Words from the Woods: for the next generation

Outside the Suquamish House of Awakened Culture, Denita Holmes sits on her knees gently sifting through strips of red cedar that rustle like paper as they settle on the lawn.  She’s collected the cedar herself, and describes to the small group of NextGen Outdoor Camp students what that process entails.  The tree must be at least as big around as an adult’s arms are wide, she shows this by encircling an imaginary tree with her outstretched arms as if embracing someone in a hug.  Once she finds a tree that fits her purposes, Denita will ask the tree’s permission to harvest its bark.  If the tree concedes, there are rules about how, and how much one is allowed to harvest so that the tree is not damaged.  Sometimes, Denita says, the tree will not give its permission, and, hard as it might be, she has had to learn to walk away, respectful of the tree’s decision.  Denita is a Cultural Arts teacher at Chief Kitsap Academy, and it is obvious by the calm intentionality of her speech that she has taught this lesson many times before.  “We [the Suquamish Tribe] always have to think about the next seven generations to come…we don’t just gather cedar to gather it, we harvest with a purpose.”

Great Peninsula Conservancy (GPC) is also concerned with creating opportunities for the next generation.  It’s the guiding principle behind GPC’s work as a land trust on the Kitsap Peninsula – to protect the natural habitats, rural landscapes, and open spaces of the Great Peninsula and to steward these lands and waters in perpetuity.  As Denita so eloquently put it, there’s a moral obligation to make sure the natural resources available to us today are also available to the children that will inherit this land.  The 10,500 protected acres that GPC has so far contributed to that inheritance are a testament to the gifts of a community that shares and supports that mission – a generation who understands that tomorrow’s environmental decision makers will not have the opportunity to make decisions at all if we do not act today to safeguard for the future.

Great Peninsula Conservancy’s former Executive Director Sandra Staples-Bortner had a vision for a program designed to provide outdoor experiences to local youth.  In the summer of 2018, Sandra provided Brenna Thompson, GPC’s Conservation Associate, the reins to develop a camp specifically for our local community, one which would take into account and address the barriers to access that prevent students from urban Bremerton from enjoying the natural wonders of the landscape right in their own backyards.  With grant funding from Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, Kitsap Community Foundation, Russell Family Foundation, and additional support from private GPC donors, Brenna delivered a robust 8-week experiential learning program at no-cost to the families of the 30 students who participated.  On the coattails of Brenna’s phenomenal work, GPC’s 2019 summer program, newly dubbed NextGen Outdoor Camp, is well underway in its mission to connect local youth with local lands.

It has taken the work of many hands for NextGen Outdoor Camp to succeed thus far, and the work of many more will be required for the camp to continue its momentum toward positive community change.  Student recruitment was supported by Bremerton’s New Life Community Development Agency, Bremerton School District’s English Language Learners program, and the science department at Mountainview Middle School.  NextGen’s Team of experienced educators include married couple Lauren Richardson and Skyler Schmidt (also known as Loon and Geoduck amongst the NextGen Campers).  Lauren, a middle-school science teacher, and Skyler, an elementary school teacher, both share contagious enthusiasm for community science and outdoor recreation, and have been busy this spring designing the curriculum that keeps our NextGen students engaged and excited about getting outside.  NextGen Outdoor Camp’s Intern Breanne Johnston (aka Barnacle) is a recent graduate of Evergreen College and a prospective student in University of Washington’s Master of Education program.  Between Loon, Geoduck, and Barnacle we have a top-notch NextGen Team, each of whom brings a unique, but complementary skillset to the table, and has contributed to the development of a classroom culture based on kindness, respect, responsibility, simultaneously building community and student confidence, all with no traditional classroom in sight. Guest mentors like Denita Holmes, who have graciously given their time to speak with NextGen Outdoor Camp students, are another huge component of why the camp experience has been extraordinary so far.  With only four of the summer’s fifteen planned fieldtrips completed, special thanks are already owed to Olympic Mountain Rescue Volunteer John Howard, Olympic Outdoor Center kayak guides, Rick and Sandy Gilmore (owners of the historic ship, Tusitala), Denita Holmes, and the dynamic docents of the Suquamish Tribal Museum.

The literature of NextGen Outdoor Camp describes a summer opportunity for students who “may not have family traditions of outdoor recreation.”  Chatting with NextGen students over our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I know that the backgrounds of our students vary greatly – that activities like our hike to the top of Green Mountain are a fun challenge for some, while other students have trouble enjoying the views from the top for fear of the creepy crawlers, the mushrooms, and the dirt underfoot.  Each student brings with him or herself a personal understanding of what makes a wild space “wild,” and each holds their own metric for what makes the outdoor world a source of excitement or anxiety.  I think back to the mentors in my life who introduced me to the outdoors, and I am perpetually grateful to them for giving me the confidence to add “I am” and “I can” to my outdoor recreation resume.  I don’t know many folks who were born great hikers, rowers, climbers, bikers, equestrians, ornithologists, marine biologists, foresters, or GPC youth education program coordinators for that matter.  These are skills that we pursue slowly, over time, and with the help of many teachers.  That inexplicable fascination with wilderness that many of us in the conservation field cannot seem to shake is not innate, nor is it universal.  Most of us were lucky enough to have someone plant that early seed, which grew and shaped us in its own time. Great Peninsula Conservancy hopes to connect NextGen students with some of those important environmental mentors, and to send students home with new traditions of outdoor recreation to share with their families.  I cannot put it better than one of our students who, after deep consideration, wrote this note to his family about his experience climbing Green Mountain on the first day of camp:  “It was awesome and [you’ll] want to go there with me, and it might be hard, but very fun and awesome.”

Thank you again to everyone who has helped to support the mission of NextGen Outdoor Camp so far.  May we all continue to harvest purposefully and on behalf of the generations to come.  I will continue to keep you posted with words from the woods as the summer continues.

Claire Voris (NextGen Nickname: The Clam)