Hands-on lessons: 143 sixth-graders spent the week studying nature at Phillips Park

By By Chris Collins September 21, 2012 09:42 am

S. John Collins / Baker City Herald Orienteering co-instructor Barbara Taylor goes over a few details before Brogan Lewis takes his bearing to begin his compass course at the Outdoor School this week.

By Chris Collins

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Dorothy Mason recounts how her life in Baker County has been interwoven with lessons about the outdoors.

She and her husband, Bob, two retired wildlife biologists, moved to Baker City in 1990 with their two small children, Jessica and Alex.

As the youngsters grew, the Masons were involved with their activities through Scouting, sports and YMCA programs that included summer rafting trips coordinated by the Masons.

The couple’s passion for the outdoors is the Baker School District’s good fortune.

They have participated in  the district’s Outdoor School since it was begun about 20 years ago, Dorothy said Tuesday as she conducted a tour around Phillips Park. 

The 10-acre park west of Baker City, owned by Don and Jackie Phillips, has been the site of the outdoor lessons since 1994.

Although Dorothy prefers volunteering as an Outdoor School teacher, she’s serving as program coordinator for the third time this fall. 

She says she’ll be happy to fill that role if that’s what it takes to ensure that the program continues.

“I’ll do it until I can’t walk,”  she says.

Mason’s first stint as Outdoor School coordinator was in the spring of 2011 and the second was last September when the program was moved to the more predictable sunny days of late summer.

“People seem to be in a happier mood when they’re out in the fall and it’s not so wet and cold,” she said.

Recalling her first year at Outdoor School, Mason said there were no canopies or tarps to protect instructors and students from the harsh elements of springtime in Baker County.

“It was trial by rain and snow,” she said.

Mason leads the park tour along a path designated by large green dots that follow the paths traveling from one station to another.

The green dots are a system used by the Forest Service that Mason has adapted for use at Outdoor School.

“We bring in so many new parents every day, it helps them,” she said.

The parent volunteers help supplement the staff of school employees, outdoor specialists and agency representatives who teach the classes.

There’s Bob Parker of the Oregon State University Extension Service, who teaches the forestry session. Dennis Winkler, a retired Forest Service employee, teaches fire ecology. And Erin McConnell, the Bureau of Land Management’s weed supervisor, and her assistant Samantha Cisney, staffed the station where students learned about noxious weeds. 

Chris Galiszewski of the Baker County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team leads a survival lesson where students learned to use a plastic sack with a hole cut out for their faces to keep them warm and dry while they cozy up to a tree for an extended stay outdoors if necessary. 

Whistles, donated by the Forest Service, are distributed to the students at the close of the session “much to the chagrin of the next station,” Mason said.

“Before I was in control, the whistle-givers were just before my station.

“Now I make sure they go to another station,” she says — only partly joking.

In spite of the noise that goes with the lesson, Mason touts the benefits of the hands-on experiences students in classes such as the one Galiszewski leads are getting.

“It’s worthwhile to actually practice doing it,” she says of the tree hugging, whistle blowing and plastic bag waving. “You need to get out and get dirty.”

Mason speaks highly of those who contribute their time and energy to the program.

“The majority volunteer or take a day off to come here to participate,” she says. “The same thing for parents, without the parents — without everybody — we couldn’t do it.”

This year 143 sixth-graders from North Powder, Burnt River, Haines and South Baker Intermediate School visited 15 stations Monday through Wednesday on topics ranging from forestry to weeds, wildlife and orienteering. 

Thirteen electives were available for students to chose from on Thursday.

Betty Palmer, South Baker principal, was at the site to oversee the program through the week.

And Becky Black, school nurse, was available to provide her expertise as needed. The school district provided lunch daily.

Mason says she’s always looking for new instructors to join the program or for those who would like to contribute in other ways.

This year she recruited Cindy Johansen, South Baker School secretary, who she knows from Johansen’s Cub Scout leader days. Johansen led an elective class on campfire songs. 

“People who live next to me or who go to the same parties as me get asked to do things for outdoor school,” she said. 

“If you’ve got a day, I’ve got a plan. If you’ve got three days, I’ve got another plan.”