Gorge Explorers 2016: a photo essay

As the penultimate week of my first time through Gorge Explorers comes to an end, there is much to reflect on. GEx is such a multivalent camp experience, with layers of mentoring that are many and diverse: high school students mentor 3rd graders; teachers from local elementary schools mentor everyone in the room; CGEI staff bounce around, while I in particular learn from everyone involved in a manner almost ferocious: there is so much goodness to obtain from week to week, whether we’re talking about geology or wildlife, playing games or navigating the chaos that is Snack Time.

Meanwhile, I’m constantly gauging my own role as mentor, both for the high schoolers as well as the campers, wondering if and when those two roles are the same and where they split, if they should. Sometimes I think the ways I should be interacting with 14, 15, 16 year olds are quite different from that of 9 and 10 year olds. In other moments I reconsider, trying to separate knowing from learning; I want to be sure that no matter who I’m talking to and what about, I am acting not from instinct so much as a space of learning and empathy, one in which I am ready and available to take seriously the needs before me, whatever age they belong to. My patience varies, my impulses are challenged. What makes me take one person’s story more seriously than another’s? How visibly young or old must you be for me to decide if I’m launching into play mode or peer mode?

I knew going into Gorge Explorers that it would be an incredibly fun, dynamic camp, full of firsts for the campers involved. What I didn’t predict was how necessary it is for learning and discovery to happen in a room full of people of all different ages and experiences and titles, the tenderness and the empathy that can be accessed from such.

While the primary role of GEx is academic intervention for the 3rd grade campers, there are profound benefits to everyone involved. I suppose it is a classic summer camp effect: how you begin to feel self-permission, how confidence grows in you. How else are we to access, in a real and tangible way, the knowledge of our own strength and capabilities? You walk into nature with a group of trusted people, you recognize your ability to take care of something besides yourself. In four weeks, I’ve watched students of all ages and professions witness their own and each other’s becoming. Our trajectories and topics have been wild and wonderful:


Team Pika at Horsethief Lake. Kids explored the historic petroglyphs that adorn a short trail. It is hard to understand what these images could fully mean from an outsider’s perspective, the combination of memory and cultural knowing that one must feel when looking at a relic of their own ancestral history. What I remember is watching groups of kids reading out loud from the informational plaques that stood before them, trying to imagine this public park as a kind of church. What I remember is thinking that kids seem to know that ritual and good luck—call it prayer or desire—can be accessed on a field trip as much as in a classroom as much as in a really silly and competitive game of Capture the Flag.


From one of many stations that took place during “Water Week;” the final product here read, “Summer is fun.” I think the pattern of each letter followed by its imminent evaporation only emphasized her palpable truth. I remember distinctly the first day of summer after I’d finished 3rd grade, being too young to see the other side of an entire season. Being able to access the feeling that summer would last forever. Like a phrase painted on the sturdy concrete.
The various tools, activities and props throughout Gorge Explorers have been dazzling and, not infrequently, delicious.
Is it a flower? A vegetable? An organism? What makes a balanced ecosystem if not a room full of learning and
healthy consumption disguised as fun, as art?
Pictured: gardening hats, before and after. Not pictured: the short, short time span between a kid pulling a carrot out of the ground for the first time and asking if they can have seconds.




Who’s exploring who? I have this thought experiment I’ve been doing: I imagine that Gorge Explorers is a camp specifically for each group of people involved. For example, a camp for teachers  & professionals where kids serve as their mentors. Or a camp for high schoolers where they benefit from having 3rd grade role models. I’ve gone through various phases of considering how my own role might shift with each version. Or the blog post that might be written by a worm, reflecting on the child who brought it into the light.
















“We’re all made of atoms,” said Ranger Amber during our tour of The Dalles Dam. We were learning about water, electricity, the fluctuation of human need. Presentations like this one ensure that a young generation will grow up understanding that a strong community is both dynamic and fluid.



I’m jealous of the 3rd graders’ abilities to turn every task, no matter how slow and concentrated, into an action: they move freely with their own spontaneous desire because they haven’t yet learned otherwise.



Wood cookies worn by everyone at camp adorn the wall right outside our classroom at the end of each day. Ecological literacy starts with a love of trees as much as good nicknames. Biology and creativity have more in common than we know.















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