Classroom in the Snow

When they signed up for the early-October field trip to the Black Hills, students in Dr. Craig Spencer's "Principles of Ecology" course were expecting to climb Harney Peak, study wildlife in Custer State Park and hike through the Badlands.

Mother Nature, however, had other plans.

After an unprecedented fall blizzard dumped more than three feet of snow in the Black Hills, Spencer and his students spent three days learning winter survival techniques, including how to build a Quinzhee Hut (a shelter made out of snow), and witnessing how wildlife survive in extreme conditions.

Spencer, a longtime professor of biology at Augustana, says he considered rescheduling the field trip when he first heard weather reports calling for heavy snow. But, when he checked with his students, no other dates worked with their schedules.

"I knew we could get there before the storm hit but, to be prepared, I called all my friends who I knew had winter gear and asked what I could borrow," Spencer said.

Before long, he had boots, snow shoes, ski poles and other winter survival equipment packed into the Biology van and ready for the trip.

He and his class of seven students made it to Outlaw Ranch near Custer, S.D., just before the blizzard hit. The group stayed at the ranch from Thursday night through Sunday.

spencer's ecology class in Black HillsDuring that time, the National Weather Service coined the phrase "mega-storm" to describe the blizzard, which dumped the second highest three-day snowfall ever recorded for the Black Hills region. Some areas of the region received as much as four feet of snow and endured near hurricane force winds. The storm caused thousands to lose power and claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 cattle.

For Spencer and his students, it was an opportunity to learn about the environment first-hand.

"I think the students really learned about the different ways different species adapt to survive in the winter," Spencer said. "They also learned the importance of having the right kind of gear for the conditions."

Senior Julia Blue, a biology major, is a student of Spencer's and was a member of the field trip.

"It was cool to experience something so different. [Dr. Spencer] still made it educational – we learned survival tips and we tracked different animal prints while we were snowshoeing," Blue said.

Spencer even conducted class inside the Quinzhee Hut to show students the insulating properties of snow. Inside the hut, the temperature hovered around 32 degrees while the design shielded the group from the storm's strong winds. 

Before the field trip, students in the class were studying the history of bison on the northern plains, including the animal's ability to adapt to various weather conditions and the environments those conditions create.

Through the storm, the students saw first-hand how bison were able to withstand the conditions. The animals instinctively walked into the wind in search of higher ground and grazing areas.

Cattle, Spencer and his students explained, are not native to the Northern Plains and, therefore, behave much differently than bison in extreme weather. The cattle who were in open pastures at the time the storm hit instinctively walked away from the wind in search of lower ground. As a result, many walked into fence lines, found themselves trapped and exposed, and eventually died.

Junior Kevin Diaminda was born in the Congo before he moved to Sioux Falls. The biology major was excited to embark on the field trip and says, despite the change of plans, the event made a real impact on him.

"When we went snowshoeing, I saw birds and tracks. I saw things through a different lens. It was amazing."

By Saturday, the storm had broken but the roads to Outlaw Ranch were still impassable on Sunday afternoon. A number of students were worried about missing exams scheduled the next day in other classes. Spencer took a long shot and called a former student, Augustana alumna Dr. Lisa (Rosin) Brown ’93 , who lives in the area. An hour later, Brown and her husband, David, had arrived with a skid loader and four wheeler and helped clear the way to the main highway. Before zooming off on her four-wheeler, Brown gave an impromptu talk to the students about the joys of practicing family medicine, and  invited any interested students to come shadow her if they wanted to get a taste of rural medicine. She also shared stories of taking Dr. Spencer’s Ecology class more than 20 years ago, but lamented  never experiencing a field trip quite like this!

Craig Spencer's "Principle's of Ecology" class in the Black Hills













Members of Dr. Craig Spencer's "Principles of Ecology" class field trip: Hailey Clark, Leah Hiller, Julia Blue, Kevin Diaminda, Connor Malone, Jackson Buchanan and Joey Meiers.