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Connecting Youth and Nature — for Learning and Fun

Posted by Rachel Wendling at Mar 25, 2019 06:26 PM |

Since 2014, the Glacier Peak Institute has been creating paths for local youth to get outdoors. The institute is a strong example of a WTA Outdoor Leadership Training (OLT) program partner with a deep dedication to providing outdoor experiences to youth.

By Jean Bartholomew

Youth who live in Darrington and other mountain communities are surrounded by rivers and mountains. Yet, like their urban counterparts, those kids have often lacked opportunities to get outside and explore.

The Glacier Peak Institute (GPI), led by Oak Rankin, is creating paths for those youth to get outdoors. The institute is a strong example of a WTA Outdoor Leadership Training (OLT) program partner with a deep dedication to providing outdoor experiences to youth.

GPI Photo 1.jpeg
Photo courtesy GPI.

GPI was formed in 2014 after the deadly Oso landslide. It works to “empower youth through action-based education to build resilient rural communities and ecosystems in the Glacier Peak region.” While poverty has risen in the area, education funding and enrollment have decreased significantly over the last 20 years.

Although GPI has limited funding, it has strong community support. With dedicated volunteers and in partnership from WSU Extension, GPI has taught curriculum-based STEM lessons through afterschool and summer programs in the outdoors. Since 2014, a core team of 10 volunteers has been able to grow GPI’s programs from a few activities a year to more than 100. Outings have included snowshoeing, hiking, mountain biking, rafting, canoeing, fishing, volunteering, foraging and harvesting. GPI has seen teachers and students become more engaged, and teachers are enthusiastic about working with GPI to use local forests for STEM lessons.

GPI has found that the most rewarding programs for students are often foraging or doing restoration work on hiking trips. Many students light up at the chance to focus intently on finding insects under bark — or even chanterelles. GPI works to provide youth with the context to understand and engage with nature. For example, participants will debate the amount of chanterelles to harvest and consider their impact, in order to build responsibility and confidence in students as they learn about the ecosystems in their community. Volunteers have seen students who struggle in the classroom make huge strides as they connect with learning through physical activities.

GPI Photo 4.jpeg
Photo courtesy GPI.

This intersection of learning and exploring the outdoors is not lost on 18-year-old Kalcia Briscoe.

“There are never dull moments (with GPI),” Kalcia said. “We harvest stinging nettles during mountain biking trips, we dissect and throw nutrient-rich salmon into streams, and we hike to caves or identify native plants as we walk trails.”

WTA’s OLT gear library has helped elevate the work of GPI. Oak joined an OLT workshop within a year of starting GPI. He found the content to be comprehensive and a great refresher even after 10 years of outdoor education work. Oak says that GPI’s access to the gear library helped the program get started.

Many of the students that GPI serves face the same barrier that urban youth might face — access to appropriate gear. Oak found that boots and backpacks from the library allowed him to more equitably run backpacking trips. Snowshoes were also a huge help. Students were able learn about salmon in winter — while also getting to play in the snow.

GPI Photo 2.jpeg
Photo courtesy GPI.

Over the past 4 years, local communities have noticed that GPI is making a difference, Oak says. Parents are grateful for the change they see in their children as they become more engaged in the community.

Oak hopes that other rural communities can use their program to learn about connecting their youth to local ecosystems. He also hopes to help other programs get started and to bring together urban and rural youth. More resources would allow the program to expand.

Youth have noticed the efforts of Oak and GPI. They love the combination of active activities and learning.

“I’ve got to say, it’s way better than sitting down and watching TV all day,” said Gabriel Blanco, 13. “And in the forest it’s easier to breathe and the view is nice.”

Oak can be contacted at