Set in the natural beauty of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Cispus Learning Center looks much the same as it did fifty years ago, when the first class of Ridgefield students came for a week of outdoor school. Small cabins and long, low education buildings nestle into the stands of tall trees. A group of students treks up the path from the waterfall, one of many hikes underway this morning.
“How many miles did you do?” The volunteers who lead the groups stand at the trailhead, comparing notes. “A mile and a half.” “I did three miles so far.” They were going to get a cup of coffee, then head right back out on the trail with another group. It wasn’t even ten a.m. yet. Just another active morning at Cispus.
The students go on morning hikes to have class in different environments. They might test soil acidity, search for macroinvertebrates, or sketch leaves for identification. And whatever pops up—like a baby bat in the cave—can become an impromptu lesson. They hike behind a roaring waterfall, where one of the lessons is figuring out that your mom might have been right all those times she told you to wear a rain jacket just in case.
Lunch is a favorite, because the food at Cispus is really delicious. Meals are served family style, so students learn to wait for everyone to be served before eating, to hold a conversation, to clear tables. Today is soft tacos with rice and beans. Orange segments are a popular choice on the side—but not as popular as cake, as the students celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ridgefield Outdoor School at Cispus camp.
The entry to Cispus Learning Center in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Inside one of the girls' cabins.
Students get ready to eat family style for taco night.
Afternoon classes are typically indoors, with many hands-on classrooms. The star room has hand painted constellations that glow in black light. Campfire song class is in front of a roaring fireplace. Taxidermied animals and pelts line the walls of the nature rooms. And the Mount St. Helens room showcases artifacts from the mountain eruption and photos of the devastation and the eventual recovery of the environment. Every classroom has new items to spark ideas and discussions.
Sunset Ridge Intermediate School principal Todd Graves enters the Forestry Room.
The Mount Rainier Room demonstrates life cycles with an interactive exhibit.
Exhibits in the Mount St. Helens Room lets students touch history.
Students work on a sensory poem in the library, telling what they see, hear, and feel when they are in nature. “What do you taste when you are in nature?” the teacher asked. The fresh air, one student says. The pine needles when a branch hits my face, says another. Water from the rain.
“Bacon,” one student says confidently.
“Bacon? In nature?” The teacher gives him a quizzical look.
“Bacon,” he confirms. “I sneaked it in my pocket at breakfast and ate it on the trail.” They all laugh. Bacon goes into his poem.
Almost every experience at Cispus is new to the students, and also steeped in tradition. The huge campfire at night will be a site for stories and songs, echoing through woods that have heard fifty years of children’s voices. Another class of fifth graders will graduate from Cispus with memories they will cherish for a lifetime.
There's plenty of seating around the big campfire.
The Pavilion serves as a covered outdoor classroom with a warm fireplace.
Mist rises off the buildings and the foothills after a morning rain.
Fall colors are just starting to show when campers arrive.