Watershed ed program inspires lifelong love of nature
After gaining more than 1,200 feet of elevation on a hike beginning at Silver Lake, Chester students celebrate atop Spanish Peak. The sixth- graders round out this 9-mile trek by following the Pacific Crest Trail to Bucks Summit.
Eighteen years ago Joe Hagwood asked Mike De Lasaux if he could suggest anyone to take over the sixth-grade outdoor education camp for a year or two while the district searched for someone to fill the position more permanently.
On the bank of Schneider Creek, Chris Mayes, fisheries biologist with the Almanor Ranger District, talks with a group of Chester sixth-graders about insects found in the creek, ecological webs and the importance of healthy environments.
At the time, De Lasaux, University of California Extension forest advisor for Plumas and Sierra counties, had an AmeriCorps intern working on watershed education in schools: Rob Wade.
“At that point I only had an associate degree, but I was certainly passionate about what I was doing,” Wade said. “And I knew right away after doing just one year of camp that it was what I wanted to do.”
With the support of Hagwood and University of California, Berkeley, Wade, who was then a student at Berkeley, was able to complete his degree, enabling him to continue moving forward with his work in Plumas County and the Feather River watershed without missing a year of camp.
The Feather River Outdoor School, or sixth-grade outdoor education camp, was established in 1988 through efforts led by Hagwood, then assistant superintendent of Plumas Unified School District.
Since its inception the program has been defined by community collaboration involving the United States Forest Service, Feather River College and Plumas County Office of Education, among other volunteers and organizations. This is the model that Wade inherited in 1995, and the model that would remain essential to the success of the camp as it evolved under Wade’s leadership.
Instrumental to the initial realization of the Feather River Outdoor School was securing a location. Through Hagwood’s vision and insistence, the historic UC Berkeley Forestry Camp was leased to house the program.
The Berkeley camp, located in Meadow Valley on Schneider Creek Road, was opened in 1917 to provide Bay Area forestry students with an opportunity to learn about different ecosystems during the summer in an intensive hands-on program of study. One of these students was Jim Schaber, who became the longtime camp manager.
“I came here as a graduate student in 1974 with the idea of attending camp, taking a year off, and then probably pursuing a master’s degree in forestry,” Schaber said. “But from the day I got here I realized it was going to be a beautiful place to stay for the rest of my life, so I never went back to Berkeley when I finished summer camp. I stayed here.”
Schaber, who is retiring this season after 28 years of service, said that the sixth-grade camp was a success from the beginning and is important to the community because it empowers children when they learn about the natural systems and names of plants and animals in the area.
Portola High School senior Will Marquette agreed. “Sitting in a classroom you try to imagine the massiveness of a tree and you’re looking at a picture, but you can’t grasp it. When you’re here, in the moment with these huge living things in front of you — it’s such a cool feeling,” Marquette said.
Marquette and his classmate J.T. Bones attended camp together in sixth grade and are volunteering for the second year as camp counselors. Both said that camp was instrumental in introducing them to and fostering appreciation for the local environment.
“Camp is about where we live,” Bones said. “It gets kids active in their own environment and it’s important for children to know more about where they live. They will enjoy more, learn to appreciate the simple things, and carry that in life to appreciate more sophisticated or complicated things.”
Bones and Marquette are both considering careers in the outdoors after graduation and have found the experience as counselors invaluable to personal and professional development in learning and practicing communication skills, critical thinking and situational awareness.
Marquette added that camp, for all who participate, is hand-in-hand environmental education and personal growth.
“Outdoor ed wasn’t just going out and playing games, it felt like ‘this is life.’ I remember it as the first time our class connected on an emotional level. There was a depth of feeling we never had before and couldn’t have had elsewhere,” Marquette said.
Alan Morrison, who taught sixth grade in Plumas County for 29 years until his retirement in 2012, saw these changes in his students following their time at camp and said that the experience binds students together in a way that could never happen in a classroom.
Morrison also noted that through learning and living together over several days at camp, students begin to understand relationships outside of the family structure, to respect differences and to recognize that their own decisions and actions determine outcomes.
“With place-based education kids begin to learn about where they live and how to live here. Their sense of place expands with more experience, and their conceptual abilities mature. The challenges are valuable. The night is scary. The water is cold, but they conquer it,” Morrison said.
The residential aspect is critical to the success of camp because it gives children more opportunities to be challenged, to succeed, and to see that impossible things become possible simply by putting one foot in front of the other.
Over the years, Wade secured funding to extend camp from a two- to four-day program (sixth-graders currently attend from Tuesday to Friday) and with this he was able to expand other facets of the program.
In addition to ecology hikes teaching students about forest, meadow and creek environments, Wade added a hike to Spanish Peak, brought in high school camp counselors to help guide and care for the students and included Feather River College students majoring in Outdoor Recreation Leadership to teach the students about collaboration and group initiatives.
Wade said that a lot is asked of the students, but through these challenges they learn about their own true center, how strong they can be, and also how to appreciate and be a part of a community. The students learn lifelong skills along with environmental education.
“Ask sixth-graders what they know and what they’re learning, because it’s probably something that we all need to know,” Wade said. “If I could do it, I would take the entire county through a sixth-grade year, and not just so they could learn all of these important things, but so that they could have so much fun and joy and experience all of the beauty of our backyard and this place we call home.”