The Impact of Opal Creek: Going Full Circle

As the leaves start to change and the sound of tiny rubber boots splashing in puddles reverberates through the woods, I am reminded of my first experience at Opal Creek

Ancient Forest Center. I was in 7th grade on a field trip with the Environmental Middle School from Portland (now Sunnyside Environmental School). Our trip was in the earliest days of the education programs at Opal Creek, and unlike the students of today, we backpacked all of our gear the 3.1 miles to Jawbone Flats.  We then arrived in camp; soaked to the bone from the autumn rain, ready to warm up in the cozy lodge. We were instantly excited by the old charisma of the place and felt mystified by the old typewriter and mining equipment aesthetically placed around the worn nooks and crannies.  The charm and comfort of the town was even more impressive as we learned the history of the mining operation and the human impact that has shaped the world of Opal Creek.  The education portion of our trip consisted of lots of plant identification, discussions about forest succession, and amphibian and macro invertebrate hunts.

My strongest memories of this place are not only images of the majestic forest and old buildings, but the intense feelings evoked by my environment. The feeling I felt as I walked the trails among the giant trees, drapes of hanging lichen, and rushing ephemeral waterfalls over moss-covered rocks: this place was magic. Not the type of magic that can be described with words, but the kind that takes your breath away, suddenly, without notice. The kind that makes you feel uncontrollably and completely in awe of your surroundings. Magic that sinks into your bones, into every cell of your body and makes you increasingly aware of the rhythm of your heartbeat; the type of magic that reminds us of our undeniable connection to the natural world. It is this feeling of mystification that I was not able to shake, the one that has stayed with me everyday since that very first visit in 7th grade, the one that would eventually lead me back to the Opal Creek Wilderness.

I now find myself having gone full circle, working as an Outdoor Science Instructor teaching the subjects I had learned in this very environment over a decade ago. Though Opal Creek has seen many seasons since I was last here, it is amazing how immediately familiar it feels upon entering. It is unchanged in the best way possible. The impact of my duel experiences has fueled my passion for this place: these sanctified trees, the crisp, moist air, and the Jawbone community that extends itself far beyond the gate at the trailhead. Each day for me is an immense learning experience, for with every new fact I learn about fungi or amphibians or owls, my investment in the old growth forest has grown exponentially. I feel so incredibly blessed to continue my education in this beautiful outdoor classroom alongside a team of incredible staff who have taught me more about the intricacies of the old growth ecosystem than I could have ever imagined. I deeply resonate with the students who come through camp, having been one myself. Memories of Jawbone are some of my most vivid from middle school, and I know that every aspect of our work here has an impact on every student we teach. Everyday as an instructor is as exciting as the one before, teaching students of all ages the complexities of the ancient forest, triggering in them an intense swell of wonder and curiosity about the natural world. Hoping they will feel the same magic as we walk among the ancient trees. As instructors, we have the capacity to cultivate a life-long love and passion for the forest, and I take on that potential with humility and a grave sense of responsibility. Yes, it is important for these students to just be out in the wilderness, away from their iPhones and newsfeeds, but we have the opportunity to infuse a deeper sense of connection for these students, one that will hopefully have a lasting effect.

Recently I had a discussion with two students as I hiked their group out to the gate at the end of their trip, and they asked if they could get a job here in the future. One said, “Yeah, I definitely am going to work here one day. I just need to finish fifth grade, middle school, high school, and college, and then I am going to ask my mom and dad if I can come live in the woods and teach science like you.” This not only made my heart melt, but it affirmed in me why I do what I do. My response to the eager student: “That’s wonderful news, the forest will be waiting for you.”