HAZLETON — Something seemed “off” about the 49 East Buchanan seventh-graders enjoying a Feb. 7 winter field trip at Buchanan County’s Fontana Park.
Divided into rotating groups, they fished through the ice of the Otter Creek impoundment, trekked the park’s trails on snowshoes, used global positioning system units to track down hidden prizes and built winter shelters from nature-provided materials.
Guided by a corps of teachers and adult volunteers who provided equipment and instruction, the students talked, laughed and exuded energy as they immersed themselves in activities that, for many of them, were new experiences.
What they did not do — and what seemed incongruous for middle school students — was check their phones for the latest electronic notifications.
“I’m sure they had them on them. They just didn’t need to have them out,” Superintendent Dan Fox said.
Nor did they utter a cross word, a complaint or an expression of boredom — even when the fish would not bite.
“That’s what I like about them,” said Steve Cassaday of Independence, a volunteer who with his late friend Terrance O’Loughlin introduced ice fishing as a component of the annual outing 20 years ago.
“In all that time, I’ve never heard an argument. The kids are polite and cheerful, and they always thank you for volunteering,” he said.
Valeria Torres, waiting patiently for a bite that never came, said she enjoyed her first ice fishing experience.
“I’d like it even better if I caught a fish,” she said.
Two classmates, Cheyenne Beeh and Brenna Chesmore, took advantage of the extended lull in the action to converse while reclining on the ice.
Chesmore said the calm 30-degree day was “perfect for going outside and learning new things.” Beeh said it was as well suited for “hanging out and socializing with friends.”
Middle school reading teacher Jennifer Hellenthal said the field day helps students connect with nature and each other.
“It gives them a chance to interact outside the classroom and talk face to face with each other,” rather than via electronic devices, she said.
Fox said the annual winter field trip began more than 20 years ago as an adjunct to a reading curriculum centered on the popular youth book, “My Side of the Mountain.”
The book, by Jean Craighead George, tells how a 15-year-old boy learns to live off the land in a remote region of New York’s Catskill Mountains.
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Though the “Mountain” curriculum has since been discontinued, Fox said the annual field trip — “which gives students a chance to see each other in a different light” — is “a tradition I’d like to keep going.”