Outdoors enthusiast Debbie Lee used to take her children on nature walks around the Vancouver Trout Hatchery. Now she takes her grandchildren there.
With three youngsters in tow, Lee joined a caravan of families Saturday morning on a scavenger hunt to identify mushrooms in the woods. Their guided hike was part of a family field trip day put on twice a year by Columbia Springs, a nonprofit headquartered at the hatchery.
"Look on this tree!" Lee's 5-year-old granddaughter, Abby Anderson, exclaimed during the hike. She pointed to a group of mushrooms growing a few feet off the ground on the side of a slender tree trunk.
"Oh cool," Lee said, "they look like little umbrellas."
About 25 others joined the hike, guided by Columbia Springs' Lauriel Schuman.
"Mushrooms are super-important in the ecosystem," Schuman told the families on the trail. "They take all the stuff in the world that's dead, and they help break them down. … If you look carefully, they're pretty much growing on everything."
The families wound through the damp woods, following a dirt trail lined with fallen leaves. Children hunched low to the ground, looking for all types of mushrooms that they could check off their scavenger hunt lists.
Some mushrooms shot straight from the ground on a single stem.
Others looked more like shelves growing along the side of a log. Dozens of bright orange, pin-shaped mushrooms covered an old tree stump along the trail.
"You have good eyes, Carter," Lee told one of her grandsons. "You're catching everything."
Filling a void
The mushroom scavenger hunt was one of several activities during the family field trip event, which is designed to teach elementary school age children and their families about nature. Columbia Springs regularly conducts school field trips, but "we noticed a lot of kids don't get to come on those field trips," the organization's events and volunteer coordinator, Mariah Acton, said.
Acton said that children in the Pacific Northwest don't spend as much time in nature as previous generations did. Cuts to school funding have limited field trips to the great outdoors.
"Kids just don't get outside as much as they used to," Acton said. "There's kids who have never been on a hike before."
Event organizers estimated that 250 people attended Saturday's family field trip day at the hatchery. Children also had the chance to dissect owl pellets, examine compost material under a microscope, learn about nocturnal creatures, listen to bird sounds and go bird-watching.
Lee and her grandchildren appeared in good spirits following their hike under overcast skies.
"It was fun because we found all kinds of different mushrooms," Lee's 6-year-old grandson, Topher Anderson, said. "I found my favorite mushroom -- a brown one, and it was on a log."
Another one of Lee's grandchildren, 12-year-old Carter Anderson, said: "I wish we had this for school every day."
Columbia Springs is a partnership of the Evergreen School District, the city of Vancouver, Clark County, Clark College, Clark Public Utilities and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. For more information, visit http://columbiasprings.org.