Outdoor school off to strong start

Camp Tamarack to host over 1,000 students this season

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Published May 24, 2014 at 12:01AM

At the southern edge of the land burned by the B&B Complex Fire, a new camp is taking root, providing Central Oregon students with a setting for outdoor overnight field trips.

Camp Tamarack’s history as a lakeside destination for kids traces back to the 1930s, but in 2003, that history was interrupted by the fire. After the camp’s then owners were unable to rebuild Tamarack, Charlie Anderson, a Bend teacher, used money from his family’s foundation to purchase the camp for $350,000. Anderson spent last year raising funds and recruiting volunteers to rebuild, clean and paint the camp. With funding for student scholarships and a $28,000 water filtration system in place, Tamarack hosted its first campers this spring, and come summer, more than 1,000 local students will have emerged from their cabins at 7 a.m. along Dark Lake’s shore.

“There were a lot of hopes and wishes for it, and we did it,” Anderson said. “If you look out at the lake, there’s kids in canoes. How awesome is that?”

School groups who arrive at Tamarack spend three days and two nights alternating between fieldwork and explorations that take kids across the lake, through the burn area and past a seasonal waterfall. The students, mostly fifth-graders, are led by eight naturalists and volunteer counselors from local high schools. There is an emphasis on applying science in the field, but in between lessons on subjects like forest recovery, students also learn songs, compose skits and choose nature names written on wooden medallions worn around their necks.

“Everything from the moment they get off the bus is done with intent,” Anderson said. “The cabins set mottoes and creeds. We have songs for leaving the dining hall and other things. Some are just silly, but others are about health. Each day, there’s a weather report, and we often end by the campfire.”

Because the naturalists and counselors lead lessons, teachers are free from having to organize student activities.

“I really get to observe my students, now that I don’t have to be the disseminator of information,” said Ray Page, a fifth-grade teacher from Juniper Elementary who visited Tamarack with his students this week. “When I’m not responsible for directing activities, I see things I might otherwise have missed.”

Page said his students seem “more free” at Tamarack.

“It’s new for them to be away from home. There are insecurities they have to confront together about being away from their parents,” Page said. “It breaks down barriers, living with a group of kids who may not all be friends. The routines here are different from what they know at home. It’s a rhythm they may not experience elsewhere.”

One of Page’s students, Lidiana Todoroff, 11, said it was “a little scary” to be away at camp, but that she’d had a great time learning about how pine cones “pop when they get really hot in a fire.” Luke Williams, 10, agreed, and said he was surprised to learn how long the B&B fire had lasted. After politely debating whether the fire lasted one or two months, both agreed canoeing on the lake was one of the best parts of the trip.

Tamarack has made it possible for students with physical and learning disabilities to attend, but despite having the camp’s infrastructure mostly complete, the cost of attendance for each student runs about $175. As a result, Anderson is focused on affordability. So far, most students have had to pay around $75 to attend, thanks to $73,000 the camp has offered in scholarships, much of it donated by the Gray Family Foundation, Silver Family Donation and two local groups — Carly’s Kids and On Belay TY.

Sandy Phillips, a teacher at Ensworth Elementary, runs Carly’s Kids, which supports funding for outdoor education. On Belay TY — the name comes from a climbing term for “I got you” — was started by Anderson’s family to honor his brother, Tyler, who in 2010 died along the Cordillera Blanca after falling into a crevasse. For Anderson, Camp Tamarack is a chance to expose kids to the outdoors, which for his brother led to a career leading hikers around the world.

“The cost thing is still an issue,” Anderson said. “If you could make it free for each student, absolutely that’d be great, but I think a realistic goal is $50.”

To make the camp sustainable, Anderson believes he needs to recruit school district support to complement foundation funding. He’s off to a good start, with Bend-La Pine Schools contributing $50 for each fifth-grade student to participate in experiential learning next year. He’s now focused on other school districts, such as Redmond, which have sent students to Tamarack but haven’t committed money for future years.

“I had relationships with so many Bend-La Pine teachers that I could go in there and tell them what we were hoping to do and have the trust that we could provide a meaningful experience,” Anderson said. “We have the momentum now.”

During the summer, Tamarack will host traditional camp sessions, generating additional revenue for the camp. Anderson has partnered with numerous Central Oregon park and recreation districts for activities, and parents can sign their children up on the departments’ websites. Even with this source of revenue, Anderson says Tamarack will need more support. In addition to funding scholarships, Tamarack also needs money to build bathrooms and finish some of the cabins.

“It needs to be a community thing,” Anderson said. “It can’t just be the school districts or the foundations. If it’s something the community values, we need their support. That’s the only way this can be sustainable.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com