Steamboat Springs Flocks of sandhill cranes and herds of elk are usually the only inhabitants of the cottonwood forest surrounding the Findell Matthews Ranch on the lower Elk River. But on Wednesday, 62 Lowell Whiteman Primary School students armed with fishing poles and tents charged into the area with their parents, ready to celebrate the end of summer vacation with a three-day camping trip.
“It usually stays vacant and empty,” said ranch owner Beth Findell, who has graduated three children from the primary school. “But we love seeing all the kids come here year after year because the trip promotes a sense of family.”
Digging his hands deep into a thick patch of algae lining a pond on the ranch, sixth-grader Wilder Gray was searching for frogs and enjoying his final hours outside of the busy school routine that awaits him Monday. A father and his daughter sifted through a tackle box across the pond, and Wilder’s fingers looked as though they were coated in oil when they emerged from the muddy water. They would look different in class next week.
“Instead of being cooped up in a classroom, we get to come out here and be free,” he said without taking his eyes off the banks of the pond, afraid he might miss a frog. “Everybody will be kind of upset next week that they’re not still outside.”
After lunch, kindergartners through seventh-graders were busy participating in a number of team-building activities while their parents relaxed at their campsites, reflecting on previous trips. Sara Craig-Scheckman was on her eighth camping trip with her daughter Madeline, who will be starting seventh grade. Madeline was one of the mentors at the camp.
“It’s great to see her now as one of the older students setting an example for her younger peers,” Craig-Scheckman said.
The school has hosted the camping trip every year since it was founded 18 years ago. While Day 1 of the trip featured events that had the children working together on teams and an evening campfire program, Day 2 featured a series of hikes to Gilpin and Dinosaur lakes.
“Here you get to know the great outdoors and hang out with your friends,” sixth-grader Sage Turek said. “You have something fun to talk about when school starts.”
The trip is one of several chances the children will have to experience the outdoors during their time at the school. In February, some will travel to the Fetcher family cabins in North Routt County where they will learn winter outdoor survival skills. But on the Findell Matthews Ranch, the goal was to make new students feel welcome.
“We’re one big, happy group out here,” Head of School Nancy Spillane said. “If you’re a new parent or student, everyone will make a seat for you and hand you a fishing pole.”
She said that while the camping trip is part of the school’s commitment to teaching children about the outdoors and wilderness survival, it also was an icebreaker for students preparing for the first week of classes.
“They’ll be ready for school on Monday, and they will hit the ground running,” she said. “When the kids get to class, they will all have a friend, and they will know who their teachers are.”