On May 15th, more than 40 fifth-grade students from Burlington’s JJ Flynn Elementary School spent the morning at Rock Point learning about the natural world: from a rare geological formation to bird calls and the health benefits of common “weeds.” A few rock skippers accidentally learned just how cold the water in Lake Champlain can be even when the air is warm – a bone-chilling 49 degrees to be exact.
The students and their teachers were welcomed by Rock Point Commons staff as well as educators from three of Rock Point Commons’ partners: the Lake Champlain Land Trust, Crow’s Path field school, and Spoonful Herbals.
Many of the young visitors had never explored the trails, meadows, and shoreline of this natural wonder just a five-minute car ride from their school, but we hope the four hours they spent exploring Rock Point will entice them to come back.
A hike with Chris Boget and Jeff O’Donnell of the Lake Champlain Land Trust took them through the woods and down steep stone steps to the water’s edge to view the Champlain Thrust Fault, one of the most visible and dramatic exposures of a thrust fault in Eastern North America. A geological wonder, the thrust fault attracts rock lovers from all over the world. The sandy-colored Dunham Dolostone sits atop dark grey Iberville Shale, making a stunning contrast. The reason this feature is so interesting, though, is because the top layer was formed around 40 million years before the shale below it. Normally, as new rock forms, older rocks are buried deeper and deeper, but the shale at Rock Point that was created about 460 million years ago rests below the dolostone formed about 500 million years ago.
They also learned that ten thousand years ago, a pre-historic inlet of the Atlantic Ocean covered parts of New York, Vermont, Quebec, and Ontario. (This timeline from the University of Vermont puts the Champlain Sea into historical context.)
Much to their surprise, they learned that one of the creatures living in that sea was a beluga whale! Bones from it were unearthed back in 1849 by workers in Charlotte building a railroad line between Rutland and Burlington.
A second activity in the forest gave the students a real feel for how complex the art of survival for a bird can be. They teamed up into groups of three, decided which bird species they would be, and invented two bird calls – a contact call to stay in touch with each other and an alarm call to scare away a predator. Then, they set to work building nests higher than their shoes that all three of them could fit into. Of course, working that hard requires nourishment. So, they had to run to a tree to fetch individual pieces of popcorn hanging inside a bandana. They could only use their thumb and pointer finger, like a beak. As they tried to gather food they were chased by predators – the three Crow’s Path educators. Once tagged they had to take a brief time out to be “re-birthed.” The woods rang with caws, shrieks, and screeches as the predators ran near them.
The third activity taught the students about the nutritional and medicinal value of common wild plants, including white pine, violets, and mugwort. Their task was to complete a scavenger hunt for 12 plants. They studied leaf shapes, needles, habitat, and colors to make their identification. Along the way they tasted dandelion and garlic mustard and learned that many of these common plants can be used to make medicinal teas. Every time they made an ID there were whoops of joy.
Once during the visit, the children went silent. That’s when Chris Boget asked them to stop in their tracks for just 30 seconds to listen to bird calls. Every time they heard a different song they raised another finger. One, two, three, four, five fingers were raised. They quickly learned that Rock Point is a haven for a wide variety of birds – not just people – who come back year after year.