Our “How I Spent My Summer” series follows the experiences of teachers who were awarded the Fund for Teachers grant through the Atlanta Education Fund. Next up: Last year’s APS Teacher of the Year Charon Kirkland (pictured above) of Carter G. Woodson Elementary and her team member, Scott Elementary‘s Lorrae Walker. The pair traveled to the island of Dominica. Their goal, as they told the AJC: to explore tropical conservation and ecology. Kirkland picks up the story …
Have you ever visited a place that was naturally beautiful and peaceful? On May 31, 2009, my team member, Lorrae Walker, and I set foot on the rugged terrain of Dominica. This little known island is commonly mistaken for the Dominican Republic, but it is a totally different island situated between the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Dominica is known as the “nature island” because of its undisturbed natural habitats that include a diverse ecology. These sites have been preserved as national parks and supported by UNESCO, which is what drew our attention to the island. Our Fund for Teachers grant focused on exploring the tropical ecology and conservation practices on the island through a partnership with the Atlanta Botanical Garden. We explored this tiny island that spans 29 miles long and 16 miles wide for seven days of pure adventure.
Looking out from the Melville Hall Airport in Dominica, we were able to take in a beautiful view of the surrounding island. In the distance we could see the mountains and all the lush vegetation. There was a river parallel to the parking lot of the airport and the Atlantic Ocean crashed into the rugged rocks east of the airport. As we drove into the interior of the island, it would rain on and off unexpectedly, and we knew we had entered the rainforest. Finally, after an hour-and-a-half drive we reached the Archbold Science Research Center, where we shared residence with students and professors from Colombia and the United States.
Kent was our guide; he is a native Carib, which are the indigenous group in Dominica. Our first exploration began with Freshwater Lake, which is used to provide 30 percent of the electricity used on the island. We hiked an elevation of about 2,800 feet and entered what is considered a cloud forest. Kent was wonderful and quickly stripped a branch from a tree to provide me with a walking stick, after I buried both of my feet ankle-deep in mud!
At the highest point of the hike, we could see through the mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. It was very fascinating to stand on a mountain in the path of the clouds moving through the sky. It was absolutely a beautiful experience. Once we left Freshwater Lake, we journeyed to Trafalgar Falls. There are two waterfalls on this hike, and though there were warning signs about climbing the rocks, there were many Dominicans swimming in the pools of water at the base of the waterfall. Along the trail there were crabs burrowing in the rich soil of the forest. Also, at the bottom of the hike, there are pools of warm water due to the geothermic activity below the surface of the island.
Next we ventured to the north of the island to Indian River and Syndicate Forest. We traveled along Indian River on a small boat as the guide pointed out various species of plants and animals along the way. This river represented the marshland/wetland habitat of the island. There we observed fish, birds, termites, crabs, lizards, a variety of plant life, and the effects of erosion on the banks of the river.
Syndicate Forest is home the Sisserou Parrot, as well as thousands of trees and flowering plants. The Sisserou is protected under Dominican law because it is an endangered species. As I walked in the understory of the rainforest, I tried to envision how I could explain this experience to my students.
The trees were hundreds of feet tall and provided a canopy where little sunlight entered the forest floor. I stood in awe of roots that were taller than a two-story home anchoring these massive trees to the ground. It’s ironic that something so tall and powerful can become weakened if the rainforest is destroyed.
Kent described the uses of many of the trees and flowers to produce insect repellant, make canoes, and build homes. Also, many of the sites use solar panels to capture the energy from the sun and produce electricity. I admired the island for its relentless push to preserve nature and not submit to becoming a tourist attraction with sprawling golf courses and resorts. Dominica is like a gem in the midst of all the islands and the ultimate haven for a naturalist and environmentalist.
Dominicans produce a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. As we drove along, we observed several famers attending to crops situated on the mountain cliffs. There were elderly men walking down steep cliffs with machetes and sacks of yams. I absolutely couldn’t believe their strength and endurance.
It was intriguing to stop and talk with anyone along the side of the road because they had so much knowledge about the environment and uses of the land. There were orange, banana, avocado, almond, lime, coconut, breadfruit, cocoa and grapefruit trees. Additionally, we saw corn, pineapple, coffee, tamarind, and potatoes crops. It was amazing to see such a vast variety of plants in one place.
Kent took us to the Carib Territory; the Dominican government has set aside land on the northwestern side of the island for the native Caribs. There many Caribs live and have a mock village. Kent took us to his home where we met his wife and learned about the plants he had on his property.
We also visited a school in Carib Territory that Kent had started. The school is a two-story building with special-needs kids on the top floor and a pre-school on the bottom floor. It was wonderful to see the school and interact with the students and teachers. The Dominicans focus on character education, as that was a theme we saw in most schools on the island.
In Dominican schools, the students are required to wear uniforms, purchase their own textbooks, provide their own transportation to school, and are allowed to leave school to get lunch. I was puzzled to see so many children walking along the streets in the middle of the day, but I later learned that they were on their lunch break.
Upon leaving the Carib Territory, we visited Emerald Pool. We hiked through a forest path, down several sets of steps into an open cave. After climbing over rocks, you enter an area where a waterfall ends in a pool of emerald green water. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The pool of water is pretty shallow and very chilly. You can climb out of the pool and explore an open cave where you can visibly see layers of rocks and mineral deposits. You could also decide to be daring and climb the rocks under the waterfall.
The last days of our stay in Dominica included snorkeling at Champagne Reef, a reef that has bubbles because of the underwater hot spring. This was one of the most amazing experiences; the bubbles would come through fissures on the ocean floor and you could feel the temperature change. After snorkeling, we went whale-watching and actually saw three sperm whales – it was absolutely wonderful! Eventually, we rented a jeep and drove on the left side of the street with the locals. However, we could not adjust to the steep cliffs and curves that made driving in Dominica a life-threatening task!
Overall, we had an amazing experience in Dominica. It was inspirational to experience adventure and learn at the same time. It has become a saying that our exploration went from the clouds to the ocean floor. We are grateful to Fund for Teachers and the Atlanta Education Fund for this opportunity and experience.