Waconia Middle School

For more than three decades, middle school students from Waconia have been making the trek north to the Long Lake Conservation Center.

“I asked the kids to raise their hands if they’ve had a parent go to Long Lake and there were a lot of hands up,” Pete Bjorlin, sixth-grade teacher, said.

Bjorlin has been one of the chaperones taking students to the environmental learning center in Aitkin County for 25 years.

“It really builds community for the kids. It’s a tremendous amount of teambuilding. We like going early in the year because the kids get to bond with each other and the teachers get to know the kids really well. Most kids say it’s the highlight of their year,” Bjorlin said.

The sixth-grade class gets split into two groups. This year the girls went on Monday through Wednesday and the boys went on Wednesday through Friday during the first week of October. The conservation center near Palisade, Minnesota, has been around since 1963 and focuses on providing environmental education opportunities for students and adults alike.

“They let us explore the woods,” Lydia Plagge, sixth-grade student, said. “We went through the woods and found logs and sticks to make our own shelter. I really liked getting out there and I also really liked archery. That was something I hadn’t ever done before.”

Students had to be technology-free for the 48 hours that they were at the conservation center. There is a fee for the trip but scholarships are available so as many students as possible can participate.

“I thought it was nice to not have a phone or anything because it let us just explore nature and the woods and stuff,” Nicole Weinberger, sixth-grade student, added.

Both of Kristen Guse’s children have now been to the conservation center. Her son went a couple years ago and her daughter, Rachel, just returned. “I love it. I think more than just the science lessons and conservation education that they get; it’s a rite of passage for these kids. They are real middle schoolers now. I think it’s all about independence. It’s just a whole new experience for them to try something out of the box.”

Students canoe, learn archery, and practice orienteering. They also go on an adventure in a bog.

“We got dirty in the bog and we were able to drink the water. There are sink holes that you can walk into and that was really cool,” Austin Randall, sixth-grade student, said.

Bjorlin added, “The bog is the highlight for a lot of the kids. It’s a really unique ecosystem that they just think they’re going to a swamp and they find out that it’s totally different. We walk out there on a boardwalk but then we let them get out there on the bog.”

Students and chaperones rave as much about the food as they do about all of the outdoor adventures.

“The food is awesome,” Rachel Worm, sixth-grade teacher, said. “It’s homemade and we sit family style.” Students take turns setting the table and take shifts with kitchen patrol duties.

“We had mashed potatoes and turkey. All the meals they made special for us and they all came with dessert,” Austin Randall, added.

Students are on the move all day long and well into the evening when they have bonfires, learn about bats and snakes, and make s’mores.

“It was fun to go on different adventures that you can’t do always around here because there’s not a giant area of woods and forests,” Nicole Weinberger said.

“I really think it increased my love for the outdoors,” Lydia Plagge concluded.