Nestled in the heart of Idaho’s west-central mountains, the Alzar School’s unique location lends the opportunity to explore pristine and vast natural environments in a manner of ways. Our 100+ acre campus is located along the Payette River. Just 3 miles downstream from Kelly’s Whitewater Park and a geothermally heated pool, students can practice their kayaking skills almost year round. The Alzar School is also surrounded by the Payette and Boise National Forests which lends ample opportunities to hike high mountain trails and camp alongside backcountry lakes. This upcoming weekend students have the chance to explore a bit more of Idaho - not kayaking or backpacking, but on skis and snowboards!
There are two ski areas, Tamarack Ski Resort and Brundage Mountain Resort, located within an hour’s drive of the Alzar School. With an average annual snowfall of over 11 feet, this region provides amazing snow, diverse terrain and short lift lines that come with small-town mountain resorts. These factors combined, make Tamarack and Brundage ideal for students to learn on and explore a few times each semester. On ski days, all Alzar School students, regardless of skill level, take a short lesson. Whether it is linking turns on the beginner hill or finding a powder stash in the trees, students of all abilities tend to have a blast on these family-friendly mountains. Skiing and snowboarding with the Alzar School provides students with the chance to try a new sport or hone existing skills, sliding along with teachers and peers amidst the beauty of Idaho’s winter.
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.
As our time in the Lake District comes to a close, we have traveled 5 hours south to embark on our final Chilean expeditions. Our time in the Lake District was split up between the students focusing on cultural exchange and improving their technical kayak skills.
For some of the students, this is their first time in a foreign country and also their first time in a kayak. Skills in both of these are built by a progression; for example, in the student’s Spanish A classes, they learned vocabulary appropriate for the environment that they were in. When we were flying into Santiago, the students were learning airplane vocabulary and words that they would need in order to travel through an airport.
Students of all levels of Spanish speaking ability have had room to grow and improve; not just the beginners. Through conversational challenges in the towns and interacting with the locals in soccer games, students have been pushed out of their comfort zones in order to improve their fluency. Both beginner and advanced students need a foundation of basic skill that they can build upon in order to improve overall.
Like this progression of confidence in a foreign language, the students who were new to kayaking also needed to start from a foundation of skill in order to grow. Students in Choshuenco spent time practicing the basic paddle strokes of kayaking on the flat water of the lake before going out on the white water of the Rio Fue and the Enco. Students also learned how to safely exit a kayak and some mastered their roll.
These past few weeks in the Lake District of Chile have been essential in the progression of the students’ confidence in cultural exchange as well as their confidence on the water. These skills are not learned and perfected overnight; it takes time to build upon past experiences in order to master a certain amount of expertise in these skills.
This final expedition on the Petrohue River challenges students to use the basic skills they have learned on the lake and rivers in Choshuenco. This river is larger and faster than what they have been training on, and will help them further improve their skills for the waters of Idaho.
I know that this growth is only the beginning for these students, with both kayaking and Spanish speaking. Students will continue to learn not only in their Spanish classes, but also on the water in Idaho. Chile has been just a glimpse of what these students are capable of; I look forward to continue to watch them exceed my expectations.
Here is a video summing up our highlights in Choshuenco and Neltume!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Every semester in English class, students read Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild, which follows the fatal journey of a young protagonist rebelling against society and family to explore western wilderness frontiers. Students debate the protagonist's (Chris McCandless) character, and the elements of authorial bias that color the book's tone. They then write an argumentative essay about whether Chris McCandless was heroic or foolish. Each semester students get fired up about this young man. Discussions are heated and the jury is split - hero vs. fool. Whether it is his lust for adventure or his fight for independence, there is always something that resonates deeply with this adolescent age group. Regardless of which side of the fence students fall on, the story never fails to spark excitement for our next expedition: backpacking in the Owyhee desert of Oregon and Idaho.
The Owyhee expedition was our culminating backpacking expedition this Spring 2015 semester. Students planned the gear and individual packing lists, prepared all the equipment, and student leaders planned campsites based on topographical maps. It is a 27 mile expedition that requires map and compass navigation - completely off-trail. Student leader teams guide our group over mountains and through red rock gulches. Students really get the sense that, like Chris McCandless, they are walking into the wild.
The trip offers an opportunity to pull together many different ideas and subjects we've been tackling in English class as well. Students discuss Joseph Campbell's hero's journey monomyth in analyzing Chris McCandless' odyssey, and then chart their own journey for this expedition and the semester.
They use the same 10 Elements of Leadership with which they analyze student designated leadership performances throughout the semester, and apply it to Chris McCandless to identify whether he was heroic or foolish.
They also get the chance to chat with a contemporary adventurer: Andrew Forsthoefel. Post-college, Andrew set out on an odyssey of his own to walk across America. His mission: listen to people's stories. We listen to his This American Life radio story and then Andrew Skypes into our class and students get the opportunity to ask him questions about his journey, or even advice for their own journeys ahead.
In his beautiful story, Andrew discusses what it feels like to walk over 30miles in a day alone. He identifies all the types of walking he felt along the way: Fear Walking. Trudge Walking. Float Walking. Weep Walking. Students were so enamored with him and his tale, that they have kept in touch to seek his advice on all manner of challenges from Culminating Leadership Project planning to seeking encouragement for the next "big walk." (Don't worry, he hasn't encouraged anyone to ditch home and set out across the country.)
For English class on the Owyhee expedition, students keep a walking journal. Every day they have to write one sentence that mimics the epic tone Chris McCandless uses when he wrote about his own adventures. Chris McCandless' journal uses the pseudonym "Alexander Supertramp"- and so students must choose their own trail name, and write from this perspective. They then have to title each day - like Andrew Forsthoefel - the type of walking they did that day.
Some excerpts form the wild wanderers of Sp'15:
Alton Wiggers: "Slide walking"
The Riddler takes two steps up, and one slip down going to the top; he needs to reach the summit of a mountain of falling sand.
Becca Cerra: "Wild Walking"
The sweat beaded on her forehead as Painted Rocket stopped to catch her breath midway up the hill, she gazed down at the wild horses and wish she could join them and feel the wind in her hair.
Skye Ellison: A.k.a. "Three Terrible Toots"
On our second to last day in the desert, we declared our types of walking to the echoing red rock of a dry oxbow canyon... followed by a war cry harnessing the epic adventurer within each of us. See below to share in the ceremony:
Thanks for following our journey!
Alton Wiggers (aka "The Riddler") as Chris McCandless: Portrait in front of Alzar School "Magic School Bus"