Stories from the Field

Olympic Alcoa Scholars in the Frontcountry

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After months of anticipation, the first Alcoa Scholars of the summer gathered at our beautiful Lake Crescent campus in Olympic National Park on Sunday evening. Arriving from Australia, Hungary, Iceland and the U.S. states of Pennsylvania and Indiana, the 20 Scholars represent a diverse group with a common passion: the environment. They will spend the next two weeks collaborating, exploring and learning so that they may come away with a better understanding of environmental issues, as well as ideas for mitigating climate change and preserving biodiversity. 

I’m most excited about meeting new people who, despite all the cultural differences, have the same passion as me: the environment.
Bori Felföldi, Alcoa Scholar

On Sunday evening, the Scholars arrived on campus after a long day (or days) of traveling. They moved into their cabins, ate dinner together and began to get to know one another while learning who would be in their particular trail groups. Trail groups are the groups of ten Scholars and two NatureBridge educators that will backpack together through the park. 

The next morning, they awoke in cabins on Lake Crescent, against the misty backdrop of the Olympic Mountains. Scholars got familiar with their surroundings, met for breakfast in the campus dining hall—the historic Rosemary Inn—and fueled up for a day of team building activities, backpacking preparation and introductions to field science investigations.

On Monday, the Scholars explored the trails and old-growth forests immediately around campus and looked at maps of the Olympic Peninsula, beginning to gain a sense of place about where they were and where they would be hiking in just a few days. After lunch, both groups met with Nicole Winters, Wilderness Youth Programs Coordinator for the National Park Service. Nicole shared with the group that Olympic National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is internationally recognized for its diversity of ecosystems, and how following Leave No Trace ethics is essential for preserving this uniqueness. The group said goodbye to Nicole and then spent the afternoon learning about gear and packing from educators as they prepared for the backcountry. Personal gear including clothing and sleeping bags and distributed group gear like tents and food were inspected and secured. Scholars also double-checked all tents and camping stoves were in working order. 

That evening, the Scholars participated in one of the highlights of the NatureBridge Alcoa Scholars experience: culture share presentations. Every Scholar comes to the program having prepared a short (5-10 minute) presentation about themselves and the communities they come from. These presentations take many forms, including sharing special food items, playing music, showing pictures of family and hometowns and teaching each other the sports that Scholars play or watch back home. This year’s group had the opportunity to taste the Australian treats of TimTams and Cherry Ripes and Icelandic fish jerky, watch a video of the unbelievable mask changers of Chengdu, China, learn some “Pittsburghese” (a self-described dialect of people who live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and see the incredible Széchenyi Baths and Parliament Building of Hungary. 

On Tuesday, Scholars spent much of the day learning about the science investigations they would be leading while in the backcountry. They hiked to Barnes Creek, where they chose scientific tools and practiced collecting water quality and forest ecology data. In the afternoon, they participated in a “tea time” (complete with the Australian chocolate drink Milo!) in which they discussed with the other Scholars what scientific variables they were most interested in studying on their trip and picked research partners based on common interests. In the afternoon, they sorted through their backcountry food, ensuring that it was all accounted for and learning what some unfamiliar items were—this included identifying lots of dried and dehydrated foods. They then packed their backpacking backpacks and tried them on for the first time. These packs will carry everything they need to live comfortably in the backcountry for the next week! 

There was a buzz of nervous excitement in the air as last-minute backcountry logistics were discussed over dinner that evening. Scholars shared their excitement and asked final questions.

Scholars and educators woke Wednesday morning with fresh legs and an eagerness to hit the trail. While it was a rainy start to the week, the weather for the backcountry looks relatively dry—though our groups are prepared for anything the Pacific Northwest decides to deliver!

After a hearty breakfast of eggs, our signature “Rosemary” potatoes, oatmeal, cereal and fresh fruit, each group checked their gear and departed for their respective trailheads. The two hiking groups will spend the next seven days backpacking through Olympic National Park. Group one will adventure from the Hoh Rain Forest to Sol Duc River Valley, while group two will backpack through the Quinault Rain Forest and Enchanted Valley. We can’t wait to hear the stories they return with!

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