Into The Great Wide Open

Posted: December 1, 2022

Ovando School Students Venture Beyond the Playground.

Ovando School students, ages six to thirteen years old, put down their pencils and picked up their fishing poles earlier this school year. On August 29th, the third day of school, ten students spanning second through eighth grade, excitedly mounted horses to head on a four-day educational pack trip into Leota Park, a flat in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The group was chaperoned by Nathan Graves, Ovando School’s fourth through eighth grade teacher, and Andrea Tougas, Ovando School’s Supervising Teacher. The instructors were accompanied by guides, Bill and Dena Hooker, who have decades of experience leading outfitting and pack trips through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Luckily the group was just the right size, as there is a federal wilderness regulation that limits Bob Marshall packing group sizes to 15 people. This regulation is in place to minimize a group’s impact on the wilderness and wildlife.

For years, Ovando School students have taken a Montana history field trip. Every other year is an outdoor experience, which alternates with a trip to visit museums, monuments and other historical attractions throughout the state. In 2020, Bill and Dena led the students into the Pioneer Mountains, near Wisdom, Montana. These field trips are funded by the Ovando School Cultural Enrichment Committee and the general school fund.

Although there is funding in place for the field trip, the group lucked out with the added generosity of Cooperative members, Jack and Belinda Rich, owners of the Rich Ranch near Seeley Lake, Montana. The couple insisted on lending their camp, stock and four ranch employees to support the school trip. Their horses packed the students in, while the ranch hands traveled ahead with the mules and supplies.

The Rich family made the pack trip possible for the group and helped the students create Montana memories that will last a lifetime. Eighth grade student, Sawyer, put it best when she said, “These field trips wouldn’t be possible without our extraordinary community.” Fifth grader Matilda, echoed Sawyer, and said, “Our supportive community helps us have this amazing experience. We would never have had this trip happen without our community.”

There are two primary academic components of the trip – leadership and cowboy poetry. Third grader, Silas, expanded on how important these hands-on experiences are for student learning, “These trips are important, because we can learn about the history of the world.” And while these field trips are a bit more specific to Montana history, there are other learnings along the way. One example is the students’ broadened understanding of their impact on nature, like when the students trampled a creek bed and had to work together to repair the damage. As third-grader Abbie put it, “These trips are important, because it helps us learn things while having fun.”

Creating memories, forging and building friendships, and learning, go hand-in-hand on Ovando School’s Montana History field trip. Fifth grader Maggie agreed, “I think these trips are important because we can learn and do new things that we couldn’t do while sitting at a desk.” On the first day, the group hiked three miles up to Pyramid Lake to go fishing. This trek created an extra special memory for Bill who said, ““One little girl caught her first fish!” Another memory was created for third grader, Nora, who said the funniest moment from the trip was when fellow student, Land, did a belly flop.

The group’s camp consisted of 14 x 16 ft wall tents. Each tent housed five children, which were bordered by the adult’s tents. There was also a kitchen tent, which was used to cook and eat meals. The meals were prepared by guide and MEC’s District 6 Trustee, Dena, who stopped at nothing to ensure the kids were fueled up for the adventures ahead. After long days of exploring, the kids welcomed the feasts she prepared each evening. From tacos and spaghetti with meatballs, to apple crisp, smores and peach cobbler, the children didn’t go to bed with growling tummies. That sound was the local bears – just kidding!

Although I’m joking about growling bears, I am not when I say there was a bear! A black bear wandered into camp to eat berries and investigate the group. Luckily, he got his fill on berries and moseyed along without causing any trouble for the campers. On the trek in, the group came within 30 yards from a band of mountain goats. The animals left an obvious impact on students like fourth grader, Loryn, who said her favorite part was spending time with her friends and seeing the bear and the mountain goats.

For a small, tight-knit school, this field trip means getting to know classmates better. Sixth grader Audrey said this was her favorite aspect of the pack trip. Mr. Graves felt similarly, “The bonding that was able to happen on this trip was incredible. Four days in the back country with essentially the entire school. We are all together and it’s a good start to the year, especially for the new kids. We form relationships early. I get to know my co-teachers and my students, and it made us feel more like one united school.”

Ms. Tougas also touched on what she felt was the most important takeaway, and one that I think we, as Montanans, can all relate to. And that is that students need to understand, appreciate and take pride in the place where they live. “I was impressed by the students’ ability to rise to the occasion, connect with their peers and find value in their place. They’re finding their place as a leader in their school, their place in Montana, and as a peer, brother and sister. These trips are so valuable and we are fortunate to be able to do this as an annual trip.”

Where will the students travel to in 2024? You’ll have to stay tuned to find out.