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Let’s get ready to rumble: Mount St. Helens Institute to expand outdoor education at Coldwater

Science and Learning Center at Coldwater getting new life with nearly $1 million for facility upgrades

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 17, 2023, 6:10am
8 Photos
School buses sit parked in front of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Science and Learning Center at Coldwater on May 23. The facility is entering a new phase of life that is expected to boost its capacity to host thousands of students and boost tourism.
School buses sit parked in front of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Science and Learning Center at Coldwater on May 23. The facility is entering a new phase of life that is expected to boost its capacity to host thousands of students and boost tourism. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL VOLCANIC MONUMENT — Amid children’s excited chatter and giggles, the first signs of a volcanic eruption — harmonic tremors — spread at the base of Mount St. Helens.

Nearly 60 Hazel Dell Elementary School fifth-graders fervently rolled their ankles, mimicking the way Mount St. Helens’ pressure built in 1980. Knees swayed, hips shook and heads wiggled left to right as tensions grew until — Boom! The volcano erupted, quickly releasing avalanches of rock and gas, or pyroclastic flows, one of the deadliest volcanic hazards.

Mount St. Helens’ blast zone could be seen mere miles away from the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater, the hub for youth education centered around Southwest Washington’s most notorious volcano.

The Hazel Dell kids are among many who go on day trips or participate in classroom experiences offered through the center. But its operator, educational nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute, has a large-scale master plan to vastly expand the capacity of its immersive overnight program from hundreds to thousands.

And things have already started rumbling.

What’s the plan?

The institute’s 2021 master plan to develop its hub seems nearly as massive as its namesake volcano.

Changes will expand educational opportunities for kindergarten through 12th-grade students, increasing the center’s capacity from 500 students to upwards of 5,000, said Ray Yurkewycz, Mount St. Helens Institute executive director.

The transformation will happen incrementally.

By the end of 2024, the center will have new yurts and staff housing scattered in what is now the center’s oversized parking lot. The additions are an upgrade from its current setting, a dark narrow space that was previously the center’s bookstore.

“It’s totally makeshift,” Yurkewycz said. “We want these kids to feel comfortable.”

Overnight lodging, dining and educational spaces will be incorporated into the site after its first phase, which will eventually host more than 13,000 guests a year. Forty vehicle and tent sites will be dispersed in forested areas next to the center with multiple hiking and biking trail systems, directly connecting visitors to the volcanic landscape.

To keep up with this growth, the institute will eventually need 40 to 50 full-time employees — a jump from the 15 it has now.

To date, the Mount St. Helens Institute has received $1.3 million for the project, which paid for master planning, feasibility and design and engineering for this phase. The institute’s immediate developments will cost between $10 million and $15 million.

There is a variety of both public and private stakeholders making the Science and Learning Center’s expansion possible, many of whom also see it as an investment for the state’s tourism industry.

The Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office awarded the institute $250,000, and the Cowlitz Tribal Foundation earmarked $900,000 — its largest donation to date. The U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities provided $210,000, with an additional $300,000 coming from private donors.

Altogether, the entire endeavor will cost between $35 million and $45 million, with completion by 2030 for the 50th anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption.

A beloved mission

What do children get excited about the most? According to Yurkewycz, it’s two things: dinosaurs and volcanoes.

Being able to see the impacts from such a massive eruption is an inspiring, compelling, unique and powerful opportunity, he said. It grabs people’s attention and allows them to be interested and ask questions.

“I just felt tiny,” Yurkewycz said, recollecting the first time he saw Mount St. Helens’ crater and pumice plain in person. “I felt it was beautiful, but it also felt uncomfortable as I looked and tried to grasp the scale of the eruption.”

Mount St. Helens Institute, founded in 1996, seeks to stir that same sense of awe. Field seminars, guided hikes and youth education programs all serve the same purpose: spark a curiosity about and adoration for nature, whether serene, destructive or both.

Hazel Dell Elementary teacher Joleen Brick’s smile never wavered as she watched her students participate in the demonstration. Their nearly two-hour bus ride from Vancouver to the center was laden with overactive imaginations and anticipation — plus plenty of volcano facts — because it was their first field trip.

“These kiddos were in second grade when COVID-19 hit,” Brick said. “This is a big deal.”

Those who visit during day trips and overnight stays are immersed in the landscape. They examine rocks and explore nature paths, seeing firsthand how nature can flourish in the remnants of a massive volcanic eruption, said Gina Roberti, Mount St. Helens Institute education coordinator. They can see elk, mountain goats and whatever else crawls between trees.

“The biggest thing that I want is for young people to have an experience that they can reflect on later,” she said.

Outdoors for all

Washington has a history of connecting youth and nature.

In 1939, Ellensburg opened the nation’s first outdoor school, which grew in popularity in the following decades. Research shows that children who learn in nature tend to have higher academic achievement, more meaningful peer relationships, and better leadership and collaborative skills, according to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

However, funding and support for these opportunities was unbalanced and inequitable, particularly in lower-income schools and districts. Only about 10 percent of Washington students benefit from outdoor school, most from higher-income districts, according to Outdoor Schools Washington.

Costs per student for overnight programs are about $175 per night, and about $12 per person per hour for day trips. Few students pay a full rate for the Mount St. Helens Institute’s programs because the institute subsidizes as many fees as possible and fundraises to cover transportation costs, Yurkewycz said.

In 2022, Washington passed legislation to expand outdoor education programs and related grants, which provides funding to school districts, tribes and other outdoor school providers. All fifth- and sixth-graders in the state benefit from the program.

It mirrored Oregon’s program, introduced in 2015, which used state lottery funds to support fifth- and sixth-grade outdoor learning. Washington’s statewide initiative was presented in the Legislature during the COVID-19 pandemic, as students were isolated from their classrooms and each other.

Many of the kids who visit the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater are experiencing a lot of firsts, especially when staying overnight, according to Yurkewycz. They haven’t been away from their parents, and some haven’t been camping.

This discomfort, maybe even anxiety, can be transformed into confidence when coupled with fun education and peer engagement.

“Those relationships translate into a different atmosphere in the classroom and improve academic and social outcomes because of the relationships that are forged through that unique experience,” Yurkewycz said. “Outdoor school plus the volcano is just a very strong, powerful combination.”

Slide puts Coldwater at center of activity

The Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center at Coldwater has become a hub for the monument’s summer operations following a landslide in May that blocked the site’s main road.

On May 14, a mixture of muddy, rocky sludge swept over Spirit Lake Memorial Highway near Milepost 49, blocking visitors’ only access point to Johnston Ridge Observatory. With its doors temporarily shut, the U.S. Forest Service team that works there merged with the Science and Learning Center, which is operated year-round by educational nonprofit the Mount St. Helens Institute.

The public can visit the center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily to view the north side of Mount St. Helens, where its deep crater is visible. Here, visitors can learn more about the volcano’s 1980 eruption, as well as how the landscape and nearby communities recovered.

The Science and Learning Center’s parking lot will be locked at 4 p.m. daily for overnight school field trips hosted by the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center.

For information on the center’s operations and what it offers, visit the Forest Service’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest webpage, www.fs.usda.gov/giffordpinchot.

— Lauren Ellenbecker

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer