YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — The humidity jumped to tropical levels when the wind shifted and the steam from Excelsior Geyser washed over the boardwalk.
But for three wheelchair-using biology students from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and their student peers, the muggy mist went hand in hand with the course syllabus and their required observation of Yellowstone’s thermal features.
“This used to be a geyser, but now, it’s really just a hot, hot springs,” Professor George Clokey explained to his students. “It used to be one of the largest geysers in the world, but its last major eruption occurred around the 1880s.”
Clokey and his team of students arrived in Yellowstone on Thursday after getting delayed in Cody by a vehicle breakdown. While their summer adventure has been full of unexpected turns, the young students have made the best of their getaway out West.
The tour of Yellowstone’s natural history marks the first time many of these students had ever left the state of Wisconsin, the first time they’d ever kissed a horse or seen wild bison grazing in sagebrush fields.
In a test of confidence, the three disabled students also pushed the limits of their wheelchairs, powering up the grassy flanks of Devil’s Tower, over the high tundra of the Beartooth Plateau, and along the steamy boardwalks of Midway Geyser Basin.
“I know more trees than I ever knew before — more flowers, more rock forms, more everything,” said Megan Lynch, a sophomore majoring in biology. “It’s just getting out of the comfort zone and trying something totally new.”
If college is a time of exploration, then a scientific trek through the Northern Rockies may be the perfect place for self-discovery.
While the students carried a dictionary of geologic terms and a textbook on Yellowstone’s resourses and issues, it was the lessons they learned about themselves that mattered most.
“I want to graduate and I want to go to grad school for geology,” said Brittany Saylor, who held her field journal tight on her lap. “I’m not sure where I want to go yet, but I’d like to do something that’s a monitoring job — volcanoes or earthquakes or something like that.”
Saylor’s college roommate and personal aide, Loryn Zachariasen, has watched her friends change since leaving Wisconsin. Their confidence has surged, she said, and their willingness to push their limits has grown.
It hasn’t been easy at times, she admits, and the young women require special accommodations. But as with any good students in the field, the quest for knowledge can’t be denied.
“Megan has opened up on this trip and she’s getting more confident going out,” Zachariasen said. “Brittany was nervous going out into the field because she couldn’t really stay in her chair, but we were able to help fix that, and now she’s doing great.”
Like her college peers, Casey Stark has taken careful note of the marvels she’s seen along the way; alpine forests, travertine formations and the red rock of Wyoming’s chugwater formation.
But of all the splendors offered in Yellowstone — of all the things she’s seen along her westward trail — it was riding a horse at the K Bar Z Ranch in Cody that stands out.
And that’s just fine with Clokey, who has the challenging task of keeping the curriculum on track when his students would rather pose for pictures in front of the turquoise water of Excelsior Geyser than talk about microbial mats or chemical composition.
“About five or six years ago, a disabled biology student asked if he could come out on one of these trips,” said Clokey. “I wasn’t set up to do it, but I made a promise to get a course going for our disabled students.”
Clokey worked out the necessary funding and overcame the logistical challenges involved in leading this trip.
The first go-round hasn’t come without setbacks, he said. One student experienced shortness of breath at 11,000 feet on the Beartooth Plateau. Conducting field work on a dirt trail isn’t the easiest thing from a wheelchair. And the vehicle breakdown didn’t help.
But the women have managed and Clokey, noting his students’ progress, beamed with pride. Next time, he said, he’ll make the outing better yet.
“It’s been a learning experience for all of us, but their confidence level has increased,” said Clokey. “They’re doing things they haven’t done before.
“I’m not so sure these girls couldn’t be field biologists. If they want to go on to get a Ph.D., they could certainly do some darned good lab science.”
Contact Martin Kidston at email@example.com or 307-527-7250.