As the students enjoy the last few days of their expeditions in Patagonia, Anita thought it would be nice to share a bit about the history and creation of the National Park our students explore.
Spanning from the eastern beech forests of the Andes Mountains to the western arid grasslands of the Patagonian steppe, Valle Chacabuco is a transitional ecosystem that forms the heart of the newly formed Parque Patagonia. Students at the Alzar School spend two weeks in this area. They explore the vast wilderness of Patagonia’s iconic granite spires and the meandering glacial waters of the Rio Baker. Located deep in southern Chile, Valle Chacabuco remained largely unexplored throughout Spanish colonization. As late 19th century explorers trekked steadily south, the resources of these remote areas were documented and soon exploited. As early as 1908, large-scale sheep and cattle ranching operations were established in Valle Chacabuco. Despite government re-appropriation of lands to agricultural elite and the steady degeneration of grazing lands, ranching remained a driving force in the area’s economy up until the early 2000’s.
In 1995, Doug and Kris Tompkins, founders of Patagonia clothing brand and avid conservationists, visited Valle Chacabuco hearing stories of how the rich habitats of this area naturally support a high level of biodiversity. Kris recalls her visit in a blog post, A History of Valle Chacabuco:
"When I drove through the Chacabuco Valley for the first time, I saw the extra-high ‘guanaco fences’ designed to keep these first-rate jumpers out of the best bottom grasslands, which were reserved for the cattle on the estancia. My eyes glazed over looking out on the tens of thousands of sheep grazing the bunch grasses up and down the valley. The grasses looked patchy and dead. Nothing left for wildlife."
The guanaco, a llama relative, is a keystone species in the region and have adapted to the harsh conditions of the high steppe. They roam freely, revitalizing native vegetation and providing food for predators. This area is also home to some of South America’s most endangered species such as giant anteaters, culpeo fox, pumas, and hairy armadillos. Realizing the ecological significance and the conservation potential of the region, Kris founded Conservacion Patagonica in 2000 with a mission, according to their website, of “building new national parks in compelling, ecologically critical areas of Patagonia.”
Since it’s inception, Conservacion Patagonica has acquired large swaths of formerly ranched land and are working to restore and link contiguous natural habitats in Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia. Once complete, Parque Patagonia will become a Chilean national park and span an area roughly the size of Oregon State. Through the acquisition of former ranching lands, extensive ecological restoration efforts and the eventual donation of these areas back to government states, Conservacion Patagonica is making an impact and setting precedent for large-scale land conservation across the globe. Read more about Conservacion Patagonica and the history of Parque Patagonia. Photos courtesy of Parque Patagonia website.
On the morning of Halloween in the quiet towns of Neltume and Choshuenco, our thirty-four students met up to tackle the 1oK. The route our faculty set took the students between Lago Neltume (a Mapuche community) and the beach on the shore of Choshuenco. Students anxiously gathered at the starting line dressed in Halloween costumes and smiled at all the confused looks they got from people passing by.
Every semester there is great anticipation leading up to the 10K. Despite the weekly training and the preparation the students get from carrying a heavy pack through rugged landscapes, many are a bit nervous about the experience. Many have never set out to run a little over six miles at one time.
Ultimately the day was ten kilometers of taking in a beautiful part of the Chilean landscape, ten kilometers of pride in what they are capable of, ten kilometers of great playlists, and ten kilometers of fun with great friends. All students successfully completed the course, and a new school record was set.
Turning leaves and falling temperatures elicit mixed emotions for me. I grew up in New England farm country; crisp hayrides and the crunch of leaves underfoot harken back to a childhood dominated by seasonality. Having spent 13 months of the last three years in the southern hemisphere, I'm craving a full calendar year in one place--preferably one with vibrant foliage, copious mud, and snow measured by the foot. In some ways, though, I’ve adopted a new form of seasonality: one dominated by cultural shifts rather than climatic ones. Three days to go before our semester leaves for southern Chile, I find myself reflecting on how much our lives change in mid-October--and how much stays constant.
Each semester, our school spends three weeks in our adopted homes of Choshuenco and Neltume: small villages in the shadow of an active, snow-capped volcanoes. Students split time between the two towns, taking half of their classes in each town. Teachers get an extended block schedule to delve deeper into their curriculum, and the whole community gets the unique opportunity to live, shop, play and learn in a place quite different than their own. We ask a great deal of our students in Chile. Non-traditional classrooms require driven students, and so much of the learning happens outside of the classroom. Everyday tasks like ordering dinner go from routine interactions to an authentic learning opportunity.
For their part, our students are characteristically eager for a new set of challenges. Shirley, from Westwood, Massachusetts, finds consistency in the community of learners surrounding her: “My whole idea of Alzar was that it didn’t matter where we were, we were going to be learning anyways… I wanted to get as much in as possible it made a lot of sense that I would move around a little bit.” Shirley is worried about the block classes: “I’m not good at staying focused, so 80 minute blocks might be hard, but we’ll see.” If the past two months are any judge, I think Shirley will do just fine.
On day three of our backpacking trip, instructors woke to an icy tarp hugging their faces. The culprit: three inches of wet snow and a blown grommet. A nearby student tent lay flat, its occupants exposed to a wintery mix. The date was September 20th, and one thing was clear: summer in Idaho had come to an abrupt end.
As instructors, we faced a difficult situation. Countless days spent in backcountry situations prove over and over again that challenge is often the greatest source of growth: it’s easy for students to lead their peers under warm, blue skies, quite another to do so at 34° and pouring rain. Such situations are central to our educational philosophy: learning happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. On the other hand, as our students had learned not two days prior in their Wilderness First Aid course, hypothermia and other cold-related injuries presented a serious risk in such cold, wet conditions. Continue onward or double back and regroup in better conditions?
My co-instructors and I debated back and forth about the merits and risks of adjusting our course itinerary. Try as we might, we knew that the crucial element of the decision was how our students felt about confronting the challenge ahead. Moreover, this was their course, not ours. So, as rain turned to sleet turned to snow turned back to rain, we voiced our concerns and turned over the reigns to our students. Afterall, they had everything they needed to make the decision: knowledge of cold injuries and the risk they posed; an acute awareness of each other’s abilities and struggles; and an appreciation for the goals of our time in the backcountry.
Students began discussing the situation, noting each other’s comfort level, speaking to their own goals and anxieties, and weighing risk versus reward. Each student shared organically, and instructors served as little more than autonomous maps, detailing various trail options and mileages. After 10 minutes, students reached a strong consensus: the risk of continued winter conditions was too great for our novice group. We would turn back.
As the group began walking back in the direction we came, I turned to my co-instructor, Meredith, who was slated to teach a lesson on decision-making that evening. We quickly agreed that the lesson was no longer necessary: experience had taught our students far better than we ever could.
Every Tuesday, sometime between lunch and biology, Faculty and Teaching Fellows sit down at a small table on the patio, beneath the whitebark pine, in view of Snowbank Mountain. We gather because for a brief window each week, we cease to be teachers: we desert our lesson plans and relish in the opportunity to be learners again.
It’s called PD30--Professional Development, 30 minutes--a brief moment to step away from teaching to think critically about how we can best educate our students. We hear from teachers across disciplines, each with distinct background and educational philosophy; we discuss rubrics, differentiation, assessment tools, and each others’ growth as educators. Whatever the topic, PD30 is a chance to improve our instruction together.
Jack, our Biology Teaching Fellow, enjoys “looking at things in a different way--similar topics, with a new perspective.” Laura, our Director of Studies, is PD30 host and instructor extraordinaire: “every teacher is going to have their own take, their own style, their own approach. I find it refreshing to keep learning from one another.” As instructors, we came to the Alzar School to be a part of a community of continual learners: for our students, and for each other.