By Erin Middlewood
You can live in a place your whole life and still find a way to see it with fresh eyes. Washougal, WA middle school students had that chance in June.
The 265 students who participated in the Explore the Gorge
program live near—or even inside—Washington's western edge of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Yet the outdoor school offered students from Jemtegaard and Canyon Creek middle schools a chance to more deeply explore the history, culture, geology and ecology of their backyard.
"I like learning better when it's more exciting, and it's more exciting when it's out here like this," said Juliette Davis, a Canyon Creek sixth-grader, during a morning of lessons at Doetsch Day Use Area.
In memoriam, filling a community need
Longtime Friends of the Columbia Gorge supporter and former Vancouver resident Phyllis Clausen established Explore the Gorge
in 2008 to honor her late husband. When schools started to lose funding for their own outdoor school programs, she saw a need for local environmental education and established the Vic Clausen Youth Education Fund. Friends' Explore the Gorge
operates in partnership with the Washougal School District.
"Forging the next generation of Gorge stewards is the main goal of the program," said Kate Lindberg, Friends' outdoor programs coordinator.
Days of science, history and physical education
During a couple of two-day sessions in June, students rotated through activities around Beacon Rock State Park.
Bill Weiler, a wildlife biologist from Lyle, challenged students to figure out "who killed Alan Alder," as he led them through a list of suspects that may have felled the tree, including root rot, wind and termites. (Spoiler: It was a conspiracy.)
Marianne Nelson, a Portland naturalist, told the Chinook story of She Who Watches/Tsagaglalal, the famed petroglyph.
A group of students groaned with disgust as Portland-based Lewis and Clark expert Roger Wendlick, dressed in elk skins to portray a member of the Corps of Discovery, told them that roasted dog was a favorite meal on the trail. Their reaction delighted Wendlick. "I try to make it exciting. I want them to laugh and talk about it with their parents and friends," Wendlick said.
Students also listened to Forest Service rangers talk about fire ecology at Bonneville Dam. They hiked on Hamilton Mountain for a scavenger hunt, checking nurse logs, Sword ferns and fire-scarred hillsides off their lists of items to find. Then the real test: Students had to sit still for 20 minutes to intensely observe nature.
Natural alternatives to electronic distractions
"It's nice to get their eyes up and looking around," said Scott Dizmang, a Canyon Creek physical education teacher who himself grew up in Washougal. The constant enticement of phones and video games often ties kids to their couches, he said. Dizmang appreciates the physical activity of the outing, but also that it gives his students "a sense of how unique the Gorge really is." Even Washougal residents, who live so close, can discover something new.
"That's the funny thing about this area," he said. "I grew up here and I still find trails I haven't hiked before."
He's found decades of wonder in the Gorge. Judging from their enthusiasm, his students will too.
Erin Middlewood is a writer from Vancouver, Washington. She enjoys exploring the Columbia River Gorge with her husband and two sons. She's especially fond of the Nancy Russell Overlook at Cape Horn. Follow her at erinmiddlewood.com or @emiddlewood on Twitter.
Photos in body text (top to bottom):
- Beacon Rock provides a stunning "classroom" backdrop for Washougal sixth graders (photographer: Brandon Davis)
- Students analyze water samples at wildlife ponds near Bonneville Dam (photographer: Michael Horodyski)
- Longtime volunteer and Lewis & Clark expert Roger Wendlick in his Corps of Discovery outfit (photographer: Brandon Davis)
- Participating rangers from the U.S. Forest Service - Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (photographer: Kate Lindberg)