SWELL provides hands-on learning in outdoor setting

In 1995 an idea originated between a group of school teachers from the Morris Area and Cyrus School Districts. Through a grant provided by the Blandin Foundation, the idea was able to grow and develop into so much more. With the help of many 4-H groups, scout troops, grants, students, and other service members, their project is now known as SWELL, the Scandia Wildlife Environmental Learning Lab. SWELL is an environmentally rich facility that has been created around our natural Minnesota habitat, to enable hands-on learning for students and individuals. SWELL is located in the Framnas Township of Stevens County and is now funded through the Environmental Officer and Water Board. Among the group who put together SWELL was Linda Retzlaff, a Morris schoolteacher who taught 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-grade students for 39 1/2 years. She recently retired but remains actively involved with the children, Linda was the gracious donor of the land where SWELL is located. Because SWELL is run by the Stevens County Historical Society, she and her husband Karl have a 20 year lease with them, and at the cost of only $1 a year. According to the Stevens County Historical Society, SWELL easily would have never happened if it was not for the Retzlaffs. Linda said it was her dream come true, and she wanted the great learning experience to be a “Gift to people, everyone is using it in such positive ways, it was well worth it.” SWELL also has its own environmental and historical expert. The executive director of the Stevens County Historical Society, Randee Hokanson, has been better known to the area for 18 years as the famous Ranger Randee. With a masters degree in education, love of the outdoors, and a desire to educate youth, she was the perfect choice to represent SWELL. Randee’s vast expanse of wildlife and historical knowledge enables her to educate all ages about SWELL and its many offerings, from the log cabin, outdoor classroom, wetland, trails, animals, lesson plans, and every other miscellaneous fact.   One of SWELLs most known attributes is the log cabin found on its prairie. It serves as a teaching area for the historical lesson plan offered through Ranger Randee. The log cabin is one of the only remaining originals in the area. Most settlers here built the much easier shelters called dugouts, making real log cabins a rarity to find. The cabin was donated to the Stevens County Historical Society after it was found on an abandoned farm. It was then relocated to SWELL and restored. In order to transport it, each wall was put onto a hayrack and reconstructed at SWELL like a jigsaw puzzle. Besides the required new floor, ceiling, roof, custom door and windows, the cabin is completely original. You can even see the chips in the logs where they were hand cut with an ax. Local 4-H groups built a fence to surround the cabin and also help with the maintenance and upkeep. The outdoor classroom is another prime location at SWELL and was also founded through the Blandin grant. Various lesson plans are taught there with the help of its many assets. The classroom is equipped with telescopes, microscopes, magnifying glasses, books, resource materials and tons of supplies. The kids are able to handle everything in the classroom and receive hands-on learning. It overlooks one of the two lakes on the sight. With a recently installed dock, students have the opportunity to partake in activities and experiments studying the vegetation and wild animals that are home to it. Wetland is a major part of SWELL. It houses a small shallow pond and the two lakes that are separated by an esker that was formed by a retreating glacier. The wetland is native and totally original. The two lakes are very deep and have never completely dried up. The smaller pond was damned up by beavers, also halting the shallow water from ever drying up. Many species can be found around the wetland and the cattails which surround it. They provide perfect nesting sights for birds and other animals. There are several miles of trails that wrap around SWELL. Some trails lead the vantage point of the sight, all the way up the esker. The entire area of SWELL can be seen from there. Many trails are wheelchair accessible. There are also many bridges throughout the area, which are great places to view all of the natural biomes and wildlife in its undisturbed natural habitat. “It’s secluded and that’s part of its charm,” Randee explained. “It’s a real tour, not a virtual one.” SWELL contains all native woodland, prairie, and wetland, every ecosystem in our region is found in one location. Ranger Randee teaches students that SWELL is an area where the land can be seen as it originally was. She explains how our native land used to look much different. Trees could only be found by large water sources and the rest of the land was prairie. Many of the trees seen today were planted by settlers who used them as tree claims for their land or shelter belts, which consequently altered the landscape. She offers different lesson plans throughout the year to expand on and incorporate that information into interesting and kid-friendly lessons.  In the spring students can learn from lesson plans such as, “In Search or Spritely Spring,” or “Spring-to-Life Ponds.”  They will be taught about all the areas of woodland, pond and marsh, while playing fun spring-related games in the classroom. They can also explore the differing kinds of wetland at SWELL as the snow melts, studying as many animals and insects as possible. During the fall, “Ready, Set, Grow: Sprouting Time,” teaches the kids about the many plants at SWELL and their seeds as they get ready for winter. “Little Houses (Habitats) on the Prairie” explores the habitats and homes of SWELL inhabitants, including the humans who used to live in the log home. “Quadrillions of Ants” utilizes the boat-sized ant hills at SWELL, teaching kids about insects and the life stages, anatomy and role in nature that the ant plays. Ranger Randee even strives to ensure the kids get to have a campfire with smores while she’s teaching them. All the lessons are for elementary school-aged children up to grade six. Every year Randee sees and educates at least 300 students between the fall and spring lessons. She has been teaching for 18 years and recently was awarded the Minnesota Educator of the Year Award. Her specialty is hands-on learning, and she always looks for those “teachable moments.” The best part of her job is when the kids can spontaneously spot a bright red bug and take a few moments to admire it – that’s what she loves. SWELL is also host to the annual Stevens and Pope County Soil and Water Conservation District’s Conservation Day. Over 300 5th -grade students attend with more than a couple dozen instructors. SWELL has also hosted three different rendezvous, festivals where actors dress up and reenact historical aspects of the sight. Every year Ranger Randee and Linda Retzlaff hold an annual fall dinner as well. They prepare a meal of historical food which is bid on by 12 people who come during the holiday open house. SWELL is also open for great bird watching all year, along with cross country skiing and animal tracking in the winter. In the future, Linda would like to add a claim shanty and a dugout to SWELL, that way students can see the whole process the pilgrims went through in order to claim land. Even though SWELL is aimed toward youth, “All ages are interested, even adults,” said Linda. “This makes its future more solid.” She especially likes to hear when kids go home and tell their parents about their experience. SWELL requires a lot of upkeep, and she is very thankful for the 4-H clubs and other volunteers who help with it. If you would like to learn about, take a tour, or just volunteer at SWELL, you can find more information at www.stevenshistorymuseum.com/swell.html or contact the Stevens County Historical Museum at 320-589-1719.

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