Washougal parent Amber Seifert was chaperoning a recent class trip to Bonneville Dam when she overheard one of her daughter Olivia’s middle school peers say to another student, “We could have learned all of this at school.”
“After a few minutes she said, ‘Oh, but then I guess we wouldn’t get to be outside all day,'” Seifert said, smiling at the memory.
It was Thursday, June 6, the second day of the Washougal middle school students’ annual three-day outdoor environmental school hosted by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge and partially funded by a Camas-Washougal Community Chest grant.
The Jemtegaard Middle School students had hiked Hamilton Mountain near North Bonneville the previous day and were preparing for a trip to Beacon Rock Doetsch Day Use Area, about 18 miles east of Washougal in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, on Friday.
They were exploring a pond near a scientific research center at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Bonneville Lock and Dam when Seifert overhead the youngster’s comments.
“They had fun yesterday,” Seifert said. “They were taking photos and admiring their photos at Hamilton Mountain. It’s been good. No stress. And Olivia was really tired by the end of the day.”
Now in its 12th year, the Friends group’s “Explore the Gorge” provides environmental education for Washougal sixth-graders.
“Explore the Gorge was established in 2008 by longtime Friends’ supporter Phyllis Clausen, in honor of her late husband, to provide a multi-day learning exploration of the Columbia Gorge,” the Friends’ website states. “When schools started to lose funding for their own outdoor school programs, Clausen saw a local need for environmental education and established the Vic Clausen Youth Education Fund to start the youth program.”
Today, the Friends operate the outdoor school in partnership with the Washougal School District, the Camas-Washougal Community Chest — a group funded mostly by local employees and businesses that benefits Camas-Washougal youth and families — and Army Corps of Engineers rangers at Bonneville Dam.
Ranger Ben Goodlad has worked at Bonneville Dam since 2017, but Thursday marked his first time guiding students through the outdoor school’s pond ecology lesson.
“We’re going to be looking at biotic indicators — determining how healthy the water is by the critters we find in there,” Goodlad told the Jemtegaard sixth-graders gathered at the edge of a pond near the research center. “This is something scientists do to see if the water quality is healthy.”
Using long-handled nets to pull “critters” from the pond and examine them under sturdy plastic-encased magnifiers, the students found a number of living creatures.
“If the water was polluted you wouldn’t have found such a wide variety,” Goodlad told the students. “So you know the water is healthy here.”
Most of the students seemed absorbed by the outdoor school lesson and concentrated on their pond-critter research.
“It’s been really fun,” said 12-year-old Jemtegaard student Tyler Thompson of his Explore the Gorge experience. “We learned about the history of Bonneville Dam and learned about the fish they have here.”
Jemtegaard Middle School sixth-grade teacher Scott Hoisington was on his seventh year of chaperoning students for the three-day Explore the Gorge program on Thursday, and said his students always enjoyed getting out into nature to hike historic trails and view the churning dam on the Columbia River.
Although the outdoor school keeps a similar schedule each year — learning about native plants and the creation of the Gorge at Hamilton Mountain, about native animals and forest environments at Beacon Rock and the history of the area at the Fort Cascades Historic Trail at Bonneville Lock and Dam — the curriculum is always being improved and including special additions.
In 2018, the students learned about post-wildfire recovery in the Gorge. In 2017, they met with the authors of Terra Tempo, a graphic novel series about the Ice Age Floods, which formed the Gorge.
Kate Lindberg, the Friends’ coordinator of outdoor programs, said the outdoor school is a way for the Friends group to encourage a love of nature among the Washougal youth and families who live so close to the entrance to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
“Explore the Gorge fosters students’ relationships with these wild places through interactive educational activities, aiming to inspire the next generation of Gorge stewards,” Lindberg said.