School may be out, but 38 fortunate kids from Dayton Elementary School have many fond memories to carry them through their summer vacations, and perhaps the rest of their lives.
On June 6, Dayton’s kindergarten through sixth-grade students enjoyed the last field trip of the season with a visit to Flathead Lake Lodge.
A day of dude ranch activities, including a horse shoe treasure hunt, trick roping, horse painting, searching for antlers in the forest and riding on a fire truck through an elk preserve all awaited them.
Dave Hafer, a retired oral and maxillofacial surgeon living near Lake Mary Ronan and a big supporter of the school, spearheaded the field trip. He was as fired up about the adventure as the kids were.
“In my mind, school serves two purposes,” Hafer said. “To learn the basics — reading, writing and arithmetic — and to discover the gift within you. Each child has a unique gift, a talent to share with the world, and it takes exposure to many different things in life to realize what that gift may be.”
The excursion to Flathead Lake Lodge provided the kids with an experience in nature, a glimpse into what living and working on a ranch might be like and an opportunity to learn about the elks’ habitat, as well as the care of the animals.
“Hopefully the kids will develop an appreciation for nature as they age, and they’ll have more concern about our natural world,” Hafer said.
Throughout the school year, Hafer has been supplementing what the teachers are already doing by bringing in various guest speakers and presenters — professionals such as doctors, artists and musicians to provide the kids with unique experiences and a better grasp of what life has to offer.
“This field trip is a great opportunity to teach the kids about nature,” said Doug Averill, who along with his wife Maureen, owns and operates the lodge.
The historic 2,000 acre guest ranch is located just south of Bigfork, on the lake. An elk preserve takes up nearly 500 of those acres.
The University of Montana has honored Flathead Lake Lodge with an ‘Institute Status’ for their efforts in educating students on environmental, socially sustainable and conservation efforts.
“We raise the elk for the pleasure of education,” Averill said. “It also makes for great photo opportunities, and serves as a form of fire protection as it keeps the underbrush thinned out.”
After a sack lunch on the shores of Flathead Lake, the kids, along with an assortment of teachers, volunteers, parents, grandparents and ranch staff piled into the lodge’s two fire trucks and traveled a short distance to the elk preserve.
“It was a bumpy ride, but really fun and seeing the elk was cool,” said Presley Learn, a sixth-grade Dayton Elementary School student.
Fifth grader Michael Mackey agreed. When asked what his favorite part of the field day was, he said, “Riding on the fire truck, and going fast on the highway. It was awesome.”
Currently, 35 elk graze the preserve with many of the bulls originating from Yellowstone.
These bulls were cross bred with bulls in Canada and are exceptionally large elk, Averill said. The animals are now 12 to 16 years old, which is full maturity. It’s a rare opportunity to see such mature animals in the wild.
“Of all the field trips I’ve been on for the last 35 years, this one is hands down the best,” said Kristy Bick, a full time volunteer teacher at the school.
Bick retired last year after 35 years of teaching grades kindergarten through college
“The field trip was very well organized and safe,” Bick said. “A quality experience.”
Back at the lodge, the final activity of the day was a treasure hunt of sorts, sending the kids scrambling off in search of golden horseshoes.
The horseshoe, Averill explained, is a symbol of good luck. The lucky charms were plentiful, and each child was able to take home a newfound treasure. Just prior to the kids clamoring back into the vehicles to return to Dayton, Averill reminded them to be sure and keep the tips of their horseshoes always pointing up.
“That way it will catch and hold good luck for you,” he told them.