Explore the Gorge

Outdoor school teaches Washougal students about national scenic area’s history, habitats and post-fire recovery

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Award-winning Lewis and Clark historian Roger Wendlick dresses as George Drouillard, the "third most important member of the Corps of Discovery," for a day of outdoor education at the Doetsch Day Use Area near Beacon Rock, about 18 miles east of Washougal in the Columbia River Gorge, on June 14.

Dressed head to toe in gear that would make any early-19th century Pacific Northwest history buff jealous, Roger Wendlick produces bags of fresh smoked salmon and offers it as a sort of parting gift to the Washougal middle-schoolers surrounding him.

“This is what they might have eaten (during the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-06),” Wendlick tells the students as they pass the smoked salmon to one another.

An award-winning historian with an impressive amount of Lewis and Clark history tucked away in his mind, Wendlick, of Portland, often dresses as George Drouillard, a man known as the “third most important member” of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark’s first American expedition through the western part of the United States known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, and helps educate youth about Oregon and Washington history.

On this particular day, Wendlick’s history lesson, which touched on interesting facts about the Corps of Discovery, including the proper spelling and pronunciation of Sacagawea — with a hard “g” instead of a “j” sound — was one of five activities planned for the Canyon Creek Middle School sixth-graders.

The 80 students also learned about the gorge’s recovery from the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, the plants and animals specific to the gorge and the story of the famous “She Who Watches” petroglyph.

The Canyon Creek students’ peers at Jemtegaard Middle School had come to the same spot at the Beacon Rock Doetsch Day Use Area, about 18 miles east of Washougal in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the week before to cycle through similar lessons.

“The program is now in its 11th year and is offered at no cost to the students,” explained Kate Lindberg, outdoor programs coordinator for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “Over 2,100 students have participated since the program began in 2008. This year about 280 students are participating.”

Known as the “Explore the Gorge” program, the Friends’ days of outdoor environmental education for Washougal students is funded in part by a $5,000 grant from the Camas-Washougal Community Chest, a group funded mostly by Camas-Washougal employees and businesses, which awarded 23 grants totaling $83,350 this year to nonprofits delivering services to children and families in Camas or Washougal.

This year’s Explore the Gorge included a new lesson on wildfire recovery, led by four United States Forest Service rangers.

“Did you know that four out of five (wildfires) are started by people?” Ranger Kat Schut asked the children. “If we’re causing most of them, how can we prevent them?”

The students offered a few excellent suggestions, including “not smoking,” and “putting out campfires with water.”

“Yes,” Schut said in response to the campfire suggestion. “With water — and you also want to shovel dirt on it because dirt can’t burn.”

Behind the rangers, across the Columbia River, on the hills of the Oregon side of the gorge, the students could clearly see where the Eagle Creek Fire had raged during September 2017.

“The fire burned in a mosaic pattern,” Ranger Elisabeth Dare told the students, pointing out strips of green between the burned, brown patches on the hills of the gorge. “That’s good news, because it means it didn’t burn the entire forest.”

The rangers asked the students if they thought wildfires were all bad, all good or a mix of good and bad. Most students knew the answer was “good and bad.”

“That’s right,” Dare said. “Why would a fire be good?”

The students answered that the ashes could act as a fertilizer and that the fire could have cleared away invasive trees and plants, allowing native plants to thrive.

Dare said the post-fire gorge is starting to see a few good results of the fire, which burned nearly 50,000 acres in just a few weeks.

“We’re going to get a lot of plants and animals that we haven’t seen in a lot of years,” Dare said. “Birds are some of the first to come back. We should see more woodpeckers in the gorge … they like to build nests (in the burned out areas).”

Some plants prefer the post-fire phase of the forest, Dare added.

“We see bracken ferns start to uncurl after a fire,” she said. “The whole ground will be black and you’ll see the green bracken ferns (poking through).”

The students only spent two days in their outdoor gorge classroom, but the effects of nature were apparent in their laughter and excitement for the various activities.

“This is a great (event),” said Richard Reiter, campaign chairman for the Camas-Washougal Community Chest. “It’s nice for the students to get away from technology and be outside.”

The sixth graders seemed to agree.

“I liked the activity about the animals,” said Lexi Gabel, 12, about the “Who Killed Alan Alder” mystery led by wildlife biologist Bill Weiler, which taught students about the animals of the gorge and their various habitats. “It was more interactive.”

Leila Tienhaara, 11, enjoyed Wendlick’s stories about Lewis and Clark.

“It was interesting,” Tienhaara said. “And he gave us food!”

Parent chaperones also seemed to be enjoying themselves on the outdoor field trip.

“There was a great storytelling activity,” said Makenzy Byrum, who had accompanied her 12-year-old son, James Byrum, to Beacon Rock, about naturalist Marianne Nelson’s “She Who Watches” interactive storytelling about the famous gorge petroglyph. “And the Lewis and Clark historian was great. He gave us a really well-rounded perspective.”