College in the Park

Henry, Ryder and me at the Roosevelt Gate.

Group travel in Yellowstone usually conjures up visions of busloads of elderly tourists decked out with floppy hats, fanny packs and cameras or disaffected teenagers who stand in front of the mountain vistas and text as their chaperones try to motivate them. There are other groups trekking through the park, though you have to be at the right place at the right time to encounter them. Groups of college students armed with tablets and clipboards wander in the wilderness. On a kayak excursion we ran into a group slogging through a side channel in hip waders. They were counting bats. Another time we ran into a group that turned into a fun discovery.

Ms. Elk heading for the gift shop in downtown Gardiner.

One Sunday we piled everyone (us and the dogs) into the car and took a trip up to the north entrance of the park to see the Roosevelt Gate and check out Gardiner, the tiny town that sits just outside the gate. The most exciting thing about Gardiner is that the odd elk or bison will visit downtown from time to time. It turned out that Sunday was not the best day to visit and most of the shops were closed. The streets weren’t entirely empty though, as a few elk were window shopping on main street. As we ambled along the street, a young woman with a nice camera asked if she could take a photo of our dogs. Henry the JRT is camera-shy but Ryder is happy to pose for anyone. She got her picture and we wandered on. It takes about the same amount of time to see the Roosevelt Gate and snap some pictures as it does to tour all of Gardiner. We did find an excellent pizza joint, the K-Bar. You should look it up when you’re in Gardiner. Ben, Ryder and I were enjoying our pizza on the patio (AKA, sidewalk) within view of the Roosevelt Gate. Several dusty SUV’s emblazoned with the University of Wisconsin Whitewater logo were parked at the curb and a few minutes into our lunch, college students started collecting around the SUVs—including the woman who photographed our dogs a bit earlier. Ryder greeted her like she was a long-lost friend. He serves as a social lubricant for people of every generation. In a few minutes, they were all making over him. Our conversation turned from dog questions to the usual opener—who are you guys and what are you doing here?

Kbar and downtown
Gardiner and the K-Bar. Photo credit

The students were on a field experience trip through the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. The official title is the Yellowstone Travel Study Program. The course is offered three times a year; July, August and January. The program lasts two weeks, and covers a lot of territory. Students visit several locations over the two-week course including the  Black Hills and Makoshika State Park in Montana and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Moments later their professor arrived. White-haired  impressively moustached, George Clokey has guided hundreds of students through the program, which is open to all students—no pre-requisites. He talked a bit about the program, but let his students do the talking. When I asked him for specifics, he told me to “just google the university, that will tell you all you need to know.”  For many of the students in the group, this was their first visit to a western national park. Students from all backgrounds and fields of study get to participate, including the young photographer we met. It’s an ambitious program. Here’s the description from the university’s website:

“Plants and animals and their adaptations will be identified in a number of ecosystems. Students will participate in ecological data collection. Visits are planned to a variety of biomes, from alpine meadows to rivers carving spectacular canyons, to the fragile “badlands.” The environmental impacts of human activity and the current land use issues will be explored. In addition, we will have the opportunity to observe the aftermath of various forest fires in the Yellowstone area, see some of the best geology that the West has to offer and discover how geologic processes have led to the development of the present ecosystems. We will study present and paleoecosystems and visit geothermal sites, fossil beds, mines and caves.”

Who wouldn’t love to do that for a couple weeks!

George Clokey with his current crop of students.

It was my turn to ask for a photo, which they obliged. They had their shopping tour of Gardiner, and were anxious to head back to showers and a hot meal. We bid them goodbye, they all got a few last pets in with Ryder and Henry, and roared off in a dusty cloud.  Shortly after the dogs had their pizza crusts we too packed up and headed for our campground in West Yellowstone. It took a while for me to get around to writing about the UW Whitewater group. I followed Professor Clokey’s recommendation to do some investigating about the university and its program. In addition to travel out west, the university offers a spring break program called Civil Rights History: Traveling Freedom’s Main Line where students travel to Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Chicago to learn about the Civil Rights movement. I also learned a bit about the teacher behind all these great classes.

George Clokey has degrees in Geology and Geophysics and Zoology. His PhD is in Cell and Molecular Biology. Despite all these impressively complicated fields of study that would seem to lead to a career in research, he chose a different path. He became a teacher. In the short time I interacted with his students and watched him interact with them, I could tell he has a great love and talent for teaching. He truly enjoys being with his students, helping them make discoveries and challenging them to do their best. He is involved in his community, organizing environmental clean-up activities around the university and in nearby Milwaukee.

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Screenshot of the Let’s Explore Yellowstone game. Find it at

He was also advised a student project called “Let’s Explore: Yellowstone,” an interactive game to educate players on the history and the ecology of the park. You can check it out online here. The lead character looks and sounds like a slightly grizzlier version of Professor Clokey. It’s a fun game, and the developers impressed me by including text for all the dialogue.

Higher education is different now; it’s expected that students know what they want to “do” at the start of their freshman year. Liberal arts degrees are viewed with some disdain, as if exploring and learning for its own sake is a waste of money. College students in my time were allowed to experiment for a while before declaring a major. I dabbled in lots of miscellaneous coursework in my first year, one of my favorite classes being geology. I couldn’t imagine a future in such a program, other than to look at rocks. I wonder if I would have made a different decision if I’d had an opportunity to go on such an experience. It might have opened up a whole new world for me.

Several of Professor Clokey’s students spoke of having their eyes opened by new experiences and seeing environmental impact up close and personal. Whether they take up a career in environmental sciences or not, perhaps these experiences will follow them through their chosen careers and make them more aware of the impact of their actions on the world around them.

Find @UwwYellowstoneTravelStudy on facebook


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