocheted her a beautiful scarf and hat set to keep warm on the trip. To this day she still has never used them, they’re in pristine condition.

BACK TO POST [25] I can’t remember ever being homesick as a child. My first trip without parents was with my aunt and cousin — I was more excited about going to Hong Kong and meeting my grandmother for the first time, than anything else. The first time I traveled solo, I did get homesick, but differently.

BACK TO POST [26] I grew up in Thailand, where it is hot and muggy. Everyone there showers two or three times a day. The idea of not wanting to shower would be unfathomable.

BACK TO POST [27] There was a huge wrinkle to dinner and lunch at Yosemite this time; for two of the four days we had to bus over to the Yosemite Lodge ‘Food Court’. (DNC had rented out the Camo Curry Dining Hall to a higher bidder for two days.) The space was more cramped, the food selection was more limited, and simply not as tasty. Rather than self-serve, it was dished out by the cafeteria workers (no picking broccoli bits out of the vegetable medley!) The meal hall monitors made everyone fill up every single seat (no ‘skipsies’), so you had to queue up for food with the seating companions you wanted. The only thing I liked about dining at Yosemite Lodge was that they had Tapatio hot sauce.


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