Out of their desks and into nature

Friends of the Columbia Gorge celebrates 10th year of providing Outdoor School program for local students

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Michelle Fox of Treesong Nature Awareness & Retreat Center discusses the differences between native and invasive plants. She was one of several guest speakers at outdoor school, which also included historian Roger Wendlick, wildlife biologist Bill Weiler and longtime Friends of the Columbia Gorge member Marianne Nelson.

Listening to conversations during sixth-grade outdoor school can be both entertaining and interesting.

There is the usual silliness and giggling about bodily functions, and some fidgeting during informational presentations, but overall, the kids and adults have smiles on their faces.

This is the 10th year Friends of the Columbia Gorge have hosted the Vic Clausen Youth Education Program, which gets sixth-graders from Canyon Creek and Jemtegaard Middle schools out of their chairs and into nature.

“Having the kids outside and engaged in nature is the most beneficial aspect of this,” notes Kate Lindberg, site coordinator. “Kids in Oregon still get a full week of outdoor school, but there is nothing in the budget here. The Gorge is so close to where the kids live, abut many have not been to these places.”

The Friends sponsor the entire Explore the Gorge trip, find experts to work with students and put the activities together. The Camas-Washougal Community Chest also helps fund the $8,000 program. The only requirement schools have is to provide a printed field guide for students.

Before budget cuts, students went to Cispus Learning Center in Randall, Washington, for overnight field trips. After cuts to the state education budget — and before this new education program — students didn’t have those types of opportunities. In fact, prior to the current partnership with the Friends group, Washougal area students’ outdoor school experience was limited to school grounds.

This year, the 280 students had the opportunity to visit Hamilton Mountain, Bonneville Dam and Beacon Rock State Park.

“This is a very important historical place,” Lindberg says of Beacon Rock State Park. “This is where Lewis and Clark came through, and it’s definitely not something the students see in their day-to-day life as a sixth-grader.”

At Hamilton Mountain, students hiked to the Little Beacon Rock Viewpoint and Hole in the Wall Falls. The visit to Beacon Rock included hearing the legend of “She Who Watches,” learning about the voyage of Lewis and Clark, solving a murder mystery and doing a leaf-rubbing activity.

Jemtegaard students also had the opportunity to visit Bonneville Lock & Dam, where they learned about the history of the area at Fort Cascades Historic Trail, explored macroinvertebrate and habitat at nearby ponds, and looked at the fish-viewing room.

This is JMS science teacher Glenn Rhodes’ third year of participating in outdoor school with the students.

“It gives them real-world opportunities to apply what they are learning in class,” he says. “It’s nice watching the kids do hands-on activities, like identifying macroinvertebrates in the water and going hiking.”

Rhodes notes that many students do not spend much time exploring the outdoors.

“This gives them more opportunities to see what is out there, and they have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day and go home tired,” he says.

The students seem to agree. Claire Sifert says she enjoys exploring the pond near the Fort Cascades Historic Trail.

“We found dragonflies and lots of other things,” she says. “I think it’s cool because we got to experience it instead of looking up photos on the iPad. That’s not as fun.”

Petra Lord adds that she appreciates having the chance to explore and learn outside the classroom.

“I learned that we actually use a lot of Native American sign language without even realizing it,” Lord says. “When you raise your hand in class to ask a question, that’s where it comes from.”

Gabe Perkins says he likes the leaf-rubbing activity, and seeing the different textures.

“The most interesting thing I learned is that someone owned a hotel that was located right on the Oregon Trail and they made a lot of money that way,” Perkins says. “This is a lot more fun than being in class because we aren’t sitting in our desks all day.”

Local historian Roger Wendlick demonstrates how to use the type of horn that Lewis and Clark used to communicate during the Corps of Discovery expedition.
Local historian Roger Wendlick demonstrates how to use the type of horn that Lewis and Clark used to communicate during the Corps of Discovery expedition. Photo
Wendlick demonstrates how a beaver trap was set during pioneer days.
Wendlick demonstrates how a beaver trap was set during pioneer days. Photo