Updated: Oct 24, 2022
“Can you put together some outdoor activities for us? Things that are fun but also educational about the outdoors, about nature? About half leadership curriculum and half educational outdoor recreation," Gustavo had asked me.
You can imagine my answer: an enthusiastic YES with a river of ideas to follow.
Gustavo Morales grew up in Malheur County, and in 2014 founded the Ontario-based Latinx community advocacy and leadership organization EUVALCREE. This organization rapidly grew to serve underserved and underrepresented communities across rural Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. I remembered Gustavo's brother from the first geology class I taught at TVCC and, recognizing my community-oriented demeanor, he suggested that I meet Gustavo. For about two years, I served on the capacity building committee under the board of directors—about the same time Tim asked me to serve on FOTO's formational board as well! During that time, we reviewed elements of his ongoing youth leadership curriculum and camps. Though I eventually had to step down from this committee, my suggestion to incorporate the outdoors remained.
With my new role at FOTO established, we started putting pen to paper—we formed an intraorganizational agreement and programmed dates into the calendar. Unfortunately, this was just months before the COVID-19 pandemic. We held off for a while, and finally, in the fall of 2021, we launched the first youth leadership camp.
The Curriculum: Outdoor Youth Leadership
After students arrived at camp, set up their tents, and unpacked their gear, we officially gathered for the first time. This first meeting's goal was to cover the group agreements, share our names and a bit about ourselves, and acknowledge the land's original peoples. "A leader acknowledges everyone's stories,” I told them. As the sun set and we finished up dinner, we got the campfire going to enjoy the ambiance and s'mores as the natural, dark night sky became illuminated with the stars. We bundled up to keep off the chill of night, grabbed our flashlights, and trekked off toward the lake shore for stargazing. This is always a magical experience: the mystery of darkness and the unfolding star stories. The Big Dipper. The North Star. Jupiter and Saturn. Sagittarius and Capricorn. And, of course, the night's backbone: the Milky Way. Though the stars are the main focus, we also discuss concerns over light pollution and the need to preserve the darkness.
The students headed to bed at about 10 PM for quiet time (though most of them whisper and laugh for a couple more hours) while the chaperones and instructors gathered ‘round the dying embers of the fire to discuss the day's successes and the morrow's plans.
The morning activities began at 7:30 AM. With the rising sun over the lake in view, we each spread a mat out for yoga: some standing postures, balance postures, a full sun salutation, sitting postures, and then a short meditation on the natural elements of the place. I sprinkle in a little yoga philosophy, specifically the Yama “asteya” and discuss “lifting each other up”.
Over the next few hours, Norma Ramirez, EUVALCREE's Director of Programs, facilitated the group through a carefully designed crash course in leadership. With topics ranging from defining leadership styles to evaluating group effectiveness, these students were exposed to important concepts in social networking. These are the tools of a leader.
After lunch, we hauled the watercraft to the lake and proceeded to paddle to the opposite side of the lake. Many of the students (and a couple of the adults!) had never kayaked before, so a little learning curve but a lot of fun! We paddled along the shore where I normally take folks for the Owyhee Geology by Water tour with Owyhee Paddle Co. From here, it's easy to see exquisite examples of vertical lava dikes as they injected through the surrounding rock. Students enjoyed weaving in and out of the small coves, between rock formations, and under the tall cliff walls of basalt. Then, we found a big plastic tarp partially buried, so we removed it and I hauled it back in my kayak.
These students are proof that Owyhee stewards are everywhere.
On the solo kayak back to the campsite, I reflected on how engaging Lake Owyhee and the Lower Owyhee Canyon are for visitors. It is a magnificent landscape—alternating bands of red basaltic ash and black basaltic rock, small arches, hoodoos, and short slot canyons all give a southwest desert feel. A paved road the whole way through gives great access to so much beauty. This place is truly a gateway experience to the wild Owyhee for so many people, these kids included.
It's not without flaw, however. Its beauty is juxtaposed with the high-impact zones, squatter camps, and trash piles. The threats of overuse become apparent. In 2021, roughly three-quarters of the folks we interacted with on the land met us here, in the Lower Owyhee Canyon and Lake Owyhee. Not only is it easy for the local community to get to, but we also aim to keep our highest land impact in an area that can handle it.
In the late afternoon, we ate snacks and listened to mood-enhancing music as we drove to our suggested trailhead-of-routes across from Snively Hot Springs (see map at the end). After a short but adventurous hike to point 3 on that map—a boulder field of conglomerate rocks that are fun to climb around—we stopped at the hot springs for about an hour. Enjoying ALL of the natural elements!
We returned to camp for dinner, stargazing, a campfire with s'mores, and of course, rest.
The picture to the right is a compilation of the student's artwork. Do you like the earth tones? This paint is extra special: we made it by crushing down locally collected rock. They created heart-inspired art using Owyhee rock pigment.
The next day, after some morning tai chi, students focused on advancing their understanding of leadership. It was fun to hear their questions and comments, see their skits, and listen to their perspective on issues in the community that they as leaders would like to address.
When asked “what are barriers to getting out in nature more?” students had predictable answers: money, time, and parents. Okay, they also mentioned having electronic distractions that keep them from pursuing outdoors, but the most common comment was around parents' inhibitions or finances. The three 16-year-olds in attendance also said they have to work too much.
If we expect to reverse nature-deficit disorder and inspire the next generation of conservation advocates and environmental stewards, we must find ways to overcome these barriers. It is not because they don't want to, or they don't care. It often comes down to the fact that outdoor activities are seen as leisure, not as essential to our well-being.
But many reading this know that the connection with the outdoors is an infinite source of inspiration to stay activated in conservation of the environment. My experience with Gen Z is that they are hungry for outdoor contact, but the world doesn't have the time to give them the experience.
I disagree—I say we make the time. Our planetary health depends on it.
We ended the camp with a short walk along the lake shoreline below the end-of-the-road campground where the State Park manager had told me there were reports of two old tires. I mentioned it to the students and they scampered off to find them. “Found one!” he yelled. “There are two over here!” she hollered back. Soon enough, the group found 10 old tires. Yuck. For years, these objects have just sat there, breaking down and polluting the lake. One young man found a wild onion, then proceeded to connect the dots. If this onion was grown near Ontario, it was probably using Owyhee irrigation water, which came from this lake. And he just helped clean the water that will eventually water his community's crops.
I just witnessed the birth of another group of Owyhee stewards. I gave them each an Owyhee Canyon Dragon sticker to commemorate the occasion.
If you want to help support our youth programming, get in touch with us using the form in the footer of our website. We always welcome fresh ideas, and in-kind donations of camping gear are often accepted (as long as we think we can use it!). The most effective donations are cash to support the longevity of the organization and work.
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is seeing the changes in an individual over years. While I'm employed as a college instructor, for 15 years I have interjected myself into the K12 world as a guest: visiting Junction City High School oceanography or John Serbu Youth Campus classes as the University of Oregon Geology Club's Community Outreach and Education Coordinator or even my kids’ school to talk rocks, and building and delivering an outdoor school program. In some cases, I get to see some students at a later stage in life, and of course, hear about their life and interests since we last met.
The model of this camp is to work with generations of students over multiple instances to facilitate outdoor leaders. And it is working.
Photographs throughout this post are credited to the author and Norma Ramirez.
The Lower Owyhee Canyon Recreation Area is a fantastic starting point for anyone wanting to spend time outdoors. This is a simple route to the point-of-interest map we put together. It is important to note that none of these are defined trails, though many intersect with existing cow or game paths. Remember to always bring plenty of water!