A May trip to Yellowstone National Park by Bryant School fourth-graders just might be the highlight of their young lives.

Oh -- the cool things and creatures they saw!

Erin Finstad’s fourth graders could barely contain their excitement -- when the word Yellowstone came up Tuesday morning.

They were delighted to share what they saw and learned.

“We saw a wolf nursing her cubs,” said a very excited Kaydence Ludden. “It's so rare it was the first time the ranger had seen it.”

“We saw a grizzly bear eating far away,” added Donevin Vallance.

And the group knew just how far away they had to be to safely watch the bear.

A bunch of them raised outstretched arms with their thumb up to show this reporter. When an animal fits inside their thumb, they knew they were a safe distance away.

In fact, the Bryant kids called the park rangers to report some misbehaving adults who were only a few yards away from a black bear.

And then there were the shutterbug adults who were way too close to bison.

And the students were upset to report seeing human footprints on the fragile and dangerous crust of geyser basins, where people are supposed to stay on boardwalks.

These kids knew their stuff.

They prepared for their trip through four Skype talks with park rangers in the months before they left for their May 11-12 trip.

At the park, they listened to a series of talks by Yellowstone Association instructors.

And each student took a different topic to research and became the classroom’s “expert” on -- from grizzlies to mudpots to mule deer.

“We got to see Old Faithful erupt,” exclaimed Mariam Daniels. “We saw a mudpot, there was a cone with steam coming up. We saw geysers... and fumaroles.”

“We saw a chocolate pot,” interjected Tylor Underkofler. “It’s actually a hot spring on a big hill and overflows,” in colors of red, orange and dark brown -- with water inside that is so dark it looks black.

“We saw a lot of bison,” added Jordan O’Mara, “ramming into each other.” And they saw “red dogs” or bison babies.

Boy bison roll in dirt and poop, to attract girl bison, interjected Ludden.

On top of that surprising fact, there’s the amazing running speed of a grizzly bear.

“They can run up to 35 miles per hour,” said Reid Riddle, “and they weigh up to 500 to 700 pounds.”

“They knew so much about their topic,” said Finstad, “that they would tell each other what animals are predators and what they eat.”

The spark for the trip started with reading a book in class, “Rescue Josh McGuire,” by Ben Mikaelsen, an adventure story set in Montana’s mountains.

That whetted the kids’ appetites to go on an adventure or campout, since many of them had never had the opportunity.

So Finstad and Bryant School librarian Joice Franzen wrote a Helena Education Foundation Great Ideas grant application, which was funded by U.S. Bank. They also fundraised on DonorsChoose, a crowd-funding website for classrooms; and got food for the trip donated from Costco and Van's. They also received a scholarship from Yellowstone Association and stayed in a YA cabin.

One reason Finstad and Franzen worked hard to make this happen is that many of the families can’t afford trips to Yellowstone.

“I think for a lot of our families ... the expense of the trip -- transportation, lodging and food would make it hard for them to do the trip,” said Finstad.

The Every Kid in a Park federal program, which gives free national park admission to fourth graders, was another incentive, she said.

And going to Yellowstone aligned perfectly with the fourth grade science curriculum, added Franzen, which covers such fascinating topics as animal adaptations, volcanoes and plate tectonics. “Obviously, that’s really relevant in Yellowstone.”

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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