The first time I traveled internationally was also the first time I set foot in the Amazon. I was a young middle school science teacher – a teacher who secretly harbored a dream of being an explorer.
On a whim, a teaching colleague and I made the spontaneous decision to join a group of US educators heading to the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. With only the vaguest idea of what we were getting ourselves into, we to jumped on a plane and settled into our seats for the flight from Miami to Iquitos, Peru. The only indication that we were approaching our destination was an announcement from the captain – there were no lights that we could see until we hit the ground. It was as if the jungle had opened up and swallowed us whole.
The next thing we knew we were on a boat in the middle of the Amazon River with a HUGE full moon overhead and the sounds of the jungle audible even over the hum of the outboard motor. Four hours later we reached our destination, switched on our flashlights and clambered up the muddy steps carved into the bank of the river, and hiked back to the lodge. It was everything I imagined a jungle field station should be – no windows, no electricity – just thatched roofs, mosquito netting, and kerosene lanterns. I was in heaven or at least my romantic ‘National Geographic’ explorer kind of heaven!
The days that followed were incredible. Night hikes into the jungle with an expert entomologist from the Cincinnati Zoo, Randy Morgan, introduced me to the wonder of arthropods – from web-throwing spiders to spiny devil katydids, to sleeping owl butterflies to leaf-cutter ants by the millions. You name it, Randy found it and explained it. Exploring the rainforest canopy on one of the world’s first canopy walkway systems and seeing an unbroken rainforest disappear into the horizon is to this day the most humbling and awe-inspiring view I’ve had the privilege to experience and it connected me to my planet in a way I had never experienced before. “Working hard” for our wildlife spottings from monkeys to toucans made me appreciate the challenges and rewards of field biology and keeping a field journal. Gasping in awe as iridescent blue morpho butterflies flitted through the dappled sunlight along the trails. I felt like I was living the dream I had had since I was a child.
That ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip to the Amazon put me on a path I never could have imagined when I first stepped off the boat into that inky Amazon night. The rest, as they say, is history – a history filled with dozens of rainforest expeditions for students and teachers and an eventual return to where it all began – the Peruvian Amazon. In 2013, I was given the gift of a lifetime when the founder of Environmental Expeditions, Dr. Frances Gatz, handed her Amazon Rainforest Workshop programs and its wonderful blue morpho butterfly mascot over to me.
Today I have the immense privilege of working with exceptional educators, fantastic students, and some amazing colleagues and partners as the director of The Morpho Institute. We continue to build upon the legacy of Dr. Gatz and have created a new model for field-based transformational professional development. We return to the Amazon each summer with the goal of engaging K-12 educators in the exploration of inquiry, conservation, and sustainability with direct connections back to the classroom.
This summer, as I follow yet another group of educators down the trail, I know my thoughts will return, as they always do, to my own transformational moment so many years ago. I can’t help but wonder what their moment of AWE will be and where it will take them.
– Christa Dillabaugh, Executive Director of the Morpho Institute