Check out our distance Community Day with the SECRETS program!

We’ve had to make a lot of changes this year and rethink how we can stay connected to the hundreds of students we work with. While we have been able to do some of our programming in-person with distance and face coverings we’ve had to switch some into an online, distance learning format. We’ve been combining pre-recorded videos mixed with live virtual classes and sending supplies home to keep kids spending meaningful time outside. Check out this video of our distance SECRETS Community Day, including stewardship ideas, songs, and some fun surprises.


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On the insistence of owls

1. One day last summer, my partner and I hiked a loop that began at Crawford Oaks in Columbia Hills State Park, located on the Washington side of the river, just east of The Dalles. It was a spontaneous decision—to go on the hike in the first place, to do a full loop, to begin conversations along the trail about life and living—and so the experience was marked by sudden bursts of ideas and feelings. It was, in the best sense of the word, a strenuous day. But good strenuous and bad strenuous still leave the body and the heart and the brain feeling: tired. And we were. We survived difficult conversations, a long stretch of nearly unbearable wind, and our various inclinations to turn around and head back.

2. Burrowing Owls, or Athene cunicularia, live in open, grassy habitats, including the shrub-steppe ecosystems you encounter in places like The Dalles. Opposed to the common depiction that the only way to see an owl is by looking up into a dark night, Burrowing Owls hunt during the day, and they do so on or near the ground.

3. Our SECRETS curriculum features a lesson about relationships—the kinds that involve competing, or that are helpful in nature, or else constituted by the power dynamics of predator/prey. I think SECRETS is a successful program because it lets students experience learning for what it is, and what it can be, simultaneously: educational, challenging, accessible, dynamic, fun, hilarious. We take concepts that might otherwise quickly unfold into abstract, exception-filled states and simplify them, make them tangible, even turn them into a game or two. A great example is found during our field trip station, “Rock City,” where students spend time out in the shrub-steppe pretending to be squirrels storing up acorns for the winter. They choose caches and compete over resources and attempt to survive in their habitat. Just look at all those learning words in action!: cache, competing, resources, habitat. When we’re in the classroom, we prioritize bringing the local outside world in with us; and on field trips, we insist on recognizing the classroom space that exists outdoors.

4. Burrowing Owls, like squirrels, often use caches of their own: storing up extra food for use during incubation and brooding periods. In fact, their ability to make good use of space is shown in the fact that, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Burrowing Owls have been known to nest in piles of PVC pipe and other lairs unintentionally provided by humans,” when unable to find more natural suitable habitats. The adaptability of these birds, the ways in which they can take up more and more space while remaining silent in flight…it points to their irresistible omnipresence. Even now, sitting at home and imagining for a moment the Columbia River, I see its surface as letters bobbing up and down in their forward momentum, ebbing and flowing across the page: O w l, o w l, O w l, o w l, O w l.

5. All this focus on words. I can’t help that this is where my attention gathers. As a kid, I used to take pieces of paper and walk around the house, writing down the names of anything I encountered, a writer with nothing yet to say and so I made brand names into my material. Cheerios, Toshiba, Panasonic, Kohler, written just like that, with no further context, in sloppy little-kid handwriting. I wasn’t meaning to evoke the real-life objects those words signify. I just couldn’t resist the act of inscribing, the visual act of seeing words and then participating in their doubling. Perhaps it is the way I’ve grown to process information through images. Or maybe just a weird insistence on words as a kind of visual medium: when I’m writing, I see things more clearly. Can it be more than a metaphor?

6. During the second half of our hike at Crawford Oaks, shortly after we’d made the turn that constituted the loop, we found ourselves at one of the SECRETS field trip locations, near The Dalles Mountain Ranch. Curious to see how low the water had dropped since I’d last been there with a group of 5th graders, I asked my partner to step down near the creek with me. Just a quick glance and we’d keep going. This was after the wind, after the talking, after any temptation to turn around and go back could possibly exist. After all, we had officially looped at this point, and so going back was going forward—an easy thing to say, a difficult thing to know. “This is where ‘Stream Scene’ happens,” I told my partner. But without the station signs, without the field trip maps, without the kids, I wondered if this place could be called something else?

7. What is a name? A type of word, a group of letters. A brand that comes to be associated with value, or prestige, or dependability. Athene cunicularia. If I tell you we saw one that day, right at the next moment of the story, gigantic, sitting on a rock in the low creek just off the trail, what would you think? If I told you it looked at us so long that time slowed down, that I couldn’t tell going back from going forward, that it reminded me of my cat’s eyes staring into my own: big, dilated pupils that recognize.

8. What if I call the river an owl? What if I tell you that my name, yes my real name, is Bear? Here, let me flip my wood cookie necklace over and show you: Owl.


Image via "The Shared Experience" on Flickr



SECRETS After Dark: Costume Ball

It’s that time of year again: the Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute cordially invites you to join us for a night of celebration at our annual SECRETS After Dark Costume Ball.

This year, our event will take place on Friday, October 28th at River City Saloon (207 Cascade Avenue, Hood River). Starting at 8pm, join us for celebrating, mythical costume wearing, face painting and general merrymaking–all while raising awareness of and funding for CGEI’s experiential, place-based programs. Your community participation helps serve over 1,000 students annually all over the Gorge. Show your support of ecological literacy and equitable outdoor programs by attending this fun event!

In addition to the above, we’ve got two incredible local bands lined up for the evening: Dirty Flannel, and Bonneville Power Trio. There will also be raffle prizes and silent auction items from local businesses, including Discover Bicycles, Flow Yoga, G. Williker’s, and many more!

An entrance fee of $10 will go directly toward the implementation of our programs, and includes one free raffle ticket.

Moments of Wonder

In the closet of my childhood bedroom there are rows and rows of shoeboxes, each one carefully labelled in black permanent marker: Bagamoyo 2002, Zanzibar 2004, Pt. Roberts 2006. Inside each box is a treasure trove of beach glass, small bits of driftwood, and oddly shaped pebbles that have been collected from every beach I traveled to as a child. Holding a smooth and twisted piece of driftwood in my hand, I can conjure the smell of seaweed and the wonder I felt when I first held this small piece of wood.

Where did it come from? What forces sanded and warped it into its present shape? How did it arrive on this beach? I imagined a strong tree, grown from a tiny seed, that crashed down in a storm. I imagined strong currents that carried the tree many miles away until it reached an ocean. I imagined sand and rocks in the water, smoothing and shaping the tree until all that was left was the gnarled piece of wood that I held in my hand. As a child, I could spend hours marveling at the objects and organisms I found on the shore.

As an adult, I know it’s very important to leave things as they are–and the only things I take with me are photos–but the sense of wonder I experienced in my youth remains as strong as ever. I think those childhood experiences are what keep drawing me back to quiet and beautiful natural places. I can still spend hours watching a creek flow, marveling at the forces that created a boulder, or sketching a leaf I’ve never seen before.


Here at the Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute we focus on place-based education because it connects people to the places and spaces where they leave. We provide students with opportunities to experience wonder as they explore the Gorge and learn about the ecosystems within it. During my first week here I found a collection of notes and sketches from students that had been left in a field trip bin. As I sorted through the pile I encountered the following poem and was struck by how deeply it resonated with me:

“I wonder about the tall, tall / Trees / I wonder about the small, small leafs / I think and I wonder / about the wonderful nature / And I ask, / how much do I know?”

These are questions that I am wondering myself as I experience the Columbia Gorge for the first time. I am finding my own moments of wonder in each day, and I know that there will be many more to come as I continue to learn about the ecosystems of our forest (and shrub-steppe!) home. I look forward to sharing this new year of learning and exploration with students from across the Gorge as we experience moments of wonder–together.


Event: Unity Picnic @ Hood River Library

CGEI is excited to announce our presence at Hood River County Library’s annual Picnic in the Park! This year’s theme is “unity,” and we’ll be participating in the conversation by hosting “Biodiversity Jenga” and a collaborative community mural.

The event starts at 5:30 pm at the library, and will take place indoors as well as outside at the Georgiana Smith Memorial Gardens, weather permitting. In addition to fun games and activities revolving around topics of race, ethnicity, gender, the environment and more, there will be a free taco bar, non-alcoholic beverages, ice cream, and live music from The River City Jazz Band.

Show your support for our inclusive community by attending this free, all-ages event! We’ll see you there.











“Lavender-scented skunk.” Artwork courtesy students from Gorge Explorers, 2016.

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