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A History of Parque Patagonia

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. 

When in ROAM: Summer Students Teach Their Passions

As a part of our three-week ROAM Summer program last month, Kori Richards, our Director of Expeditions and Risk Management, wanted to design an activity that related directly to students’ lives and the places around them. So, we asked students to lead a short lesson on a topic about which they were passionate. Instructors provided example lessons that were brief, experiential, and informative. We provided a mobile library and offered ourselves as resources. The students filled in the rest.

Students and Instructors take a closer look at a trailside wildflower. Photo Credit: Kori Richards

Challis, a student from nearby McCall, approached me with the idea to co-teach a lesson on fire in the West. Fire fascinates me because it invokes ideas of ecosystem regeneration and the role that humans play in the environment. Challis views fire from a different lens: her father and brother spend their summers traveling around the West fighting infernos, often uncomfortably close to home. In our lesson, I provided the ecological background and Challis followed up with stories of fire and the role that it plays in small Western towns like ours. It was the first time many of our East Coast students had considered wildfires, let alone the direct role fire plays in their new friend’s life.

Darcy, our lone New Englander, drew upon past research into the ethical and ecological considerations of factory farms. She began her lesson without preface by forcing the expedition to don heavy backpacks and cram themselves into a small rope corral. Darcy proceeded to walk us up and down the beach until we cracked. When she informed the group of the topic of her lesson--factory farming--the group’s anger turned to appreciation of the ethical demonstration. The group spent the afternoon discussing Darcy’s decision to eat vegan, and I caught more than one student sneaking a taste of the tofu we brought for Darcy.

Each student taught their peers about something they are passionate about: everything from a lifelong connection to salmon (the fish) to the igneous rocks on Salmon (the river). These lessons represent a small part of a much larger learning experience, but they demonstrate that learning doesn’t need 4 walls, a textbook, or a teacher at the head of the class: just a group of people with an interest in the world around them.

Re-“Reed”ing Environmental Science

Alzar School is in full swing now! This is the end of our first full week of academics. The students have attended every class four times this week and invested hours in learning engaging and -modestly speaking- mind blowing information. I could spend blogs on blogs talking about that mind blowing content in each class, but I wanted to spend today just discussing one: Environmental Science with Reed.

This Environmental Science unit flows nicely into our English and Spanish curriculum, as well. We're all talking about a sense of self and a sense of place. Who are we? And how does our home affect our understanding of ourselves? In Reed's class, the question is: "What do we know about our new home?" The reality is that most of them know very little, and for that reason, Reed has decided to re-imagine our Environmental curriculum to be much more place-based. The focus is not on deep water currents in the Atlantic or tornados in Kansas. The focus is central Idaho. It's Valley County. It's Alzar School.

So, in Reed's lab last week, he asked the kids to steep in "4 meditations" in the woods on campus. He says that we are often stuck in one lens of perception. That, as writers we describe. As artists we paint and draw, and as scientists we define. Every one of these forms of "meditations" is valuable; however, taking the time to investigate and experience a place through multiple lenses will help one to create a much deeper sense of place. His 4 meditations were:

  • Naturalist's: The student spends time attempting to accurately and scientifically analyze and describe one tree. So, measuring the trunk's diameter or shape of its leaves.
  • Ecologist's: He or she attempts to acknowledge all the connections that tree has with all other biotic and abiotic aspects of its environment, i.e. the wind, fungus, shrubs, birds, sunlight.
  • Artist's: Each person draws their tree as they see it and as it makes them feel.
  • Spiritualist's: The individual gives thanks to that tree for its existence.

Between each meditation, the students came together with Reed to discuss how their perspectives changed as they changed their focuses, how they felt differently, and which ones felt the most natural to them. Ultimately, the students came away with the lessons Reed had been hoping for: a focused meditation on nature and one's environment invites deep compassion - an interest in and a love for that which sustains us.

Building on the past week's lessons, yesterday Reed and his class took a tour around campus to identify some of the plant-life we enjoy here. They identified five trees, six shrubs, and a few forbs. They discussed its medicinal uses, investigated its smells, and tasted its sap or bark or leaves. They shared stories. Reed told them wild things they'd never known. He explained that this same species of conifer found on our campus - the Ponderosa pine - was once used in nuclear testing to determine the adverse affects nuclear bombs would have on forests... I think we all can imagine the outcome. He explained that when sagebrush is damaged, it releases a chemical that warns nearby sagebrush plants that danger may be coming so they can start channeling toxins into their leaves. For that reason, ungulates (antelopes and deer) tend to eat while moving upwind so that they can eat 'unsuspecting' sagebrush with lower toxicity in its leaves.

Today the students had a quiz on all these plants that are native to our property - Reed says they nailed it.

I asked Reed where he is going with the rest of the unit, and it's apparent he has big and equally impacting dreams. He wants to build towards a comprehensive understanding and appreciation of the forest and grass ecology in this area. Ultimately, they will choose and plant a native and edible forb on our property. This will help to diversify the already beautifully rich land we live on, as well as provide food for future Alzar students, and through it all they will continue to develop their own sense of place while simultaneously creating it. How amazing is it to think of our students taking this curiosity and passion back to their families and their homes?

The Rio Baker: a Chilean Expedition

Kayaking 150 kilometers is not an easy feat, and also not part of the everyday life of the average high school student. This unique lifestyle is very common in the day to day life of an Alzar School student. Through completing this challenging goal, the students fulfilled the six Foundations of the Alzar School; these elements include academics, outdoor adventure, environmental stewardship, cultural exchange, leadership training, and service learning.

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The students on this expedition woke up early each morning in order to pack all their personal gear, complete their daily chores, and get the group prepared for embarking on the river each morning. Through this outdoor adventure of paddling on the river, these students fostered a relationship with the environment and learned how to leave as little trace as possible moving from one campsite to the next.

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At the end of a long day of paddling through the beautiful wilderness of the Baker River, students would have an hour or so to complete schoolwork on their iPads. Each night a subject is assigned in which all the students complete work in that particular subject.

Two students from Los Escualos, a local kayaking club here in Cochrane, joined us for the entire expedition. They joined us for meals, leadership debriefs, and participated in other group activities on and off the river. Our Alzar School students were forced to go out of their comfort zones in order to communicate with the se students on a daily basis, and strengthened their Spanish skills socially and dynamically.

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Leaders of the day (LODs) are assigned every two days and are in charge of facilitating the group and guiding them through different tasks, such as chores, meals, and explaining the overall schedule and goals for the next few days. Each evening, the group comes together to debrief the progress of the LODs that specific day, focusing on specific instances that show either a positive aspect of the 10 Elements of Leadership, or a delta, which is something that can be changed or worked on in the future.

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It is essential for students to complete their chores in a timely manner in order for them to be set up for success during the day. This service learning is integral to the big picture of the expedition and the success of each day.

This expedition is just a glimpse into the daily life of an Alzar School Student and the uniqueness of this semester school. We are about to embark on another expedition before we spend time in the cities strictly taking classes, participating in cultural activities, and strengthening hard skills in white water kayaking. When we need a classroom, the world awaits.

They did it for the land. They did it for themselves.

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This semester's Chilean students, Jose and Niels, packing out trash found during the Bullileo backpacking expedition.

Leave No Trace (LNT) is a term that one would hear used often around the Alzar School campus in Cascade, Idaho, USA. In reality, though, it is used in nearly every outdoor, leadership curriculum in the United States. If a program spends time outside, their community inevitably addresses LNT. So, in true outdoor-educator fashion, let me outline for you the seven Leave No Trace principles:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
4. Leave What You Find
5. Minimize Campfire Impact
6. Respect Wildlife
7. Be Considerate of Other Users

The idea behind these principes is that, if everyone adheres to them, we can protect nature from being unnecessarily affected by our presence. Obviously, a giant group of teenagers (or anybody, for that matter) is going to have a lasting effect on the nature they trapse around in. Our hope is that the more conscious our students are about the effect they have, the better they will be able to minimize it.

As facilitators, we attempt to introduce and discuss this outdoor ethic in every applicable instance. As individuals who love nature, and as a program that depends on nature to deliver the leadership curriculum we value, and as a humankind that depends on nature for its wellbeing and survival, Leaving No Trace is of parmount importance.

What's incredible for us, is when the students realize that, too.

On our first Chilean expedition of the semester, one student-group went backpacking in the extreme, lush, breath-taking Andes and the other paddling on some sections of a chilly, epic, face-melting river. The backpacking trip found itself in this narrow valley surrounded by awe-inspiring cliffs, snow, waterfalls, vistas, lakes, and... a surprising amount of trash. After a short conversation about the LNT principles we all know quite well, we decided to indulge in some healthy competition to see who could collect and hike out the most garbage.

Every single student participated to some degree, but what was cool for everyone to see, was how dedicated our Chilean students were to cleaning up this land they'd never seen before, but felt pride and sadness toward. They found giant plastic tarps, scrap metal, candy wrappers, glass bottles, knives, instant mac'n'cheese containers, and the list goes on. They found so much trash that they built a litter for it and eventually needed help carrying it all out.

The prize for carrying out the most trash was an icecream bar - no insignificant food for hiking teenagers. But, when we arrived at a gas station the day our expedition ended, Jose and Niels declined their prize and treat. They said they did it for the land. They did it for themselves.