A Journey of a Thousand Miles (An AWLS Story)

by Natalie Salkowski

A journey of a thousand miles, as they say, begins with a single step. In my case, the journey began on an airplane ride from Milwaukee, WI to Jackson, WY to do professional development with Safari Club International at the American Wilderness Leadership School (AWLS). I had been teaching for four years at this point in my career and a fellow teacher who had attended several years earlier recommended AWLS to me. She said the background I had would lend well to my attendance at the school.

At the time I was, and still am, teaching at Random Lake High School in Wisconsin. We are a small rural school north of Milwaukee, WI. I grew up near there on my family’s small hobby farm. When I was in high school, I got myself into hunting and really enjoyed that adventure. In college, I developed a love of the outdoors through extensive running and continuing hunting with friends.

When I got off the airplane in Jackson, Wyoming in the summer of 2017 my jaw hit the floor. The Grand Tetons mountains were calling my name and I felt the urge to go explore them. At the airport an employee of AWLS met us and gave us a history lesson of the area on the way to the AWLS ranch, south of Jackson. During the week I spent at AWLS I learned how to tie fishing flies (a new hobby I took away from AWLS), learned how to teach NASP archery, and strengthened my understanding of biological concepts and ideas that has helped me greatly in the high school biology classes I teach. I vividly remember leaving AWLS that year and e-mailing my principal when I got to the airport, “We need to have more outdoor education!” I wrote to him. “Let’s chat when you get back,” was his reply. My mind was racing the entire flight home.

Before I left AWLS, Todd Roggenkamp, the Assistant Director of Education for SCI called me into his office. Apparently, I made quite the impact on the staff at AWLS while I was there. He asked me if I would be willing to be an AWLS instructor the following summer. My background in teaching college level biology, hunting, fishing, and loving nature was what they needed. I was thrilled to know I would be able to come back to camp and inspire the next wave of educators to teach about conservation in their schools.

The 2017-2018 school year was a whirlwind of having big ideas and no way for me to fund them. Writing grants became my new focus. I wanted to start a science fair at school focused on conservation and environmental stewardship. Grants poured in from Whitetails Unlimited, Wisconsin SCI as well as Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.  Local businesses were also very supportive of this mission and were very generous in their donating of funds and raffle prizes. The money was used to promote our event, obtain speakers, and get raffle prizes to draw in the public. On the day of the event, as seems to be Midwest weather in April, we got a foot of snow. Even with this happening, around 400 people came to the event. During the event our FFA students helped to make birdhouses with children. A donor paid for the materials for the birdhouses and our wood shop class made the kits. We also had science club students helping with children’s games as well as selling food items. Local NWTF, WI DNR Conservation Wardens, Pheasants Forever, and Muskee Clubs also had booths at the event promoting their organizations. We raised over $1,400 with raffle prizes and a 50/50 raffle that we are going to use to make the event self-sufficient and self-funding. This year our Second Annual Conservation Fair is in the planning process and we have even more speakers and events than last year!

For the 2018-2019 school year, my amazing and supportive school board at Random Lake High School approved my class, entitled American Wilderness Science, to be taught. This class is inspired by what we teach at AWLS and utilizes many of the resources I received there for curriculum. In this class, I have instructed my students on topics such as forestry, public land use, wild land fires, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, cervid anatomy and physiology, as well as NASP and WI DNR Hunter’s Safety.

This class has truly benefited my class so much and we have had great community supported learning opportunities. In our forestry unit we did a tree assessment of the grounds at our school and my students made models of tree cross sections. We also made models of how wildfires are spread and lit them on fire! The goal for the students was to come up with different ways to “save the cabin” on their wildfire model. Next we were able to skype with a former Granite Mountain Hotshot after watching the film “Only the Brave.” These students also completed training in NASP Archery and took their archery skills to the next level by making 3D models of deer that we set up all over the campus. We learned about ethical harvest of deer and other species and went “deer hunting” at school. Next, we moved onto discussing game species in WI, focusing on cervids. We visited a local elk farm to learn about keeping game animals for meat production and to see these animals up close.

The real capstone to the year is teaching my students hunter safety and training them in safely handing and shooting firearms. We will be going to our local rod and gun club to use their facilities. I will be leading instruction and assisted by a parent that is an NRA Girl and a Gun Instructor as well as one of our special education aides at school whom is a former Marine drill sergeant as well as WI State trooper. I have had nothing but support from my community and school board in the mission of teaching my students respect for firearms and how to use them safely. So many parents are on board with this as they might not hunt, but their children have been interested in doing so.

The impact this class would have on my students came to fruition when I had them write a reflective paragraph on anything they learned after one semester. One student’s response floored me.

“I took this class because I enjoy being outdoors and doing outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing and camping. However, I knew very little about the systems, both man-made and natural, that were in place that allow me to enjoy these activities. Beyond that, what I THOUGHT I knew was very biased based on misinformation and prejudice from people around me. What I have learned has showed me that the DNR and National Forest System in a new light. They actually want to HELP hunters! Who knew? I also learned more about deer biology in this class than I ever did at deer camp with my family.”

“As for application, I appreciate the DNR more now for their efforts to keep America and Wisconsin wildlife around for everyone. I will use what you taught me about deer behavior to be more successful in hunts. I now understand that the National Park Service and National Forest Service struggle to keep the lands fire-free and available to all. And I now understand the scrutiny many, including many around me, have for these organizations,” Mitchell McMullen.

I could have never had even hoped to make this sort of an impact on my students without the help from Safari Club International Foundation and all of the connections I made at AWLS. I am eternally grateful and will continue the mission to spread the message of wildlife conservation and environmental stewardship.