In my short time living in Jawbone Flats, I have paid attention to what brings people here, what keeps people coming back, and what makes some people stick around. For me, the adrenaline rush of kayaking, mixed with calm moments in nature, has sparked my appreciation of the ancient forest. Kayaking the Little North Fork of the Santiam River takes you to canyons and views you can only see from the water, but you must take advantage of the calm spots of the river to take in these views, because there are not many. The rest of the time on the river is spent with complete focus, on the waves, rocks, rapids, trees, making split second decisions on how to move your boat through it.
Our students come to learn about the ecosystem of the ancient forest: what are the characteristics of an old-growth forest? What do aquatic macro-invertebrates tell us about the health of our streams? How have owls adapted to be such good hunters? Why can garter snakes eat the poisonous rough-skinned newt? These questions, and many others are answered and experienced during a student’s stay here. Some of those answers may be forgotten, others vaguely remembered, but some are the spark that ignites a student’s interest.
I think back to teaching an astronomy lesson, going out into our meadow on a clear-skied night, and listening to their exclamations: “I have never seen so many stars!” “A shooting star…another shooting star!” “You can see the Milky Way!” But it’s not just astronomy that gets kids excited: discovering minerals near an old mine site, finding choice edible mushrooms, holding a rough-skinned newt, making art out of things found in nature.
Many students are hooked in by experiences outside of the lessons themselves. Crossing a stream during a rainstorm is an exciting adventure, getting to hike and explore during school is a favorite, and for some it is their first time away from their parents, which gives a sense of freedom while staying with friends in a cabin. All of these things hold the potential to spark that interest in the mind of a student.
Staff members at Opal Creek have their own unique relationship with this place, with various reasons for first coming here, and then sticking around. Some need to explore this place deeper and farther, so they pack their backpack and head into the backcountry for multiple days. Not a bad way to spend time off–or time on, if you are an instructor sharing your experiences with kids. Some enjoy playing music outside on a porch or on top of Sacred Rock. Others like to use new forms of transportation to explore this place. Biking our road is filled with fast thrills, uphill slogs, and plenty of sweat and puddles.
The ancient forest of Opal Creek has plenty of ways to hook adults in as well. School teachers, chaperones, cabin renters, workshop participants and hikers are always asking questions about this place. “How does the hydro-electric power system work?” “When did mining operations stop?” “What is it like here in the winter?” “What is this thing (pointing at one of the many rusty old machines displayed throughout Jawbone Flats)?” During our mushroom workshop there were participants who were determined to find a cauliflower mushroom, and finally during their last forage hike they found the large mushroom they were looking for. Teaching kids may be our main focus, but the ancient forest has ways of teaching us all new things.