Public Lands Stewards: 10 Years Later, Coming Full Circle

by | Land Stewards, Summer Camp

In August, I was tagged in a Facebook post by Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center celebrating their 10th anniversary of summer backpacking trips. Through the expanse of social media, the program coordinator was commemorating the growth of the program and curious about where the original cohort of campers is now. At the age of 12, I had the privilege to be one of those eight campers on the first Opal Creek Wilderness Expedition. With seven friends and two inspiring leaders, the ten of us powered through an all-women trip along the ridgeline of the Opal Creek watershed, learning about fundamental backcountry skills, exploring diverse ecosystems, sitting silently awestruck at the peak of the ridge, and laughing under the evening stars when I lost my left-foot sandal in the deep mud of a boggy pond (completely gone, eaten by the bog monster, guaranteed still there…).

I read this post just as I was about to embark on the last overnight camp of Cascade Mountain School’s summer season, Girls Rock! I realized that 10 years later, I had come full circle from participant to educator. Girls Rock!, a six-day introduction to leaderships and geological sciences for young women, explores the southern Washington Cascade Mountains through backpacking, rafting, and teambuilding. Designed to empower young women to confidently explore the natural world around them, whether for a sense of adventure or a love of glaciers, I found myself reflecting often that week on my own experience at Opal Creek. I cannot attribute the work I do now as an environmental educator to one singular experience, but rather myriad opportunities, places, and role models who encouraged me to dive deeper into my affinity for marveling at how rivers meander, fungi and algae live symbiotically as lichen, and creative ideas can come to life.

My job with Cascade Mountain School allows me to learn some of the secrets behind the pivotal experiences, like backpacking with Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center programs in 2007, which influenced me to pursue my work as an environmental science educator today. I love now being on the flip side as the instructor: brainstorming each week which creative technique to pull from my “educator’s toolbox”, realizing the mechanics behind a teaching trick to encourage a quiet student to open up and share, and incorporating my love for water systems into exploration and observation.

As the seasons change and the crisp leaves turn to snow turns to wildflowers, I look forward to deepening my connections with the many layers of the Columbia Gorge communities through working at Cascade Mountain School. Each time I push my own boundaries as an educator, captivate a group for even just a few minutes, backpack to Round-the-Mountain trail on Mt. Adams, and laugh with students as we dive into a compost pile to measure its temperature, I find myself wondering if 10 years down the road, one of my students will be in a similar role I am today.