Explorer West begins each new school year by welcoming back those students we already know and introducing ourselves to those we don’t. Once students are reoriented to the school community and get to know a little about the expectations for the school year, we change course a little bit. Instead of settling in to a week of conventional classes, we take the classroom outside. Literally. Almost every member of the school community, from new 6th graders to the Head of School, heads out on a trip to one of Washington’s wild and wonderful places to begin a 3 day journey of getting to know each other, getting to know more about themselves, and getting to know more about what kind of sustainable role they want to play in this wonderful environment we live in. Each grade is offered a separate, unique experience that builds on the adventure and learning experiences from their last time out with the school, setting them up to become self-aware, self-reliant, and self-motivated stewards of Washington’s wild places and the world at large.
This year I traveled with the 8thgrade on their annual pilgrimage to Mt. Rainier National Park. I call it a pilgrimage because as Mt. Rainier has become an icon of the Northwest it has come to symbolize a preserved snapshot into the forces that shaped Puget Sound before our arrival and a deeper meaning of the world as it used to be. The Native oral traditions say that “Takhoma” was a sister mountain of the Olympic peaks but that she was growing to large and crowded on the Peninsula and decided to move east and provide source-water, salmon, elk, and berries to the Native peoples.
We began by meeting with one of the interpretive park rangers, Ranger Bev Killam, at the White River Ranger Station. She provided an excellent but brief orientation to the students about the geography, geology, natural history, and biology of the parts of the park they would inhabit for the next 3 days. Then we were off to our 4 separate trailheads within the park with the goal of the day to pack everything we needed for the next 3 days on our backs and hike in to a backcountry campsite and make our base camp. Some groups would be camping at high, alpine sites at or near 5500 ft. above seas level. Our site was relatively low at 3800 ft. and, despite the recent streak of dry weather, was snuggled next to a babbling stream called Olallie Creek. Our students chose their ideal locations for their tents, their “kitchen”, and where to hang their food bags at night to keep them away from nocturnal critters. Once dinner was made and our hiking pace was calculated using long division, we reflected on the challenges of the day and what was to come tomorrow and headed off to our tents and warm sleeping bags.
Early the next day, with an early morning breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate in our bellies, we found the hiking much easier with only water, lunch, and extra gear and clothes in our packs. The ability to leave some food, tents, and sleeping arrangements behind at base camp raised spirits and we made excellent time as we headed toward a junction that would bring us to the only trail that encircles the entire mountain, the Wonderland Trail. Having had the opportunity to hike all 93 miles of this trail several years ago, I knew that we were headed towards and area of the mountain that offered spectacular in-your-face views, close-up interactions with exotic mammals, and a chance for them to ponder a person’s impact in a place where life has an obvious fragility to it and a very short time during the year to flourish. But flourish it certainly does. Endless fields of wildflowers greeted us as we approached the 5600 ft. mark and came around a bend in the trail to discover a landscape splashed with white snows, deep green meadows, and stark grey rock faces jutting up thousands of feet above us. Each student was allowed an hour of solo hiking time when they were encouraged to put into words or sketches some of the things they witnessed into their journals.
At each opportunity, students were encouraged to spin a tale (that they were instructed to create in History class) for the group that included the mountain as a main character and the people who inhabit the Sound and how we can interact with the environment in more sustainable ways. At other times they were encouraged to take the reins of leadership by either guiding us to and from our daily destinations, determining when we needed water breaks and where to find our next water source, or just by encouraging each other with positive reinforcement or riddles. Stepping into these and other important roles during this time helps the students realize they play an important role in the success or failure of any endeavor in the backcountry or at home.
Best of all, each student ends the trip with a reflection period that involves recording some of their thoughts and experiences in their journals or sharing some of their reflections and ideas with their classmates. This allows them to verbalize some of the emotions, personal accomplishments, and even shortcomings so that the next time they can strive for an even greater experience. Our goal: That the next time they go outdoors they are passionate about taking care of themselves, taking care of their peers, and taking care of the wonderful places they are going for those who come next.