ASHLAND — Victoria Howard clunked through the Mount Ashland snow in her newly borrowed kiddie snowshoes, unaware she and her fellow Madrone Charter School fourth-graders from Medford have been duped into a science lesson.
How deep is the snow here? Go ahead and dig.
How does snow from Mount Ashland show up in town? The beauty of watershed gravity.
How much snow turns into water? Fill a liter bottle with snow, then wait for it to melt after lunch, but go ahead and everybody guess what it’ll be.
Science disguised as fun. And it worked.
“Learning about snow is more fun here than in school,” Victoria said. “These snowshoes make it fun.”
Sneaky snow science can be the best.
The Siskiyou Field Institute has joined forces with the Mt. Ashland Ski Area and the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest to create a new program for kids such as Howard to learn about the winter world around them with the help of youth-appropriate footgear made for traversing deep snow.
Forty pairs of snowshoes supplied by the Forest Service are helping these kids and hundreds of other Southern Oregon grade-schoolers get a chance to snowshoe — many for the first time — and even belly-slide like penguins down a snowy hill while learning how snowpack influences life on the mountain as well as everything downhill.
It’s an important enough message for Siskiyou Field Institute instructors to welcome the task of herding a few dozen fourth-graders down a Mount Ashland slope and imploring them not to eat yellow snow, while teaching them how snowpack influences nature.
“We really want to fill the gap for outdoor science programming in the winter,” says Sarah Worthington, the Siskiyou Field Institute’s director and leader on many of these hikes. “There’s not a lot of opportunity, especially for younger students.”
The program is based on a curriculum devised by the Winter Wonderlands Alliance to form the groundwork for wildland stewardship through entertaining and informative winter outdoor excursions.
The Siskiyou Field Institute is the main local conduit for that, and it plans to shuttle several school groups up the mountain’s access road with the promise of a fun time with an undercurrent of learning.
“It really is a labor of love,” Worthington says. “Most of the kids who participate in this program are first-time snowshoers. It’s important that all kids have access to opportunities like this and have this great experience.”
The institute started the program last year on Mount Ashland, but it was sans snowshoes, so the kids post-holed their way around the ski area’s outside boundary with all the grace of overturned turtles.
That changed with a $4,500 Forest Service grant that purchased 40 sets of snowshoes for smaller snow boots last fall.
“This year the Forest Service really came through,” she says.
More specifically, forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer came through.
Kramer has a long history of getting kids outdoors, putting together several other programs to get kids on the ground and under the trees whenever possible.
“There’s a lot of science behind getting kids outdoors, getting them to connect with nature and using nature as an outdoor classroom,” Kramer says. “We like to think we’re creating good stewards of public lands.”
It’s based on the same concepts of the federal Every Kid Outdoors program, which eyes kids such as Howard when looking to make connections between kids and nature.
“When they were setting up the program, federal officials intended to focus on when kids’ brains are developed enough to best enjoy nature as a living classroom, as well as the importance public lands play in people’s lives,” says Kramer, who administers that program for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
“There were multifaceted reasons behind it, but it ultimately can came down to brain development,” Kramer says.
But even these brains need some basic instruction about snow and what colors are good and not so good.
SFI instructor Joelle Jorissen spies her charges orally sampling the snow and has to sneak a little adulting into the moment.
“It’s fine to eat the snow unless it’s yellow, brown or black,” Jorissen says. “Just white.”
While the short-term lessons are about snow and where it goes, the long-term goals are to give young kids a chance to appreciate public lands, such as the upper Mount Ashland watershed, and how they play a role in their everyday lives.
“Some of these kids don’t know they’re on public land, but they’ll go home and tell their families what they did,” Kramer says. “It’s exciting.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.