Kids in the Woods at the Refuge

Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge
A walk through the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge has become a regular field trip for elementary school children in Colville. Photo: Stephanie Wilson.

As a follow-up to the “Kids in the Woods” article by Carol Mack, recently in Forest Stewardship Notes, I would like to present a project that a group of us have been working on at the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge for some years now. This refuge is a huge tract just east of Colville with over 40,000 acres of mostly upland forest, and an ideal place for kids to explore nature.

Second- and fifth-grade students from the two Colville elementary schools now spend part of a day every year exploring nature. This idea came about when Tricia Woods, who founded and presided over the Friends of the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge at the time, suggested the Friends would be glad to sponsor a spring field trip to replace the bowling event that some of the classes participated in—a treat for the kids when there were few other options readily available. The friendship between Tricia and some of the teachers undoubtedly helped get things going. The Friends were developing the McDowell Marsh Environmental Education Trail (McMEET) at that time and Tricia thought this would be a fun site for the kids to visit. It also would not strain the schools’ budget as we would also pay for busing. The trailhead is only 13 miles from Colville.

For the second graders, this trip was first offered in 2003. It worked so well that it became an annual event. The fifth graders were offered a similar outing in 2005. A more rigorous experience was planned for them with several stations to visit, tasks to complete, a hike to the lake, and a report to write. Their teachers were provided with educational materials referred to as “trunks,” packaged as complete self-contained kits on different biological topics.

My wife Jo Ann and I got involved as volunteers a couple years later and we have been leading hikes for the second graders ever since. The McMEET trail is now finished, complete with toilets, wheelchair access for about 1/2 of the loop, interpretative sites explained with a brochure, some large displays, a very long boardwalk over the marsh (kids love this!), a viewing/photo blind at the marsh, an amphitheater (really a bunch of big rocks on the hillside to sit on), and benches along the trail for rest or contemplation.

The second graders hike with no expectations except to have fun and let go. The kids love it. It is surprising and sad that some of the second graders I have led have never before been in the woods. Since they are in groups of 8 to 12 and accompanied by adults (including teachers and some parents), even those fearful at first soon relax. As is true for other leaders, I have been told every year by more than one student what a great experience it is. My hope always is that an experience like this will stimulate a child to seek more, and there are certainly opportunities. We deviously suggest to the kids that perhaps they can ask their family to visit the trail some nice day. Now that there is an auto tour loop they can enjoy the Refuge both on foot and in the car.

Other schools nearby have expressed interest, but the Friends is a relatively small group with just enough volunteers for what we do now, so we have been unable to include them. The current organizer of this event is Stephanie Wilson who is on the Friends board and also an elementary school teacher. She has taken her second grade classes to the event from the very beginning.

An effort like this takes planning, to be sure, including coordination between three different groups. The Refuge staff has responsibility to provide a safe location in keeping with federal guidelines; the schools must be on board; teachers must prepare students for the event and accompany their classes; and the Friends must provide leaders for the hikes and events. Refuge and Colville National Forest staff also help out as group leaders and learning station experts.

Things have evolved and improved in the years we have been doing this. The McDowell Trail was quite primitive and unfinished when we started, but is now a complete loop with amenities for all to enjoy. Teachers continue to think up new ways to prep the students for the trip—their anticipation is always important.

Events like this involve a lot of work, but getting kids into the woods may be the most important work we do for the future of our forests. And getting to witness their excitement is enough reward to bring us back every year.

By Jim Groth, Stevens County landowner, Friends of the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge member