For over 40 years, groups of students and instructors have been packing into vans and heading south to experience the deserts and arid regions of the southern USA. The ‘Texas Trip’, and its more recent version, ‘Desert Ecology’, have provided memorable learning experiences spread across life-changing road trips for over 300 students in 21 classes. We have learned to identify cacti and other plants, insects, spiders, scorpions, lizards, snakes, birds, rocks and landscapes, and studied ecological relationships between them and us. We have camped under the stars, cooked gourmet meals over camp stoves, found good opportunities for pit stops, developed suitable entries for field journals and met people we might like to spend the rest of our lives with (or not!). Most of us have come away feeling changed, although perhaps not knowing exactly how or why.
Professor Robin Stewart wrote in the Macdonald Journal August 1983 about his first Desert Ecology Field Course the previous April. Some excerpts:
April 15: “We drove non-stop to Texas and kept rotating drivers with “guaranteed sleep” after each driving shift. Roger (Bider) claimed that there was room for two sleepers in the four by five foot space at the rear of the bus…the picture I recall is of two chubby sardines, one…with a chainsaw snore.”
April 18: “chance to swim in the ocean as well as spot sand dune birds. Many students made a good beginning to losing their skin from sunburn.”
April 19: “We would have arrived earlier but the park is very cleverly hidden from would-be visitors…we may have been in and out of Mexico several times before finding it”
Footnote: “Reading this journal, I am appalled at the chronicle of misery and suffering and wonder why I would just love to do the whole thing again.”
In the same issue Professor Roger Bider, the Course Coordinator and trip leader wrote:
“To me, new views, different views, new species, different participants were what made the trip worthwhile, but to the students it was the recognition of things they had learned over the past years that seemed to fire them up.”
“Even in the course of this brief trip, one could notice a change in the students as new friendships formed and new academic interests developed.”
Desert Eco was my very last course in undergrad and one of my favourites. The mix of field work, short lectures, and daily group projects all while exploring the southern US was an amazing learning experience that I will never forget. It prepared me well for my MSc thesis research in Madagascar, giving me both the skills and a love for field work. My passion for landscape ecology was fueled on this trip and now in my PhD I study Primate biogeography, habitat change and conservation. Eleven years later I still dream of going back to the desert and revisiting all the memorable places we studied.
David Rodrigue. BScAgr’94 MBA
Executive director – Ecomuseum Zoo, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue QC
Twenty years of participating in the Desert Ecology course, first as a student and then as an instructor, was definitely one of the most enriching experiences in my life. Looking back on my initial decision to change institutions and enroll at McGill University, specifically to have the opportunity to register in the course, it becomes clear that it was in many ways a turning point for me personally and for what would come of my professional path afterwards. Not only was Desert Ecology in itself one of the landmark experiences in my life, it was also through that course that I met the wonderful woman who would then become my wife, and because of that course that I came to Macdonald campus where I met with the Ecomuseum Zoo, an organization I instantly fell in love with and that I today have the privilege of leading.
Nathalie Bays, BScAgr’93, MSc’97
Manager Interpretive Centre Operations, Oak Hammock, Manitoba
Participating in the desert ecology class was an education beyond just the material covered. Spending days and nights travelling together gave a new meaning to the concept of teamwork. Through all the challenges we faced, including weather (extreme heat, snow, even a tornado), we each grew as individuals but also a group. Our fearless leaders were knowledgeable, patient, and at times hilarious (or maybe it was the lack of sleep). Experiences like these are few and far between and yet can have such a lasting impact; I know it did for me.
William (Bill) Vickery, BSc’71, MSc’73, PhD’76
I was fortunate to have participated in the first desert ecology field trip in 1975. The project emerged from a group of students who had created in a student chapter of The Wildlife Society at Macdonald. The idea was to explore wildlife in habitats which Macdonald students would not normally visit. We were aided and encouraged by two Faculty members, Roger Bider (whose connections in Texas allowed us accommodation at Aransas, Texas) and Rodger Titman (whose passion for birds was an inspiration throughout the trip). While Roger and Rodger organized the academics and logistics the prime mover among students was Gary Stewart who, unfortunately, was unable to go on the trip which he had worked so hard to develop. I regret that Gary missed out on this experience which introduced me to arid habitats which have fascinated me ever since. The first desert ecology trip visited only Texas. First planned as a graduate student project, undergraduates were invited to join as space was available. We camped at Aransas and traveled through south-east Texas, including Padre Island and the Rio Grande Valley. I had my first taste of Tex-Mex cuisine in McAllen and an encounter with US border patrol agents who were suspicious of two vans full of young people driving north away from the Mexican border.
Scott Pemberton, BSc(AgEnvSc)’13
Naturalist Morgan Arboretum Ste. Anne de Bellevue QC
Visiting the desert was a dream I’d held as a kid flipping through exotic photos of lizards and snakes in National Geographic. It wasn’t the goal type dream you aim for and hope to achieve, moreover it was the nigh impossible type dream you ascertain will never actually come to be, but it’s nice to think about, isn’t it?
I thought myself rather lucky when I found out there was a desert trip at Mac and applied for the course immediately. Once we arrived in the desert I realized quite quickly that luck has nothing to with visiting the desert. The incredible Mac professors involved have chosen the desert ecosystem as a destination for study because it is the perfect place to learn about all things nature. Vastly different in landscape and species than Montreal the newness of it all refreshes the mind, inspires curiosity and excitement and allows for some really enthusiastic learning. At the same time, the desert ecosystem has the same limitations and constraints that our ecosystem does. Energy flow through the system, water cycles, and nutrient cycles all follow similar patterns. The same ecological functions and niches are being filled, simply in different ways. It’s a great way to learn about our ecosystem by comparison, to learn about the magnificent desert ecosystems and understand better nature in general.
All in all the Desert Ecology trip is a beautiful and wonderful experience with great camaraderie and some really valuable learning. What a trip!
Sean Schmitz, BSc(AgEnvSc)’16 (about the 2015 trip)
If there’s anything I remember best about Desert Ecology, it’s how integrated I felt with the objectives of the course. At no other time in my academic career was I so engaged in learning. We were exploring a variety of new ecosystems every few days and with the guidance of the professors, we were honing our scientific curiosities to their sharpest to understand the interactions between the physical and biological components of these environments. In 3 weeks I learned as much if not more than I have in each of my semester-long courses.