“Youth in Nature” offers outdoor stewardship education and camaraderie for local high schoolers
Local nonprofit Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers (RFOV) launched a new paid internship and outdoor stewardship education program this school year.
The “Youth in Nature” program, which is open to students in tenth through twelfth grades in the Aspen-Parachute region, kicks-off with an orientation and hut trip in the summer and then meets once a month on Saturdays during the school year.
There’s no cost to apply for the free program, and participants earn $1,500 over the course of the year.
On a recent Saturday in February, the students headed up the Castle Creek valley to Ashcroft for a day of winter ecology, snow science and backcountry safety with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES).
“My recommendation for putting snowshoes on is to kneel down and then just kind of like a sandal, you put your foot through the front part and then the heel strap goes behind,” said ACES Field Programs Coordinator Emily Williams.
While some students in the new program have spent a lot of time outdoors, it’s not a requirement.
“I think this is going to be a really cool experience for me because this is my first time snowshoeing,” said Esmeralda Alverde Duarte, a junior at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale.
Duarte was born in Sonora, Mexico and outdoor activities like hiking and camping weren’t a big part of her childhood.
When Duarte’s mom heard about the inaugural program last year, she suggested her daughter apply.
“I was scared because I've always lived in the valley, but I'm not super involved in ‘outdoorsy things’ even though I really, really like it,” Duarte said. “I just feel like a lot of other kids in the valley have a lot of experience with it.”
Duarte said one of the most memorable experiences so far was the four-day hut trip that kicked off the program last summer.
“It was my first hut trip experience and I had never hiked that far to get somewhere,” she said. “We purified and collected water through a stream — it was really hard and cool.”
After a few introductions in the Ashcroft parking lot, Williams and ACES Education Director Andrea Aust led the students down a snowy trail along a creek.
“As you can see there is open water, so just be careful about where you’re putting your feet,” Williams said. “We’re gonna wander through the willows and back.”
On the other side of the willows, Aust asked the group to circle up.
“We are going to be talking about the skills you need to survive in the backcountry, how you could be a leader in the backcountry, and what risks you should be aware of,” she said.
The students broke into small groups to talk about what skills they thought might be useful.
“How to tell what snow is gonna cause an avalanche,” said Aspen High School student Caleb Seward.
“I think being prepared, like having enough water,” Duarte chimed in.
“Yeah, not really shorting yourself of resources is a big idea,” added Sierra Johnson, a junior at Coal Ridge High between Silt and New Castle. “And also knowing how to produce your own heat by making a fire and sheltering yourself from the wind would be pretty helpful.”
When the students circled back up, ACES guides Williams and Aust explained they were going to learn how to build two different shelters — a snow pit and an igloo-like shelter called a “quinzee.”
In an open meadow, Williams instructed the students to make a large pile of snow about 10-feet wide and 5-feet tall.
“You want a mixture of wet and dry snow so that snow solidifies together and then we'll come back to it at the end of the day and hopefully it will be ready for us to dig out,” Williams said.
She handed out shovels and the students got to work.
After about 15 minutes, the students had enough snow piled and packed for the quinzee.
While they waited for the structure to solidify — the ACES guides led the group to another spot along the trail to dig snow pits.
“We want to have a straight back wall and straight sides,” Williams said. “So I recommend digging down and then moving the snow behind you.”
In addition to providing some shelter from the elements, Williams explained that snow pits are a great way to learn about snow science and are often used in avalanche safety training.
“In a moment, we are going to give you all some of these kits with which to make observations and I’m going to introduce you to some tools,” she said.
After a short demonstration on how to measure things like snow depth, temperature and slope angle, Williams handed out the tool kits.
Aspen High student Caleb Seward — and Coal Ridge High student Asher Nichols teamed up to take measurements in the snow pit they dug.
Seward pulled out a magnifying glass to compare the different sizes of the snow crystals at the top and bottom of the pit.
“I think the bottom layers are more old snow and a little bit more grainy like sand,” he observed.
Next Nichols got out a thermometer and read the temperature measurements aloud to the group.
“It was 21 degrees at the top and 27 at the bottom,” Nichols said.
Williams gave the students a moment to guess why the snow at the bottom was warmer and then chimed in.
“The earth has that residual heat that makes it warm, so if you were an animal, where would you wanna live?,” she asked.
“Underground?,” Seward guessed aloud.
“Yeah, underground, under the snow — that’s one of my favorite facts,” Williams said.
Seward said he and his peers have learned a lot about the outdoors in the program so far, but his favorite part about the experience is the camaraderie.
“It's a pretty cool experience to meet people throughout the valley and to understand what other people like to do, and their backgrounds,” he said.
“Yeah, I think we all were able to connect in some way or another,” Duarte agreed.
Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteer Education Director Ben Sherman, who helps run the program, said he can’t help but smile when he hears the students make comments like that.
“We hear that so often from our group, that they've really come together as a team and each session is really a little reunion,” he said. “They have a lot of time getting back together and forming these connections with people they might not otherwise have spent time with.”
In addition to bringing students together from Aspen to Parachute, Sherman said he’s also proud of the wide range of experiences the program offers.
“Some of our other sessions have included time with Aspen Valley Land Trust on their Coffman Ranch property,” he said. “We also traveled out toward the monument in western Colorado and helped out the BLM with some trail projects and then followed that up with some canyoneering with Glenwood climbing guides.”
Sherman said RFOV has been working with the Aspen Community Foundation (ACF) to keep the paid opportunity going into the future.
ACF Program Director Tracy Anderson, who joined RFOV on their snowshoeing adventure at Ashcroft, said they’ve been able to secure funding for two more years of paid internship program from the Jonathan D. Lewis Foundation.
“We've got an amazing invested donor in this initiative,” she said. “They're very focused on youth empowerment and making an impact here in the Roaring Fork valley.”
The first cohort of students in the program graduate in May — and applications for the next “Youth in Nature” program are now open.
Glenwood Springs High School sophomore Noah Incze said he recommends the program for anyone interested in spending more time outdoors and making new friends.
“I would want to tell them that it is 100% worth it and it's been some of the best outdoor experiences I've had,” he said.
Incze said he and his peers plan to make the most of the last session in April — they’ll be learning about sustainable agriculture and land conservation at Highwater Farm on the Silt River Preserve.
Applications for “Youth in Nature” are available in Spanish and English and the deadline is Friday, April 14 at 5 p.m.
Students are accepted on a rolling basis and the upcoming program starts in June.