Students passed the time at the Environmental Learning Center doing science and natural history-based games and exercises, including an impromptu lesson in taxidermy. Dead birds from the region are donated to North Cascades Institute, who uses them for educational and interpretive purposes in their science lab. (Joshua Porter / North Cascades Institute)

Learning doesn’t stop for students stranded by snowslide

MILL CREEK — The 42 students from Henry M. Jackson High School expected a fun field trip in the mountains.

They got a bit more than that when an avalanche closed Highway 20 on March 10, turning a three-day excursion into an extended stay in the north Cascades. The students spent the weekend in the mountains, returning Monday.

The trip was to the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center for Mountain School, a well-regarded educational program that teaches students about the ecosystem, geology and the natural and cultural history of the mountains.

Alex Hamm, a junior taking Advanced Placement Environmental Science, said the road closure was a reality check, in that it demonstrated that people couldn’t control everything around them.

“I was a little annoyed I think, but I couldn’t be mad because there was nothing to be mad at,” Hamm said.

But he didn’t fret.

“I never felt worried at any point about my safety or the safety of others,” Hamm said. “First thing they told us was, ‘Don’t worry about food, we have three months’ worth.’”

The staff at the institute was quick to coordinate with the five teachers and two parent chaperones. They drew up an itinerary for the next few days, said Gail Walters, who teaches the Environmental Systems Design class at Jackson High.

“They’re well-prepared for situations like that,” Walters said.

Those activities included using the institute’s microscope lab, a “mini-Olympics” with games like spoon-egg relays, exercise classes and a lesson in taxidermy.

“There was a lot of donated birds to the park that had unknown accidents,” said junior Trevor Cease.

The students were taught how to cut open the birds, remove the meat, treat the carcass with borax, insert an artificial body, then sew the bird back up, he said.

The meat was thrown into the woods for other animals, Cease said.

The students also took part in a “trash-ion show.”

“You had to use recycled material to make someone in your group look fabulous,” Cease said.

Some of the students also staged a mock trial from the Dr. Seuss book, “The Lorax.” Cease played the Once-ler, the story’s villain.

“I ended up being found guilty and sentenced to life in prison,” he said.

Walters said the only real worry was that some students needed to take daily medications. The weather wouldn’t allow the medicines to be flown in.

“They hiked them in,” Walters said. “Again, the staff and the National Park Service came through.”

The state Department of Transportation was able to clear one lane of Highway 20 on Monday, allowing two buses to pick up the kids and bring them back to the school.

Hamm said it was only a little nerve-wracking to ride the bus back through the slide area.

He enjoyed the extended trip, but also was glad to get back home.

“It was just nice having junk food and food that I kind of like to eat,” Hamm said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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