The group of 40 or so students from Mt. Spokane High School stood in awe amongst the snow-covered trees.
For the average Spokane recreationist, the vista wouldn’t have elicited much. Perhaps a nod of approval at our good fortune living in the Northwest.
After all, it was just a snowy Mount Spokane parking lot.
But for this group it was different. For many, it was their first time walking on snow. Or in a forest. Or on a mountain.
“They were in wonder,” Michelle Townshend said. “One kid said, ‘The States are so beautiful.’ ”
Townshend teaches immigrant and refugee students at Mt. Spokane High School. On March 15, her class went snowshoeing as part of the Lands Council’s youth outreach efforts. Many of her students, although certainly not all, have fled war and violence. At least one is an unaccompanied minor after fleeing his home country alone.
And yet, for some the woods are intimidating.
“I thought it was going to be scary because it was in the woods,” said Gotan Pablo, 16. “It’s crazy, I’ve been here four years and that was my first time going to a mountain.”
Pablo is from the Marshall Islands. Along with his classmates he put on snowshoes for the first time (Townshend said explaining the difference between snowshoes and snow boots took some time) and walked throughout Mount Spokane.
“You don’t know if a boogeyman will come out of the woods,” said Gabby Anien, 15, who is also from the Marshall Islands.
Later, with the help of Kat Hall, the conservation and education director at the Lands Council, the students examined different snow layers learning some basic snow science.
Nationwide outdoor recreation is dominated by the white and affluent. According to a 2016 Outdoor Recreation participation report, 70 percent of 6- to 24-year-olds were Caucasian; 12 percent Hispanic; 9 percent African American and 7 percent Asian/Pacific Islander.
Knowing these overarching disparities, and knowing that most of her students had never experienced nature, at least in the U.S., convinced Townshend to contact the Lands Council.
“Truly it was not like any other outdoor adventure experience I’ve had with the schools I’ve worked with,” Hall said.
The Lands Councils Project SUSTAIN takes students into the outdoors. The Mount Spokane programs focus on snow science and winter ecology. With the Mount Spokane group, Hall said she focused less on science, partly because it was such a new experience for the students and partly because it was a last minute trip. This winter Hall has taken about 12 student groups to Mount Spokane.
“They were totally out of their element, out of the comfort zone,” she said.
Hall hopes the program helps the students “really appreciate the environment and understand it and (eventually) come to love it.”
She added, “That is what helps build better environmental stewardship among youth.”
Pablo enjoyed his time on Mount Spokane, he said. But if he returns, he’d like to do so in the summer.