Updated: Jul 22
"I've never seen a rainbow so clear!" exclaimed Aiden, Ontario 6th grader that took part in our recent Owyhee Science Field Camp. Quinn, in the red in the distant left, could be heard gawking, and Oshen leapt up from the car bumper to get a better view.
This was about a half hour after a wall of rain passed over us from the west, creeping over the rooster comb across the lake. The sweet desert rain after a long, hot, and dry summer soaked into the ash soils of Leslie Gulch.
Organizing an outdoor youth camp during the COVID-19 pandemic was not easy. We completely adapted our usual camp and insisted on distanced-only interaction with masks at pretty much all times. This was a really, really tall order for energetic kids, but for the reward of outdoor time with their peers, it was an easy ask. I was impressed by the dedication of these young people—Gen Z—to transmission etiquette. While rolling in the dirt, attending outdoor science class, or just hiking around, the kids always had masks equipped with an occasional nose-slip during action moves, even though they were always looking for distanced moments to take them down. This is all to say: we, at Friends of the Owyhee, are dedicated to connecting people (even young ones) to the Owyhee land and water, no matter the conditions.
We owe the success of this camp to the parents. They drove, sheltered, and cooked for their kids, which would usually be the responsibility of the camp leader (yours truly!). In this creative time, we figured it was just as easy to recruit willing parents into their kid's experience. "I'll take the kids for field science, you take care of room and board." Big thanks to dedicated parents.
We started the morning with a little chat around the whiteboard under the community canopy part of the camp, when I explained the volcanic origins of the Leslie Gulch tuff deposits all around us. We were here to study not the origins of the rock, but the amazing erosional features on the walls! Known technically as tafoni, the odd dissolved holes, caverns, and pits in the yellow rock are one of the many spectacular features of this Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC, a designation by the Bureau of Land Management).
After whiteboard time and handing out field gear (notebooks, pencils, meter sticks, and hand lenses) we double-checked our backpacks for water and lunch, then headed up-gulch to measure some tafoni holes (I was careful about my language; so no, this never became a joke, thankfully).
They measured the height, width, and depth of each cavity, writing each in their Rite in the Rain notebooks (Quinn thought this was super-nifty, but in different Gen Z terms I don't understand) while I stood back and took notes on the placement and context of each. At one point, these kids got into a field rhythm I see during Summer Geology Field Camp with university students. Needless to stay, I was impressed.
After lunch on an outcrop, we split into teams with a little friendly data collection competition. While team Quinn-Aidan measured, Oshen and I set up a survey point and began shooting a level line in an attempt to make a topographic map of the main site. While the Rite in the Rain notebooks are nifty, Quinn did not approve when the actual rain began to fall on her notebook. After about 100 points (YES, 100! Data collecting MACHINES!), we called it quits and took a hike.
A time came when I asked this rowdy crowd to split up, find a quiet solo spot, and just chill for five minutes. With more than a few humphs and after Oshen harassed a scorpion (ugh), Quinn grimaced at the rain, and Aidan gleefully moseyed to a secluded spot out of the rain... I heard the desert. We heard the desert. They sat long enough to let the chatter simmer down, to see the wavy grass and see-hear the pitter-patter of droplets on the lichen-covered rock. When I gathered them, it was clear they all wanted more time. We all sat together, under a tall, tall cliff of tuff, just chilling.
Back at camp, the kids attempted to play a card game under the community canopy until a 0.025 mph breeze bent the canopy to several different angles. Then they just played in the dirt. Hollering, kicking, rolling, chanting, running, jumping, sneaking, tromping. For hours. Then, naturally, just like I clicked the lecture slides on, they all gravitated towards the whiteboard and were like "so what about all those measurements?" Wow. Impressive again. After the above-mentioned rain-wall, we plotted our [x, y] and [x, z] coordinates.
It was like the rainbow was the literal "lightbulb moment" from the Owyhee. Just when they were wondering why all the points were almost in a line, the rainbow struck. Poetry. It took a while to come back to the board, but when they all did, they saw what I saw and what any scientist would see: that our data were not random. Because they have no scientific context or training, they may not have seen why I was so NUTS about it! But there is no doubt they saw the process of observation, questioning, measuring, analysis, and conclusion—the scientific method. Black and white. Data speak. While the mind wonders and inductively reasons, data speak.
So, what was this camp all about? At this point, I don't really know. Sure, there was a curriculum plan and I taught them things, but was that it? Of course not. They touched the Earth, and the Owyhee touched them. In a fall when our kids are attending school 100% online (in Oregon, anyway), not seeing peers or teacher contact, these kids (and probably many more) just needed a safe, facilitated, environment to be kids in nature. Wearing masks and distancing, washing and using hand sanitizer, not sharing drinks or licking each other... they take it very seriously. It's all a minor price to pay for being together in the Owyhee.
Sammy Castonguay joined Friends of the Owyhee staff the first of this year (2020), but was a founding board member and helped out where he could while Tim brought the organization to non-profit status (one year ago!). With a master's degree in structural geology and a teaching background from University of Oregon (Geology Field Camp), University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (Intro Geology and Field Trips), and our local-to-Owyhee Treasure Valley Community College, he is driven to connect local youth with the Owyhee and natural sciences through programs like Owyhee Science Field Camp, Nature Explorers, and Outdoor School.
Full disclosure, one of these awesome Owyhee Field Campers is his eldest son, Oshen Castonguay. :)