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.
Apart from providing quality and high-achieving academics to our students, the Alzar School lends a unique opportunity for young instructors to learn hands-on about becoming an education professional. Each semester we invite up to six Teaching Fellows to join our program. Over the course of the semester, they attend six, hour-long classes a week focusing on academic instruction, outdoor technical leadership, and residential life training. From helping running study hall to checking students into their yurts at night, Teaching Fellows are fully immersed in student life. Each Teaching Fellow is also hired based upon their academic strengths and is paired with an Alzar School mentor teacher who shares the same subject interests.
As the semester progresses, Teaching Fellows take on more responsibility in the classroom. They help plan lessons, exercise labs and get to implement and test teaching strategies they have learned. Recently, Teaching Fellows tested out various differentiation techniques in their classes. In education, differentiation is when teachers change the content, process or product that students create, based on their readiness, interest, and/or learning profile. In his two-person pre-calculus class, Jeffrey experimented with flexible grouping and teaching individually and collectively. In Environmental Science, Nadia adapted ecology readings based upon student interest and language levels. Hayley implemented differentiated processes for learning in her Spanish A class through writing, speech, and problem-solving. Finally, in biology, Jack utilized various hooks to introduce topics, like having students hold their breath to launch a discussion about aerobic respiration.
With an average class size of seven, these types of individualization and differentiation are not only possible but highly encouraged and even necessary to provide the quality of education we strive for at the Alzar School. We are so happy to see these young teachers help accommodate the various learning styles of our students. They have new ideas, are not timid to try alternate routes and bring a fresh perspective to academics at the Alzar School.
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.
Members of our community are often asked to focus on the big picture despite a maelstrom of other concerns competing for their interest: leadership nuggets in a hail storm, chemistry on an airplane, personal growth in a semester of rigorous academics and international travel. Of course, this tension between the monumental and the minute is both necessary--we accomplish a lot into four short months--and by design--it is through challenge that our students become resilient.
Rarely is this tension more evident than last Friday night when, in the midst of packing for a six-week international expedition, our community took time aside to attend the Third Annual Foundations Film Festival. Each fall, Anita, our Director of Advancement, puts together a collection of films that each highlight one or more of our Six Foundations. Proceeds from the event benefit our Valley County Scholarship Program, and the night serves as a cogent reminder of why we do what we do.
Student favorites included Our Theory of Human Motivation, a short film about finding strength inside oneself, and The Wild President, a profile of Jimmy Carter’s relationship with rivers in the Southeastern United States and his work protecting wild places across the country. The People’s Choice award went to Follow Through, the story of a young skier and her journey through adversity to achieve ambitious goals. Izzy Sullivan of New York reflected recently, “It was so inspiring to see how women in the outdoors have become prominent figures and inspirations to other young women… I feel like everything I do at Alzar inspires me to be a better person.”
* Please note that the film festival screening censored some mildly inappropriate language; the linked versions are not censored.
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.