by Gaia U Master’s degree candidate, Derek Angevine

This story is about my three-week adventure leading a group of high school students through a series of physical, emotional and mental action learnings in the Pacific Northwest of the US.

After all of the preparations, research, outreach, networking, lists, itineraries, schedules, menus, planning, and packing, we were ready to set out on the first leg of our unforgettable action-learning journey. Let me step back a moment and explain. The event is what is known as ‘May-Term’ at Spring Street International School (SSIS), a small private island school in the upper end of the Pacific NW. The expedition was to travel around our “backyard” and investigate the plight of the salmon, to examine the many variables that are impacting the salmon here in the Puget Sound.

The nine students, ages 16-18 spent much of their pre-trip time researching and planning presentations on the impact of dams, habitat loss, fish hatcheries, fish farms, and pollution, all to be observed through our three-week tour of Coastal Washington and a dip into Oregon and the Columbia River Gorge area.

My job was to develop this addition to the school’s experiential education repertoire, making sure there was a trip for those who could not go on the other trips and include an educational component, as well as a local focus. Half of these kids had never spent much time exploring the region even though they lived here, and the other half hailed from China, international students here to learn English and later attend an American University. We had six students from China, three girls and three boys. The other three, local boys from each of the larger San Juan Islands, Orcas, Lopez, and of course San Juan. My wife, Lisa, co-led this trip with me, allowing us to bring my youngest daughter Zea, age six and already a world traveler.

We first set out by kayak, attempting to circumnavigate the San Juan Islands, battling the currents and seasonal winds that spring upon you at your most vulnerable times. For most of the group, this was their first time paddling, as well as being truly “on” the ocean. The San Juan drizzle soaked our first day and night. Cold and wet, we bunked down in a grassy meadow on Jones Island, a small outlier that locals frequent as a home away from home. At this point, the group was still in the forming stages of group development which was impacted by the uncomfortable weather. The advantage was that everyone knew one another at some level, and they were able to comfort each other with a reminder that not every day would be like this. I was sure that the Chinese students in particular, unused to being exposed to cold, heat, or physical exertion would find this trip to be a hard three weeks. I also know that it was this struggle that would push them closer, whether they liked it or not.

The kayaking portion had many ups and downs. There was the transient pod of orca whales that swam within 50 yards of us, plus seals, river otters, old growth forest, sandy beaches, sunny, calm water days and tide-pooling. There were also wind and waves that pushed us back as fast as we moved forward, broken stoves, and strong ebbing currents that blocked our destination one day.

Each challenge and pleasure brought the group closer as we rose to the challenge, and it seemed that nothing could stand in our way. However, a decision to stopover at the school dorm for a quick clean-up, shower, repack, and head off at sunrise on the early ferry almost broke the momentum we had created.

The last two days of kayaking took on a feeling of a downhill stretch to safety and the end, as the students envisioned the dorm near, not grasping that the trip still had another two weeks. Once in the dorm, the Asian students polarized and distanced themselves, as they isolated themselves in their rooms and on their phones. I had anticipated this and was not keen on it, but rolled with it as it was logistically convenient. However, a good old bucket bath and camp close to the ferry would have worked and kept things in stride. Once we broke free of the student residence, on the ferry, coffee in hand, we were off to our dam tour in Southern Washington. I felt free of societal constraints and was looking forward to the open road and another two weeks out and about.

On our way south we toured the Rocky Reach Dam on the Columbia River, learning about their efforts to protect salmon and their journeys up and down the river with a fish ladder and a juvenile catchment system. They monitor and count fish 24/7. Then we toured and did a community service project at the Entiat Fish Hatchery, where our students were fortunate to be able to work with the staff at the hatchery and collect samples and specimen from the wetlands and river to determine the water quality and health for the local salmon populations.

All in all, things looked good for the macroinvertebrate population which the fish eat, but some of the factors that affect water quality still need addressing. Problems such as fertilizer runoff from nearby orchards and ash from a distant forest fire were all affecting the river pH and the ability of fish and macroinvertebrates to survive. We were impressed by the efforts of so few to hatch millions of new salmon by hand to save the species. We learned that the method used to kill the salmon before their eggs are taken is humane, but deems the fish inedible, so they compost millions of salmon a year. Many of us felt other methods could be looked at so the fish could be shared with the local community at the very least.

This stop was the gateway to the Columbia River watershed. Next, we would get on the Wild and Scenic Deschutes River in Oregon for six days of white water rafting down the 100 miles to the Columbia River. Our timing was impeccable, as we arrived just in time for the salmon fly explosion, an indicator of the return of salmon to the rivers and an important source of nutrients in the salmon life cycle. On this journey, the students would learn to guide their own rafts, flip their own boats, swim rapids, and rescue swimmers. This independence forced them to take on leadership roles, learn new skills, and support and take care of each other more.

As we made our way down the river, we also witnessed the impacts of man on the local habitat: erosion from 75-year-old mining and railroad construction projects; deforestation and desertification from overgrazing (cattle now are not allowed to reach the banks of the river); and lastly climate change. Warmer weather has been moving up the dates of the salmon fly season every year; however heavy snows the previous winter led to cooler than usual water temperatures and fisherman indicated that while the flies were out, the salmon had not yet arrived. They were baffled because the two events usually coincide. The salmon depend on those flies. The salmon flies served as a daily visual reminder of what the students had been researching and learning about.

The last couple days on the river brought a 40-meter free hanging rappel (once they pushed off the top, there was nothing for their feet until the ground). This challenged students to push past their fears and do the unthinkable, walk off the edge and rely solely on their equipment, their knowledge, and their abilities to make it to the bottom. The group came together encouraging those who were scared offering wisdom and advice.  It was a truly bonding moment which the group was ready for because by this point in the trip camping had become second nature to all, the loading and unloading, the food prep and clean-up. Our team had become a well-oiled machine, performing at our highest level.

Once our river journey was finished, we were off to climb at Smith Rocks State Park. We first stopped to wash laundry, take showers, and fill up on pizza and soda (everyone likes a little pampering once in awhile), and then headed to the bivouac site by dark, most just throwing down their sleeping kits and hitting the hay. Our next adventure would be three days climbing and hiking at Smith Rocks, one of the countries climbing meccas. Some of the hardest routes can be found rambling up the dihedrals and cracks or straining your fingers on blank steep walls with micro-pockets to challenge the best of us. Here we got to explore comfort zones and challenge everyone. Even my daughter Zea, age 6, pushed through some climbs that some of the high schoolers found difficult and screamed and yelled on.

We use climbing as a metaphor for life. When it becomes challenging, don’t give up, step back, take a second look at the problem, ask for advice, and try again. Another learning tool was belaying, as we had our students belay each other. It was challenging for some to trust their belayers, and the trust relationship had to be developed by clear communication, tight ropes, and practice.

Climbing was an excellent way to continue to build interpersonal skills among the group. The group supported each other. They gave advice on how to move through a difficult area. Some students were given boosts by holding their feet to the wall or pushing up their butts. Belayers pulled on the rope with assistance from group members to help a climber that was struggling. We were able to reflect as a group on the challenges, learning, and fun we had had to date. Everyone set goals, pushed themselves and their peers, ate good food, told stories they rarely talk about, and played hard. We left stronger, less stressed, more open minded, and ready for a soak.

After Smith Rocks, the next stop on our journey home was Bagby Hot Springs, in the Mt. Hood National Forest. At the hot springs, we would be able to relax and clean up a bit before heading home. The tubs at Bagby are quite impressive.  They were either round cedar communal tubs or the original 100+ years old burnt out log tubs built by some of the earliest settlers of the area.

There’s a nice half-an-hour hike through old growth forest to reach the tubs, so the place is quite magical. The international students took some time to ‘warm’ to the idea, as this was their first experience in a communal co-ed hot tub. Some chose to use the more private tubs, out of sight of those judging eyes. The walk back through the forest in the dark was also scary for many, so we stayed close together till the end. I guess comfort zones were still being challenged.

The next day we were homeward bound. Our last stop on the road home was a walk and discussion by the local ranger at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland south of Seattle that has been set aside for salmon habitat restoration as well other important species. Ten years ago the park had removed the levee to allow saltwater to be reintroduced and create a marsh like it was before human intervention tried to create farm and pasture land. We learned how habitat restoration takes time. We were surprised to see the estuary looking barren and desert-like, so different from healthy natural estuaries I’d seen before. The ranger explained that the growth of plant life was slow due to dams upstream that block much-needed silt to aid in channel building and compaction and oxidation of soils due to years of grazing. Despite these challenges, the Refuge has seen an abundance of salmon using the wetland as a food source before migrating upstream. The habitat restoration has been a success in helping the local salmon population.

All in all, we had a great adventure, learned a great deal, gained new skills and formed as a group. Of course, the group went through its storming stage, but that’s part of the whole group process to reach the performing stage. It was fun to get outside on an expeditionary trip again, and I look forward to further leaps forward with the action learning program at SSIS.