Empowering observation

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Students raise their hands in victory after completing the blackberry bush removal project at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Sixth-graders from Jemtegaard and Canyon Creek middle schools spent two days last week learning about the Columbia River Gorge and surrounding area.

Four years ago, the need for an outdoor school replacement activity resulted in an unusual partnership.

The Washougal School District approached the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a non-profit preservation group, about working with local sixth-graders who had outdoor school cut as a part of budget constraints.

“Both sides felt this was a missing piece,” said Maegan Jossy, outdoor program coordinator.

After a private donation enabled the program to move forward, the goal has been to have students experience the Columbia Gorge in a new way, while aligned with state learning standards.

“The Gorge is such as wonderful resource in our own backyard and we feel so grateful to the Friends of the Columbia Gorge for giving our students a chance to experience it in a meaningful and educational way,” said Rebecca Miner, Washougal assistant superintendent.

According to Jossy, the program provides an opportunity for students to see the area in new light.

“They see what is in their backyard is also present throughout the gorge,” she said. “They begin noticing things that they wouldn’t have seen before, whether it’s a native plant or flower or even a slug on the trail.”

Sixth-graders from Jemtegaard and Canyon Creek middle schools recently spent two days exploring the gorge. The first was spent at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Students removed invasive blackberry bushes and went for a scavenger hunt walk along the Gibbons Creek watershed. They spent the next day at Beacon Rock, where they went on various hikes and scavenger hunts.

Andy Reid, a volunteer with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, was on hand to supervise the blackberry bush removal.

“I’d say about a third of the kids were surprised by how much fun they had doing this,” he said. “They can’t believe they actually enjoyed it. The whole focus on this day is to get them to realize that nature is out of balance here because this used to be a dairy farm for so long.”

Kallie Boyes said she enjoyed cutting down the bushes, but wasn’t fond of getting scratched by the thorns.

“It’s fun though, because I get to walk around and talk with my friends,” she said. “And I saw a snake.”

Parent James Esse was there with his son, Anthony.

“I just wanted to be with the kids and help support the school and the refuge,” he said. “This is hard work, blackberries are not the easiest. It’s neat though, because they get to learn about a place that’s pretty important and close to their school. It’s good for them to use their energy outdoors.”

Anthony agreed.

“It’s hard work but fun, and I’d definitely rather do this than be in school,” he said.

“We’re helping the environment and learning more about Mount Hood. We’re really getting out and working.”