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Let Nature Take Its Course

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Text and Photos by Karen Diegmueller North Cascades National Park, Wash.

In a small clearing of dense forest where the tree canopy reaches 230 feet into the sky, the only audible sound is the rumble of Thunder Creek--despite the presence of eight 5th graders.

Pencils and colorful journals in hand, the three girls and five boys jot down what they have seen and learned in the past few hours.

"Can I write about dead trees?" Marcos DelaCruz asks.

"Yeah, write all about the decaying, rotting, creepy stuff lying all around the ground," replies instructor Anthony "Ant" Chapin.

Silence. Scribbling.

A snippet of conversation drifts across the clearing: "The only thing that can stop you from learning is you," chaperone Richard Wills advises Greg Savage.

Momentary calm.

Marcos turns to a classmate squatting nearby. "Do you want to go home?" he asks.

"No," Kaaren Mitchell answers. "It's fun out here."

Marcos looks incredulous. "I hate nature. I hate rain. I hate wind. I only like animals."

A few minutes later, the students stash their journals into backpacks and climb onto the hiking trail once more.

"I want to do 5th grade again next year," says Sebastion Yzaguirre.

"Why?" Ryan Brown inquires.

"We'd get to do this again."

This is Mountain School, a two-night, three-day adventure here in the lush green wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, a 2-1 / 2-hour drive northeast of Seattle.

For 48 hours, the 23 students in Kasey Potzler's class at Lincoln Elementary School in Mount Vernon will live and learn about science and the environment of their own backyard--a mecca for hikers and campers during the summer--and maybe gain a few insights about themselves.

Make no mistake. Mountain School is no ordinary field trip during which students meander through meadows of trees and flowers; it lives up to its name. Virtually from the time the students wake up in the morning until they slip into their sleeping bags at night, they are being schooled. But that doesn't mean no fun or recreation. Free time is built into the schedule, and the instruction itself is set up to make learning an enjoyable, engaging experience.

Nevermore

Most of the half million acres of North Cascades National Park is rugged. Though a few spots have been carved out of the wilderness for the Mountain School campsite, it is devoid of most creature comforts. Students will find toilets and cold running water but no showers. Electricity feeds into the restrooms, with a limited supply making its way into "Big Green," the tent where chef Michael Reuter rules.

Students sleep four to a tent, which the school provides along with cots and pads to absorb the dampness common to the Northwest. Boys and their chaperones--usually dads--sleep on one side of the camp; girls and their chaperones--generally moms--sleep on the other.

Even before they've had a chance to stow their gear, the students, chaperones, and instructors set off on their first hike.

To cultivate both the personal and educational experience, the class is divided into three small groups--Wolves, Salmon, and Ravens--each with its own instructor and pair of chaperones. But the Ravens have come up a chaperone short after one mom took ill, so I find myself a quasi-chaperone.

Chapin regularly halts the Ravens for a lesson, though he's savvy enough not to declare it as such. He passes out laminated cards highlighting "raven facts" to get the conversation going. Later comes a lesson on the water cycle, which Chapin turns into a simple song and choreography.

The students are familiar with the water cycle. Potzler spent three weeks preparing them by building the lessons of Mountain School into the curriculum. When they return to their regular classroom, she has follow-up activities planned.

The group hasn't had to experience much precipitation firsthand. But it rained all spring, with temperatures occasionally dipping down into the low 30s. Still, the weather did not scuttle the program, which runs from April to mid-June and in September and October. In the second-to-last week of the spring session, though, the skies are clear, the temperature has risen, and the rain has gone away--at least most of the time.

Road Kill Cafe

Science and nature are not the only lessons the students are expected to learn at Mountain School. Responsibility and teamwork figure prominently, starting with meal preparation.

On the first night, it is the Ravens' turn to help Reuter cook. The entree is taco salad, and the students chop tomatoes, onions, lettuce, jalapeĀ¤os, and all the other necessary fixings. While his father helps other students nearby, Stephen Wills heats up the refried beans in an industrial-sized pot.

Putting their artistic talents to work, the boys and girls create a bill of fare complete with drawings and silly-sounding names. Scavengers that they are, the Ravens christen their restaurant the Road Kill Cafe.

If there is a near universal complaint from the students about Mountain School, it's that the meals are meatless. The vegetarian bent is not for any philosophical reason but for logistical ones. Health inspectors were concerned about the camp's limited refrigeration. So over time, the meat was removed from the spaghetti sauce and peanut butter replaced hot dogs.

The menu change also has the added advantage of keeping down costs. The registration fee is $40 per person, less than one-third the actual cost, says Wendy Scherrer, the program director at the North Cascades Institute, a nonprofit education organization based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. The institute subsidizes the cost of Mountain School, one of many programs it runs in cooperation with the National Park Service and National Forest Service.

Scholarships are available to students who cannot afford the $40 fee. The Mount Vernon district foots the bill for its students. Potzler's class raised the money to pay for the chaperones' tuition and the bus.

Christie Fairchild, the Mountain School coordinator, and Reuter are the school's only paid staff. The instructors volunteer for 12-week stints. In return for their 12-hour days, they get free room and board. And those who are college students, such as Chapin, a junior at Western Washington University, get college credit.

Three instructors work at the camp from Monday to Wednesday with one class; three others take on the Wednesday through Friday class.

When Mountain School first started seven years ago, it had but three instructors and Fairchild, who also did the cooking. "It was just a burnout," she says.

Each One Teach One

The program evolves alongside the environment of the North Cascades. On the second day, the brown-bag lunch spot has been overrun with water from Thunder Creek, which is gushing like a river because the glaciers have finally begun to melt.

"The trail changes every day," Chapin says. "We had a river that just exploded into the riparian zone, so we had to make a different path."

The students are learning their ABCs: abiotics, nonliving environmental factors; biotics, living organisms; and culture.

Peppering his charges with questions, Chapin gives a lesson on producers, consumers, and decomposers. Then the Ravens are off for a 3-1 / 2-mile trek in an old-growth section of the forest. They will stop several times to take out their journals and write or play a game.

In Each One Teach One, seven of the students and the two chaperones stay put, while Chapin takes one student ahead on the trail and teaches him something about the forest. Then, one at a time, the students and adults meet up with the student who passes on his newly gained knowledge. Eventually, each member of the group becomes a "professor."

Again, not every lesson at Mountain School is geared toward academics. The Ravens take a silent hike in which Chapin strikes out on his own on the trail. The next group member waits until the instructor is out of sight before she starts walking. Then the next starts and the next, with chaperone Wills bringing up the rear. It's like being alone in the wilderness and yet as one with nature.

Scariest and most thrilling is the trust hike. Interspersed among Chapin, Wills, and me, the children walk with their eyes closed, taking verbal directions from the adults.

"Stay to your left; there's a big rock on your right," directs Chapin to the students' squeals and giggles. "We're going downhill now."

"Let's do it again, let's do it again," some chant. But others prefer not to, and many more activities must be crammed into the day.

Potzler views Mountain School as a place where the children can face challenges--even her students who shine in the classroom but may feel inadequate in the great outdoors. Some have never been camping, and some have never spent the night away from home.

She watched one girl, who tends to be physically inactive and who had a tough time at home this year, make it through the silent hike. "She did it, and she did it with confidence," the teacher says.

During her first trip to Mountain School last year, Potzler picked up a few tips herself--using more hands-on instruction in the classroom and trying Each One Teach One.

The learning continues. Late into the night, after she has made sure all the girls are in their tents with lights out, she slips into hers, precariously perches her flashlight on the cot, and copies the words from "I Ran to the River," a song sung around the campfire earlier that evening.

"Next year," she explains to her tentmate. "Teachers are always planning ahead."

Showtime

After dinner on the first night, the staff put on a show for the visitors--a show about old-growth forest and the cycles of nature. On Night Two, it's the visitors' turn to entertain.

The Salmon perform their version of "Romeo and Salmonette," the tragic tale of how salmon die after they spawn. The Wolves do their own take on "The Three Little Pigs." And the Ravens produce "Ravenhood," an adaptation of the adventures of Robin Hood.

In the morning, the staff prepares a pancake breakfast while the students clean up their tents and pack up their gear. Then the groups are off to learn about the culture of their environment. They spend time with a park ranger. They play Oh Deer, a game that illustrates how food, water, and shelter affect the deer population. Lastly, the Ravens meet up with Fairchild on the bank of the Skagit River, where she describes what life was like here 100 years ago.

Never, though, do the students hear any preaching about preserving the forests or keeping the waters clean or any other edicts that have given environmental education a bad name in some circles.

"We're not advocating; we're educating," says Fairchild. "They are two very different things. In an education setting, being a teacher is opening doors and windows, not telling them what to see."

That doesn't mean the adults don't want the children to come away with a better appreciation for nature.

"I'm hoping they get a little more respect for what they have," Wills says. "They aren't going to remember this 10 years from now, but if you can get one or two pieces to stick, then you have accomplished something."

If the students are thinking about such lofty notions, they aren't articulating them in so many words. But most seem to enjoy the experience.

"I learned about the different kinds of fungi, and I learned how to count the trees' age," says Brittany Otis. Unlike the common belief that each ring is equivalent to a calendar year, Megan Fink explains, "in one year, there is a dark and a light line."

Complaints about Mountain School are few. Indeed, the biggest one seems to be its ability to accommodate only 800 to 1,000 students annually. Once it receives the necessary approvals, North Cascades Institute plans to open a new site that will hold about 60 students and include an enclosed shelter so campers will have a place to dry out.

But before new classes can be welcomed, the current one must be sent home in appropriate fashion. Everyone assembles at the campfire. One by one, those gathered make a wish, throw a cedar leaf into the fire, and return to the circle and take the hand of their neighbor. Eyes mist. Voices quiver. Many wish for the preservation of the wilderness and the opportunity to share what they have learned.

But 5th graders will be 5th graders. "I wish I could take a shower," says Devin Rose. Near the end, though, one boy captures the prevailing spirit: "I wish we didn't have to leave."

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