Methow Land Stewardship and Climbing

Michael Heald described it as “the magic”.  

For nine Middle School students at The Bush School, the final evening of a seven-day wilderness trip in the Northern Cascades was spent outside in nature. 

“I took them on another night hike to the riverbed for stargazing and as a group they decided that they wanted to just lie down on the rock and gravel and stare up at the night sky in silence,” said Seventh Grade Science Teacher Michael Heald. “This was self-imposed and they stayed there for nearly fifteen minutes in near silence without any prompts from me; that is the magic.”
Unique, unscripted, and “magical” moments like this were missing during the 2020-2021 academic year due to COVID-19, but from October 2 - October 7, Bush community members returned to the school’s home away from home, the Methow Campus, for a wilderness trip through the school’s Experiential Education Program.

Located in the Methow Valley in Mazama, Washington, the twenty-acre property provides students with immersive experiences that highlight the interdependence between community, environment, and self. This Middle School trip in particular was centered on public lands and rock climbing. Students had the chance to connect with, and learn more about the Methow community through a stewardship project, while strengthening the bonds between one another and Bush faculty and staff. 
 
“There is a sense that students have lost something in the last year, from social interaction, independent growth, the ability to navigate space, cues, and interactions in the same way as they have in the past,” Michael said. “Coming back as a pandemic still rages makes everything harder, but for me the joy is found at the end of the trip as the routine settles in, the small groups melt.  It becomes one group sharing life with each other from the banter around a campfire that is friendly and kind to the cheering each other on at the cliff's edge.” 
 
Michael explained all of the Eighth Grade students on the trip took part in the Sixth Grade Immersion Program two years ago, so when the van pulled up on the dirt road to the Methow Campus, there was a sense of nostalgia and excitement to be back. For Hadley ‘26, who went on the Sixth Grade Immersion Program in 2019, the opportunity to come back was something she didn’t want to miss. 
 
“Last year we were very stuck inside and doing all online school, and getting to come back out here, it feels like such an amazing breath of fresh air,” she said. “Getting to spend this time again, it feels very connected to Sixth Grade, and it almost makes me forget how hard last year was.”

Bush’s Wilderness and Experiential Week Coordinator Erik Gearhart said one of the highlights from a trip like this is seeing the growth in students from previous years, and even the change in just the week. 

“There are some students on this trip that I last worked with here (in the Sixth Grade) and they took different roles on the trip,” he said. “I’ve seen them (now) take on that mentorship role to younger climbers.”

Michael echoed those thoughts saying he saw all nine individuals take a step out of their comfort zone in some form. 

“For some, this was the longest time away from their family, others have never climbed outdoors or climbed as high as we did on this trip,” Michael said. “Many had little experience belaying another friend/student and feeling the bond through the rope of trust in each other.”

While the students enjoyed learning and expanding their knowledge of climbing, scaling the crags of Matrix and Fun Rock, they also immersed themselves in the community through a stewardship project - helping revegetate and restore the area of Fun Rock. Erik explained this type of work is important and impactful for students as previous Bush groups have had a hand in helping build the trails and area during previous trips. Two years ago the group moved gravel and rock to help stabilize and harden the slopes. 

“This trip was an opportunity for me to reflect again on the many ways Bush students have become part of the larger Methow community through stewardship and engagement,” Erik said. “We walked climber trails that Bush students worked with the late Ian Fair (former Bush Methow Coordinator) to consolidate and harden five years ago. We climbed new stairs that Bush students hauled gravel and rocks to build two years ago with the local Forest Service climbing rangers. And on this year's program, students worked with the same climbing rangers to plant native plants near these stairs and trails.”

On the trip, students replanted in a disturbed area of Fun Rock that the forest service is trying to restore. Michael said they planted twelve service and snow berries, and posted a few restoration signs.

“I feel like we do a lot of taking in our everyday lives,” Hadley said. “This actually gives us an opportunity (to give back).”

And after a year of many challenges, this trip became even more valuable in the learning, growing, and the friendships made.

“Today, I see wilderness education as being even more valuable,” Erik said. “Wilderness education gives students a week without screens, a week where students are put into groups that are different from their normal group, where they make new friendships, and new relationships.” 
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The Bush School is an independent, coeducational day school located in Seattle, WA enrolling 710 students in grades K–12. The mission of The Bush School is to spark in students of diverse backgrounds and talents a passion for learning, accomplishment, and contribution to their communities.

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