Every winter Kat Hall heads into the hills around Spokane hoping to introduce high school students to the joys of winter, while simultaneously teaching them a thing or two about snow science and the region’s water supply.
The program, run by the Lands Council, focuses on lower-income students who likely haven’t spent time outdoors in the winter before.
“Almost none of the kids have ever put on a pair of snowshoes,” Hall said. “And that’s really exciting to me.”
This year, proceeds from a film festival aimed at hard-core winter enthusiasts will help expose a younger generation to the joys of the winter backcountry. For the first time, the proceeds from the Winter Wildlands Alliance’s Backcountry Film Festival will go to the program.
The program, called “Snow Science and Water Resources in a Changing Climate,” has been going on for about five years and partners with local schools. Normally, it includes an in-class session in addition to a field trip to Mount Spokane State Park. The course is led by Hall, the Lands Council’s conservation and education director.
Once there, the students snowshoe, dig snow pits and learn some of the basics of snow science.
“They go up to Mount Spokane and (we) get them snowshoeing up a hill,” she said. “They’re usually hating life and hating me and huffing and puffing, but they get to the top and realize they didn’t die.”
Once on top, they identify and measure snow layers; measure and record snow layer temperature, hardness and density; and observe and classify individual crystals.
For many, it’s a revelation that the snow they’re standing on will turn into the water they drink and play in later in the summer.
“That is a really sort of groundbreaking concept to them,” she said. “Like ‘Oh, OK, this is really what this is about.’ ”
After that, avalanche experts from the U.S. Forest Service and the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center teach the kids the basics of avalanche safety, including a “search and rescue” scenario using beacons and probes.
Finally, they take samples of snow and later determine the snow water equivalency, a measurement indicating how much water the snow contains. They then use that to extrapolate how much water will enter the Spokane River watershed from Mount Spokane.
The entire experience can be a steep learning curve for some of the kids, Hall said. Many have never spent time outside in the cold and need basic primers on what clothing to wear. For some, it’s their first time visiting Mount Spokane.
Those parts of the course don’t have any direct tie in to science, but Hall said they are important.
Tim Orton, the organizer of Spokane’s Winter Wildlands Alliance’s Backcountry Film Festival, agreed.
“It really reaches a segment of the population that would otherwise would probably never enter the back country in their lives,” Orton said.
Combined with the science and environmental education, it seemed obvious to donate the money from the film festival to the Lands Council program.
The money will help Hall buy snowshoes and other gear. For the past five years, she’s borrowed much of the equipment the students use. Proceeds from the film will also help pay for transportation costs for the students to and from Mount Spokane.
“I’m so happy we are really going to be part of this upcoming film festival,” Hall said. “I think it will be amazing.”
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