By Jean Pocha

Backcountry classroom brings outdoor lessons to life


September 22, 2022

Dena Hooker

The Ovando School's third through eighth grade students and teachers enjoying being immersed in the outdoor education experience.

OVANDO - Riding to school got a new meaning for Ovando School's third through eighth grade students Aug. 29 - Sept. 1. Thanks to the Rich Ranch, students and teachers rode nine miles into Leota Park for a backcountry Outdoor Ed trip. Bill and Dena Hooker accompanied the group and stayed with them in camp to provide meals and backcountry lessons.

The Ovando School alternates their annual Montana history trip between a museum-based trip and an outdoor education-based trip. This year was the outdoor ed trip. The pack trip opportunity was a perfect fit, said Andrea Tougas, Ovando Head Teacher. Two years ago the Hookers took the Ovando School on a pack trip into the Pintler Mountains.

"It was a great adventure for all of us and so great to share our knowledge of the Wilderness with some great children," said Dena. "We can't thank the Rich Ranch enough for helping us to be able to do this for our community. We were happy to donate our time for this."

Normally all the students attend the history trip. However, since there are currently 21 enrolled and the Forest Service permit only allows a group of 15, they had to limit the trip to third grade and up.

In the backcountry "classroom," the students learned about who Bob Marshall was, what the backcountry designation means and the Salish People's use of the area, including visiting historic tipi rings. The tablecloth in the kitchen tent was a giant topographical map of the backcountry. Students found their location on the map and identified adjacent drainages and rivers.

The effect of the Rice Ridge fire was evident. Bill shared his experiences hunting in the area both before and after the fire and the changes to the elk habits because of it. Avalanche chutes are evident in the area and provided visuals of avalanche impacts to the land.

Hookers also taught backcountry skills including keeping a clean camp, pack it in and pack it out principles, and how to leave the camp looking as good or better than it did when they arrived by either using established trails or dispersing their paths through unmarked areas. The students practiced stream restoration by restoring a small creek bank that was broken down by improper trail use. 

In addition to education, the students had time to recreate. One student caught the first fish of her life in a backcountry alpine lake. A deep hole was perfect for swimming fun, and a few students used moss to demonstrate an impromptu stream filtering experiment. 

Prior to the trip, students studied cowboy poetry. In camp they wrote their own cowboy poetry and recited around the campfire on their last night.

"Spending time with friends" was an overall theme for favorite memories.

Nora Stevenson said, "watching Land Neudecker do a belly flop was my favorite memory."

Dena Hooker

Bill Hooker shared his love of the area with the eager ears of the students.

 "Seeing the bear and mountain goats was one of my favorite memories," added Loryn Neudecker.

The students also recognized the benefits of living in a supportive community from the generosity of the Rich Ranch and the Hookers. 

 "Those kids were such troopers to walk from camp up over 1,200 feet in elevation gain to Pyramid Lake to go fishing, I was so amazed how great they did that day," said Bill. "It was so wonderful to hear the laughter and to see the smiles and how much fun it was for these children."


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