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From Exploring the Gorge to Exploring Our Backyard

From Exploring the Gorge to Exploring Our Backyard
Students take a break on an educational hike at Hamilton Mountain during the 2018 Explore the Gorge trip. (photographer: Brandon Davis)
By Haley Lebsack
Grant Writer
November 24, 2021

Every June since 2008, sixth graders from the Washougal, Washington School District have had the opportunity to attend a multi-day outdoor school program and explore the historical, geological, cultural, natural, and ecological wonders of the Columbia Gorge. Explore the Gorge outdoor program fosters students ’curiosity about, and relationships with, these natural places through interactive educational activities, aiming to inspire the next generation of Gorge stewards. 

This program has been sustained over the years by the continued generosity of Camas-Washougal Community Chest’s Grant Program, a volunteer nonprofit organiztion funded mostly by local employees and businesses to support Camas-Washougal youth and families, and the Vic Clausen Youth Education Fund. Through their support, this program has been offered, free of charge, to hundreds of Washougal students
Students on a nature hike look for bugs and wildlife
In previous years, middle school students from both Canyon Creek and Jemtegaard Middle Schools have had the opportunity to spend three days exploring the Gorge. Students chased waterfalls at Hamilton Mountain and got their boots dirty as they explored Beacon Rock Doetsch Day Use Area. Unfortunately, the program was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although our programming was intermitted, Friends was determined to give students their day in the sun this year. As spring approached, Friends’ staff began discussing how we could keep students safe while still providing them with an outdoor school experience. Around the same time, we were contacted by Tabitha Johnson, a sixth-grade science teacher at Jemtegaard, who hoped we could develop a special, on-campus program for 85 students. 

Together, we decided that if we couldn’t take the students out to explore the wonders of the Gorge, we would bring the adventure to them. In place of a Gorge field trip, we helped students explore the wonders of their own backyard via the Gibbons Creek trail that borders the school’s property. Students split in half and rotated through two different stations each class period. One group learned about native and invasive trees while creating colorful leaf tracings while the other group completed a nature treasure hunt along the trail. 

At Friends, we know that to encourage local youth to care about the Gorge, they must connect to it, which means having fun. Whether that’s through making connections to the animals they see or spending the day at a creek laughing with their friends, we want them to build a positive relationship with the natural world that will last a lifetime. 

As we head into another year, we are hopeful that we will once again be able to travel to and explore the Gorge with the students. We find solace in knowing that no matter the circumstances of 2022, we can always find a way to get students outside, learning and exploring in their own communities, all thanks to our strong community support. 

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