“Ooh! We’re getting the fancy buses this time!” A cheer went up from the middle school students that May morning when charter buses pulled to the curb in front of St. Andrew Nativity School in Portland. The seventh-grade students from Catherine Hopkins’ science classes eagerly boarded the buses that would take them on an all-day adventure in the Columbia River Gorge.
After an extended pause on Friends of the Columbia Gorge’s youth education programs due to the pandemic, finally the kids would be able to spend a full school day learning outside the classroom. For more than a decade, Friends has worked with St. Andrew’s staff to provide special one-day educational field trips as part of our Great Gorge Wahoo! program. Ordinarily, seventh grade students visit the eastern Gorge in fall and eighth graders tour western Gorge sites in spring. Our goal is to instill a sense of wonder and curiosity in the students and encourage them to become caretakers and advocates for the Gorge as they grow up.
After two years of virtual classes, social distancing, and limited outdoor access, Friends’ staff were determined to give these students a much-needed day in nature. Last autumn, a late-summer regional surge of COVID-19 made our traditional fall trip too risky, but a window of opportunity in May provided a chance for all 54 of the kids to spend a day of exploration and adventure in the Columbia Gorge.
A day in the eastern Gorge
First up, the St. Andrew seventh graders visited the eastern Gorge for insider tours of two Friends land trust preserves. Our Catherine Creek property was just one of many surprises that day. Frances Fischer, Friends’ land trust coordinator, spoke about conservation efforts taking place on the preserve, and during the tour, she pointed out some baby birds hatching close by. Students leaned over the railings to snap photos of the hatchlings and their friends, framed by the Columbia River.
At the second stop, the kids rushed out of the buses to see the views at our Dancing Rock preserve. Here they were free to roam the rocky, geologically rich terrain on a bright, windy eastern Gorge day. Everyone was happy to be outdoors in the warm sun, taking in the grandeur of the rugged landscape. After time for self-directed exploration, Friends Executive Director Kevin Gorman led a hike through the property, stopping frequently to share history and enjoy the panoramic Gorge vistas. The kids listened wide-eyed to the story of the land as Kevin pointed out visible evidence of the Ice Age floods on the landscape. It was a magical day.
A hike in the western Gorge
The following week was the eighth graders’ turn, and they visited the lush western Gorge with Friends board member Kevin Price. A retired Oregon State Parks manager, Kevin led a private tour for the students through the passageways of the Vista House, sharing Gorge history and lore. He related the story of the Historic Columbia River Highway and talked about his career in the field with Oregon State Parks. Later, the kids loved hiking at Latourell Falls, watching the water plunge nearly 250 feet to a pool below, and playing educational games. Rikeem Sholes, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, met up with the group in Cascade Locks, where they wrapped up the day learning about Gorge fisheries and salmon conservation efforts.
Keeping the magic alive
Our goal is to inspire love and curiosity about the outdoors, but personal connection to nature rarely occurs in just one day. That’s why we also aim to ensure young people can return to the Gorge time and again. This year we gifted each student with a one-year Oregon State Parks parking permit, so they can visit the Gorge with their families and share what they’ve learned.
Our Great Gorge Wahoo! program is made possible by ongoing support from Friends donors Carrie Nobles and the Winthrop Family. Their continuing generosity and enthusiasm are the bedrock of our youth education partnership with St. Andrew Nativity School, and words can’t say how much the programs are appreciated.