Methow River Camp still going strong after more than 30 years of adventures – Methow Valley News Leave a comment

Photo courtesy of Dana Visalli
Ecological studies are at the core of the Methow River Camp experience, but traditional outdoor fun is also on the curriculum.

Kids learn science, outdoor skills

Methow Valley’s oldest summer camp, Methow River Camp, was more popular than ever this year. The first of two scheduled week-long sessions concluded July 16 —then nature intervened in the form of the Cub Creek Fire.

The second session was canceled, and refunds made. But the reason for the cancelation is the kind of lesson that future campers will learn from.

The ecology adventure camp was started by Dana Visalli and Rob Crandall more than 30 years ago, to introduce youngsters to science in the great outdoors. Located on the Chewuch River, the campground is an ideal setting for canoeing, hiking and observing forest ecology.

The camp is limited to 24 kids, ages 10-12, divided into three groups with assigned counselors. The camp sold out this year within an hour of registration. The waiting list was so long that camp directors Visalli, Crandall, Anaka Mines, Katie Russell and Harmony Conin scheduled a second session.

“This was the first time ever that the demand was so high,” Visalli said. The camp directors made arrangements with their full-time families and jobs to schedule the second camp, and the decision to go ahead was supported unanimously.

Visalli offered the first science camp in the summer of 1990. Expanding on that idea, Visalli and Crandall created Methow River Camp in 1992. The camp has operating long enough that some former participants now serve as counselors. “It is a sweet transition for us to watch kids step into a role as leader,” Crandall said.

Lots of activities

Methow River Camp has all the activities of a classic summer camp: hiking, canoeing, swimming, songs, crafts, sleeping in tents and a camper-created presentation at the end of the week. Each activity includes observing nature and studying findings.

“We focus on ecology: the study of how to live at home and make it nice,” Visalli said. Discussions include biology, geology, botany, and how cycles work in nature, recycling everything. “This is learning about where you live,” Crandall said. “For most kids, this is their first time camping and being away from parents.”

The big picture theme this year was the human transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculturist. Visalli brought spring wheat from his garden for campers to thresh, grind into flour, and bake into bread. Russell showed campers how to thresh and grind the wheat. Mines helped the campers add sourdough starter to the flour and bake the bread in a solar oven. The big picture science lesson revolved around the sun’s energy — baking their daily bread from 93 million miles away.

Other hunter/gatherer activities included hikes with plant identification of wild onions, berry bushes, and plants for utilitarian purposes. Campers made rope out of dog bane, and in years past, campers made a boat out of tule rushes.

The week’s activities included a hike through the 2018 McLeod Mountain Fire burn area on the way to Copper Glance Lake. Students observed differences in tree and plant growth in the burn area, leading to discussions about destruction, regrowth and renewal cycles.

Lessons focus on cycles in nature and giving back. An Okanogan descendant visited one day and brought fertilizer left over from cleaning salmon. “The fertilizer was gifted to the trees that gave us shade, part of the cycle of the life of a salmon,” Crandall said.

Shared experiences

The directors and counselors model curiosity, and how to use resources like guidebooks, binoculars and microscopes to find answers. Time is set aside to observe, write in journals, and reflect on what was learned that day. “The kids are smart and interested, and in some ways already informed. At camp, we go beyond that,” Crandall said.

Each morning, campers gather in a talking circle. They are encouraged to express themselves and given permission to express both gratitude and concerns. The exercise allows campers to listen, practice empathy, respond, and resolve conflict. Mines said the kids responded well, in particular to campers who voiced concern about noise at bedtime: “It was quiet the next night.”

On the last full day of camp, everyone receives an invitation in the morning to the Council of All Beings held that evening. Campers spend all day creating masks and doing research on their chosen “being:” an animal, vegetable, mineral or atmospheric event found in nature. The presentation showcases strengths and concerns from the perspective of the being.

One camper chose to represent a mosquito. She wanted to pick a being that was not something she normally thought about, or even liked. The directors all agreed that the mosquito presentation was sophisticated, and impressive in terms of viewing life from the perspective of a mosquito.

The week’s lessons have no lack of diversity or adversity. Prior to the start of camp, someone stole River Camp tents. This experience led to camp discussions about adversity, “There is always going to be adversity,” Visalli said, “and we find ways to overcome.”

Close call

The campground emptied out on July 16, the last day of the first session. Campers and counselors drove out after lunch, leaving Conin behind to watch over camp. “The sky was blue, the air was clean,” Mines said, “it was a beautiful day.” The caravan of campers and directors traveled back to Winthrop along East Chewuch Road at about the same time the Cub Creek Fire ignited along the West Chewuch Road.

Conin chose to stay at River Camp over the weekend to watch over the campground before the second session began Monday morning. She had no cell phone service, and no idea what was unfolding just miles away. She sat down by the river to write a song. A blackened aspen leaf floated onto the pages of her notebook.

Conin leapt up and started the overwhelming task of packing up camp, throwing gear into a travel trailer. Two friends came running out of the woods. They had left their car at the road blockade several miles away and ran along the river to warn her of the fast-growing fire, and to get her out. Together, they rushed to gather gear and equipment.

A police officer came speeding into camp, lights flashing, telling them to leave it all and go now. “We can replace gear, but not you,” he said. Conin resigned herself to accepting that things had to be left behind. Everyone got out safely.

Next year will hold even more opportunities to observe ecological lessons from a landscape altered by fire.

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