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  show and tell - photo of two youngsters canoeing
photoRob Crandall teaches native plant identification

Annual 6th grade campout

Thirty-three Methow Valley School District sixth graders are in the woods for three days of camping, hiking and outdoor learning this week.

The annual campout dates back to 1990 and has become a valley right-of-passage for the sixth graders, said Allison DeLong, who is in her third year as camp coordinator. “There’s a lot of tradition with this event.”

Among the goals of the campout are to provide students with an opportunity to practice cooperation—the vexing business of setting up the tents, for example—and to develop leadership skills in an outdoor setting as well as learning first hand about the Methow Valley’s environment.

photoTanner Lund, (left) Ian Dornfeld, Walker Hall and Myles Davis take a break.

This year the Falls Creek campout included a Tuesday afternoon session in identifying plants native to the Methow under the tutelage of plant expert Rob Crandall. “For thousands of years people in the Methow knew about the plants here,” he told the students. “It’s important to know about the place you live.” Their task was to learn to identify 10 plants native to Buck Lake, where the session was held around a picnic table.

photoKurt Oakley of Aero Methow shows Logan Hall why its important for successful rescue that life vests fit properly.
photoWashing up before lunch

The Buck Lake excursion also included a lesson in safe canoeing, plus a little botany, taught by Dana Visalli, who has been teaching the canoeing course since the campouts began 23 years ago. Canoeing, the students quickly grasped, requires balance and teamwork. And Kim Claussen led a course in archery that put the kids’ eye-arm coordination to the test, while Kip Roberts led group games.

The high point, literally and figuratively, of the campout is the seven-mile hike on the HeatherPass/Maple Pass loop on Wednesday. Parents serve as hike chaperones, Bruce Morrison teaches art along the way and principal Brian Patrick presents a writing lesson at the summit.

photoHappiness is the Methow Valley Elementary School campout at Falls Creek.

There’s more writing led by elementary teachers Joani Stevie and Erica Bleke during the journal writing/reflections session that closes out the camp on Thursday. But not before a session on survival skills/stone age living by Katie Russell and Umbra, writing thank you cards, and a service project led by Ellis Fink.

Before any of that, though, the first thing the students heard about was how to stay safe in the woods. Tuesday morning firefighter Brian McAuliffe from Okanogan County Fire District 6 explained how to safely build—and put out—a fire in the woods and how to avoid dehydration. “If you wait to drink water until you’re thirsty, it’s too late,” he cautioned.

Kurt Oakley, an Advanced Emergency Medical Technician from Aero Methow Rescue Service, showed the 10 essentials that should be in every hiker’s backpack and gave tips on what to do to prevent trouble: “Don’t go off alone.” “Check out, check in.” “Wear bright colors.” “Always carry a whistle.” And he used sixth grader Logan Hall to demonstrate the proper way to wear a life vest.

photoBella Dinsmore takes aim in archery class.

Meanwhile Laura McCabe served as head cook for dinner and breakfast, six high school students signed on as camp counselors as part of their community service program, and parents such as Pam Vieth trucked in hay bales from Crown S Ranch for the kids to sit on.

As all this shows, the campout is a good example of the “It takes a village” concept of child rearing. Without the many years of dedicated volunteer, parent and teacher support, the iconic, carefully organized event would not be possible.

Parents have many duties: gear check, gear haul, hauling KOA picnic tables to Falls Creek, picking up and delivering the school lunches, dinner and breakfast preparation and setup, and maybe the most fun: spending the night sleeping in a tent at camp with 33 sixth graders.

A key figure since its beginning is the campout’s godfather and guardian of goods—Howard Sonnichsen. For 23 years, he’s not only been donating items but been setting up and taking down the cook tent and other equipment and storing it, as well as all the student tents, at his place.

photoAllison Delong has been working as camp coordinator for the last three years.

“He was the secret power who really made the camps work,” according to former elementary teacher Tammie Ellis, who founded the camp with teacher Steve Dixon. “He [Sonnichsen] kindly supplied much needed kitchen gear from his business of supporting fire camps,” Ellis told Grist. “Over the years he developed a Sixth Grade Campout shelf with the needed items that he protected and refined.”

Ellis, who now lives in Montana, said she wanted to start the camp because she had experienced an outstanding outdoor education program run by Bill Riedel when she was attending Clallam High School.

“We had no money to pull this off and in fact that first year all that the school offered was the bus and the driver to transport the students,” Ellis recalled. So she leaned on friends and acquaintances to get the job done—Ann Henry, the first camp cook, even made chocolate cake—and the rest is history.

When it began, the campout was free. Today students pay a $40 fee but financial help is available for those who need it; the goal is to have every student participate, according to DeLong.

Volunteer Mary McFaul, watching the sixth graders gleefully leaping over the hay bales she helped haul to Falls Creek, said wistfully, “I didn’t get to do anything this fun when I was in school.”

Volunteer Laura Love agreed. “I had a field trip to the Nebraska State Penitentiary,” she quipped.

photoKonnor Doran, left, and Caleb Simmons carefully set up their tent.


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