Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

The road through the Baker School District’s Outdoor School was a little longer, a little dustier and a little more treacherous for the 156 sixth-graders participating in this year’s program.

The Outdoor School was laid out over a mile-long stretch of rocky road through a portion of the Elkhorn Wildlife Area along the North Powder River about 25 miles northwest of Baker City.

The four-day program this year was moved from a 10-acre area west of Baker City known as Phillips Park. The park, owned by Don and Jackie Phillips, had been the site of the annual outdoor lessons since 1994.

The new site is on state land managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

“We’ve been real pleased with this location,” said Dorothy Mason, a retired wildlife biologist who’s in her sixth year as Outdoor School coordinator and has been a teacher since the program began. “It doesn’t look as pretty, but we put the wild back in Outdoor School.

“We’ve had to watch out for wasps, logs and tripping hazards,” she said as she traveled by a flattened snake in the road.

Nanette Lehman, South Baker principal, said school district administrators and Outdoor School planners were pleased that they were able to find a site on public land.

We were looking at other geographical areas to explore where there wasn’t a cost involved,” Lehman said. “And this gives students the opportunity to interact with public agencies on public land.”

Jon Fritz and Ron Coleman, ODFW employees from the Elkhorn Wildlife Area, were among the instructors who joined the students Monday through Thursday.

“I’m thrilled Elkhorn Wildlife Management took the time to teach a station,” Mason said.

The men explained how they work to help farmers and ranchers keep deer and elk off their agricultural land through the agency’s winter feeding program. They also demonstrated how they fence aspen trees to protect them from deer, elk and livestock while also employing other strategies to improve habitat in the wildlife area.

“This is where they work. This is what they do and they’re able to share those lessons,” Lehman said.

One hitch in the plans came when Mason placed the ODFW learning station 12th in line along the road where the 16 classes were staged. The wildlife lesson plan required instruction to move farther out, and so the students met first at Station 12 and then moved to the meadow near Station 16 for their 50-minute class time.

“They’ve been so good-spirited about it,” Mason said about the ODFW employees. “And they have been so helpful. Anything we’ve asked for they’ve done.”

Other classes weren’t so hard to determine where they should be set up, Mason said.

The fish and stream habitat station, for example, led by John Quintella, BLM fish biologist, and Shannon Archuleta, a U.S. Forest Service fish biologist, had to be No. 1, because it required water. The North Powder River provided the perfect setting for students to conduct stream studies and look for fish, with little effort to stay dry.

“You can lead a kid to water but you can’t keep them out of it,” Quintella said with resignation.

He knows his audience, which includes his son, Diego, a South Baker sixth-grader.

“Two weeks ago, this was just a trickle,” Archuleta said of the river.

But recent rainfall brought the flow to a level that was “just perfect” to allow students to use equipment to measure the water flowing through the wildlife management area.

The students have identified trout and freshwater sculpin in the river, Quintella said.

“They are doing everything a biologist in the field would do,” Mason said. “They could grow up to be a fish biologist.”

And it’s those career-related conversations Lehman hears between students when they walk to classes or stop for lunch break that make her want to provide more outdoor, hands-on learning experiences.

In the school district’s discussions of possibly offering “enhanced Friday” classes later this year, Lehman said she will be looking to some of the professionals assembled by Mason to help with Outdoor School to continue lessons on topics such as forestry, watershed management or archaeology.

Katie Coddington Thomas, a BLM archaeologist, already has contacted Lehman about participating in an enhanced Friday curriculum, Lehman said.

Coddington Thomas also has a special interest: her daughter, Neah Thomas, who is a Haines sixth-grader this year. The Haines and Keating students joined the South Baker classes along with sixth-graders from North Powder Charter School.

Mason said she keeps an eye out for people she knows who have children of Outdoor School age among employees at the various public agencies and in the community.

“When their kids are fifth- and sixth-graders I know and that’s when I contact them,” Mason said.

Parent volunteers also are eager to venture to Outdoor School as their children reach sixth grade. Instructors are joined by sixth-grade teachers from each school and paraprofessionals.

Jessica Dalton, the school district’s food services director, brought lunch each day for those who didn’t bring their own. Baker Sanitary Services provided toilets, handwashing stations and a Dumpster for a reduced price.

Sgt. Rick Bloom of the Oregon National Guard made a “water buffalo” tank and trailer available for the program alleviating Mason and her husband, Bob, another retired biologist and longtime volunteer, from hauling water to the site daily.

See more in the Sept. 23, 2016 issue of the Baker City Herald.