Friday, September 16, 2016

Meet Our New Naturalist Interns!

We have eight new naturalist interns at Sierra Outdoor School for the 2016-2017 school year! They are all super excited to join the team. Here's some interesting information about them!

Robin VanHouten
Nature Name: Sun Dog
Hometown: Granite, Maryland
Fun Fact: Robin's dream job as a kid was to be an astronaut... and he still hasn't given up on that dream.
What is one of the best experiences you've had in nature? He has seen a moose, bears, a grey wolf, and a mountain lion (it was only 30 yards away!).
If you could only eat one food item for the rest of your life what would it be? Bruschetta- roasted garlic, aioli, pesto, tomatoes, and good bread!

Amanda Colley
Nature Name: Salamanda
Hometown: Wingdale, New York
Fun Fact: Amanda was a part of a reforestation project in Ecuador and helped plant 1500 trees.
What is one of the best experiences you've had in nature? While she was teaching and searching for amphibians, she witnessed hundreds of young toads emerging from the water for the first time!
If you could have one superpower what would it be? Teleportation!
Brenna O'Halloran
Nature Name: Turkey Tail
Hometown: Eagan, Minnesota
Fun Fact: When living in Wisconsin, Brenna learned how to sail and wind surf on lakes.
What is one of the best experiences you've had in nature? While she was snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands, she saw amazing organisms like an octopus and she swam with sea lions and sea turtles.
If your life was made into a movie, which actress would you want to play you? Emma Stone.

Cassie Petrilla
Nature Name: Cricket
Hometown: Shanksville, Pennsylvania
Fun Fact: Cassie has traveled to every state except Alaska and Hawaii.
What is one of the best experiences you've had in nature? While she was in Wyoming guiding hunters in on horseback, she saw a grizzly bear catching fish in a river! 
If you could only eat one food item for the rest of your life what would it be? Peanut Butter.

Connor Reinecke
Nature Name: Lizard
Hometown: Bellingham, Washington
Fun Fact: Connor likes to build his own furniture.
What is one of the best experiences you've had in nature? While camping in the North Cascades he came across several streams with trout. Since the water was shallow, he was able to run around and catch them by hand. He never felt more like an animal.
If you were a smell, what would you be? Fresh cut grass.

Elise Adams
Nature Name: Coyote
Hometown: Davis, California
Fun Fact: The weirdest thing she has ever eaten is beetle larvae.
What is one of the best experiences you've had in nature? Elise got caught in a thunderstorm while backpacking in the Uinta Mountains and she found refuge in a cave.
If you could have one superpower what would it be? Flying.

Kelsey Roberts
Nature Name: Goose
Hometown: Jackson, Wyoming
Fun Fact: Kelsey had two pet chinchillas growing up, their names were Chip and Dale.
What is one of the best experiences you've had in nature? She used to guide sea kayaking trips in the Puget Sound and would often look in the water to find hundreds of sea jellies under her kayak!
If you could be a mythical animal, what would you be? Sasquatch.

Lauren Black
Nature Name: Blackberry
Hometown: Norman, Oklahoma
Fun Fact: Lauren once swam with wild dolphins in the Indian Ocean. 
What is one of the best experiences you've had in nature? While in Colorado she climbed to the top of Mt. Audubon, which is 13,300 feet in elevation, with 18 other people.
If you could have one superpower what would it be? To be fluent in every language in the world.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How to Start a School Environmental Club in 8 Easy Steps!

Hello students!

Have you recently come to Sierra Outdoor School and want to continue the fun?
Did you write an earth pledge in our Raptors and Conservation class and want to follow your dreams of helping the planet?
Are you coming to Sierra Outdoor School in the future and are wondering how you can prepare for an awesome experience?

Then creating an environmental club at your school may be the perfect idea for you!

Making a club at your school can sound like a lot of work, but with our easy 8 step guide you'll have it up and running in no time!

Step 1) Gather your friends!

Get a group of friends together and talk about your goals and dreams for an environmental club.  Are there things you learned about protecting the planet, saving the animals, and reducing your earth footprint at Sierra Outdoor School that you want to continue doing at school? 
Did you get inspired by the story of Olivia's Birds (, who raised over $200,000 to help the birds in the gulf oil spill?
Or did The Wolves Are Back, a story about how returning one species to an ecosystem can help all the plants and animals that live there, make you want to help the wolves and all the animals in the world?
Well then an environmental club is a perfect place to get started!  
Make sure you have at least 8-10 people interested in starting a club, then all you need to do is get a teacher or parent advisor!

Step 2) Get a Teacher or Parent Advisor!

All clubs need an advisor or supervisor, but this person does not need to be a scientist or expert in ecology, they simply need to be enthusiastic about helping students and the planet!  Getting help and advice from school administrators and teachers can be helpful as well, they may even have some ideas as to what projects could be done to help your school be more sustainable!
3) Come Up With a Goal!

You don't need a lot of members to start your club, but you do need some good goals for your club!  Coming up with a clear mission statement is a great idea, as well as a plan for how to recruit more people to join the club.
Here are some ideas for a mission statement from a great resource on starting an environmental club:(source:

The mission of the environmental club is to: 
·  provide students with the opportunity to learn more about their surroundings and participate in service projects at school and in the community
·  promote environmental awareness and develop social and life skills
·   increase student awareness of environmental issues and give them the ability to make a change
·  provide opportunities for students to become directly involved in a variety of projects relating to the environment
·   promote awareness of environmental issues and the responsibility and opportunity each of us have to make a difference.
Your mission statement can  include many things, but make sure it's something that everyone can agree on and get excited about!

4) Have Your First Club Meeting!
This is a great way to gather support for your club, promote it to new members and come up with some ideas for projects you might want to do as a club.  Post flyers around the school, make announcements over the PA system, and maybe even bake some cookies to share with everyone that comes to check out the club.
Don’t give up if only 5-6 people come- remember that they will tell their friends and word will spread- and who knows, maybe someday you could even have 100 members of your environmental club!

5) Promote Your Club!
Hold events at your school! Get the word out at school spirit events, sports games, and other special events.  Ask a local store to donate ice cream and then give it away to everyone that takes a quiz to find out their ecological footprint!
Organize a lunchtime or after-school event to celebrate Earth Day on Friday April 22!

6) Find a Project To Do!

Here's a list of ideas to get you started!  Remember, it's always a good idea to talk to your principal and administrators first because they might have a project that they may want your help on to make your school more sustainable and green.

·         Have a “wear green” day to raise awareness!
·         Show an environmental film and hand out free popcorn!
·         Gather all your friends and create a green school mural!
·         Create a school-wide "green" newsletter with tips, advice and announcements so everyone can go green!
·         Go on an environmentally-focused field trip- some good destinations include community gardens, landfills, recycling centers, and local non-profits serving the community!
·         Perform skits/songs with a green message at assemblies!
·         Create environmental tips for your school website, newsletter, or bulletin board!
·         Start or promote a recycling or composting program at your school!
·         Start a school garden!
7) Fundraise!

Many local businesses are excited to help students accomplish their goals and would love to offer donations in the form of snacks for meetings, supplies or projects or money.
It’s always important to thank businesses that support your club, and a fun way to do this is to make t-shirts for all club members with a list of sponsors on the back.

8) Keep the momentum going!

Make sure that you write down meeting minutes, all the projects you accomplish, and a list of all the sponsors, teachers, parents and students involved because some day you will graduate and a new group of students will want to continue the great work you started!
You may even inspire other schools in your town to start environmental clubs of their own!
Remember that there are endless projects that you can accomplish to help your school go green, educate and inspire your friends and classmates, and help the planet!

As Olivia says in her book Olivia’s Birds:

“We are the future generation, and even though one person can make a difference, together we can change our planet.  Thank you to everyone who is working to help out environment.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What Is Your Play Personality?

Recent research has shed light on the importance of play. Play is not just important for children, but people of all ages.

Sierra Outdoor School provides opportunities for students to play on the high ropes course

What Is Play?

Play is any activity that is done for its own sake, apparently purposeless. It has inherent attraction and frees you from a sense of time and consciousness of self. Play can produce surprise, pleasure, and new knowledge. 

How Do We Play?

Just as people learn in different ways, people also have different styles of playing. Read the following descriptions to learn your play personality. You may find one play personality describes you perfectly, or you may be a combination of two or more personalities. 

The Joker-- This play personality is the classic class clown. They use social strategies to make other people laugh. 

The Kinesthete-- This player likes to move. They may play athletic games, but competition is not their main focus. They like to feel the result of play in their bodies. 

The Explorer-- The explorer may be a physical, social, or emotional explorer. They may enjoy research or discovery.

The Competitor-- Do you know someone who likes to stick to the rules? They may be a competitor. These players play to win whether the activity is social or solitary, active or observant.

The Director-- These born organizers enjoy planning and executing scenes and events. They love being in charge of the players or the stage.

The Collector-- Whether they collect objects or experiences, these players hold the best collections. They may enjoy solitude or social experiences with other collectors.

Artist/ Creator-- The artist or creator finds joy in making things. These things may be beautiful, functional, or  goofy.

Story Teller-- This player has an active imagination. They may enjoy creating and telling stories or engaging in the stories of others.

Students visiting SOS from Casa di Mir Montessori School doing the limbo at a Hillbilly Hop Dance

Play Is Beneficial To Emotional, Physical, and Intellectual Health

Research collected by Stuart Brown has shown that students who play regularly have an increased likelihood of achieving their academic and career goals and have healthier living practices including the social, physical, and interpersonal dimensions of their lives.
People who play throughout their lives stave off neurological problems later in life, they are better problem solvers, are more equipped to navigate and adapt to the world. Play provides emotional distance to decide how to react to a problem. It is the truest expression of our individuality.
When was the last time you played?

SOS Staff being goofy and dressing up for an ugly sweater competition 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Winter Precipitation: Rain, Sleet, Snow, and more!

The winter here at Sierra Outdoor School has been a wet one so far, as El NiƱo visits California this year. As several of our school groups have been here spending time learning outside in all sorts of weather conditions, we decided to share some information about how different types of precipitation are formed.

The most common types of winter precipitation are those that most people can name: rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow. What many people are unaware of is that all winter precipitation begins as ice or snow crystals up in the cold cloud layer. If these crystals get big enough that the air rising from below can no longer support them against gravity, they begin to fall as precipitation. What they are by the time they reach the ground depends upon the air temperatures they encounter on the way down.

The four main types of winter precipitation. Source:
Rain, for example, begins as those ice or snow crystals and falls into a layer of air that is above freezing--and therefore, warm enough to melt it. If that warmer air continues all the way down to the ground, and the water droplets are 0.5 millimeters or larger, then we experience rain. If the droplets are smaller than 0.5mm, then technically it is classified as a drizzle.

Freezing rain occurs when those falling rain droplets go through a shallow layer of cold air near the Earth's surface--shallow enough that they do not have time to freeze in the air, but instead freeze upon contact with the ground. This leaves a coating of glaze, or ice, and may cause dangerous travel conditions as roads freeze or the weight of the ice brings down power lines and tree limbs.

Sleet occurs when raindrops, having melted from ice or snow crystals in the clouds, fall into a thicker or higher layer of cold air than freezing rain does. This gives them time to refreeze into ice pellets before they hit the ground. These ice pellets usually bounce, have a distinctive sound, may be spherical, and are usually transparent or translucent.

Snow falls when the ice or snow crystal travels through temperatures below freezing in all or most of the atmosphere from the cloud level to the surface. Large wet snowflakes occur when the snow falls through a layer of air where the temperature is above freezing, but is shallow enough that the snow does not have time to completely melt. Snow crystals come in all shapes and sizes, not just the familiar six-pointed star shape (which is called a stellar dendrite). These different shapes are shown in the chart to the right.

There are more than just these four main types of winter precipitation. One of the others that we have already experienced this winter is snow pellets or graupel (pronounced "graw-pull"), which many students think is hail. Hail is a dense ball of ice that is bigger, at least 0.5mm (or 0.2 inches) thick, and commonly is formed in a thunderstorm as strong updrafts hold the ice aloft until it grows big enough that gravity wins. During severe thunderstorms, large hailstones can cause damage and injury. Depending on the temperatures when it was being formed, hail may have clear ("hard ice" formed as the outer layer melted and refroze) and white ("soft ice" formed as other ice and snow crystals attached to it) layers if sliced open. In contrast, snow pellets or graupel are typically smaller than 0.5mm thick, are milky white, and do not need thunderstorms to form. They are made of "soft ice" and are formed as ice and snow crystals connect and merge with the surface of a partially melted snowflake on its way down to the ground.
Graupel, or snow pellets. Source:
Large hail, with golf balls for scale. Source:
Please be sure to check the weather forecasts on our website before coming up to join us on the hill, and pack accordingly! Remember, we are not located in the town of Sonora, but 2,000' feet above it with very different weather. With all types of winter precipitations, it is great to have layers that you can put on or take off, and a waterproof outer layer (rain jacket, poncho, rain pants, whatever you have) is essential as we spend at least some time outside for each class. Bring waterproof boots if you have them and if you don't, bring multiple pairs of shoes and lots of thick, warm socks. Keep an eye on our Facebook page to see photos and posts about what is currently happening at Sierra Outdoor School!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Fuel Break Helps Limit the Oak Fire

Visitors coming to the Sierra Outdoor School this year will notice something different on the drive in: a wildfire scar along a section of Old Oak Ranch Road from the Oak Fire. On September 8th two fires started along Big Hill Road and quickly burned up hill and joined together. The fire reached Old Oak Ranch Road before the fire was contained about half a mile away from the school. The fire burned 108 acres.

Oak Fire as seen from Sonora.  photo Steve Leontic

Oak Fire near Old Oak Ranch Road.  Photo

Besides the quick response of local firefighters and aircraft, a recently completed fuel break played a crucial role in slowing progression of the fire and limiting its spread. Work on the two-mile long, 300-foot wide shaded fuel break was started in September 2014 and finished that spring. The goal of this project was to provide fire protection to the local area and improve forest health. Fuel breaks will not stop a fire themselves, but slow a fire’s spread and provide defensible space. On September 8th that’s what it did. 

An example of a shaded fire break similar to the one on Old Oak Ranch Road. The picture on the left shows the forest before treatment with dead trees and thick brush.  The picture on the right shows the same forest after treatment. A shaded firebreak is not a clear cut.  Vegetation and other flammables are reduced under the canopy.   Dead trees and tall brush are removed so not to serve as a fire ladder to the canopy.  Ground brush is removed to reduce flammable material.  Trees are selected for removal to create breaks in the canopy and lower limbs and dead limbs are removed from trees.   Uncleared, overgrown forest next to the fuel break along Old Oak Ranch Road averaged about 200 trees per acre, treated areas in the fuel break averaged around 40 trees per acre.  Photos Texas Land Trust

The Picture on the left is from the Cone Fire Northern California. The fire burned quickly through the overgrown forest. The crowded forest allowed fire to reach the and burn the canopy. The picture on the right is from a shaded fuel break in the Cone fire. Note the tree spacing from thinning, lower limbs trimmed, brush cleared, and no ladder fuels allowing ground fire to climb to canopy. Here the fire burned slowly and cool. Photos American River Watershed Institute. 

“The fuels reduction work done on Old Oak Ranch Road, by the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council, was instrumental in keep the fire on the ground and not up in the crown of trees” SOS Director Mike Olenchalk remarked. As the fire raced up the hillside, the drought stricken trees burst into flames and the fire soon was burning in the tree tops. When the fire encountered the shaded fire break, the fire was only able to burn along the ground and unable continue its spread in the forest canopy. This bought valuable time for people to evacuate and for first responders to arrive on scene. The fuel break created defensible space from which firefighters could attack the fire.

“Cooperators on this fire break project included the Forest Service, Cal Fire, the California Department of Corrections, PG&E, TUD, Old Oak Ranch Conference Center, Sierra Outdoor School and the Highway 108 FireSafe Council.” Stated president of the Highway 108 FireSafe Council Glenn Gottschall. The project funded was with federal grant funds.

Additional fuels reduction projects are continuing around and on campus to provide fire protection to the local area.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Progress on the New Upper Education Building

SOS has been under construction for a few years now, and to our excitement the last building is almost complete! The construction progress has been long but extremely successful. We first received a new storage building, four residential houses, the Barn Classroom Building, and the Lower Education Classroom Building; Now the Upper Education Building is slated to be completed and in use by mid-January. Here are a few pictures to show how great it looks already!

This is from Old Oak Ranch Road side. The front entrance is just to the left. 

Just like the Barn Classroom Building we will have a great covered patio space.

Another view of patio and front of the building to the right.

A rear view from the dining hall side. 

Rear view from Old Oak Ranch Road side. 

The new building will have three classrooms, a museum space, a staff office, two sets of bathrooms, and a reception area, called the Lizard Lounge, which will be used as a place for the chaperones and teachers to relax. The Upper Education Building is set to add around 10,000 square feet to our indoor spaces here at SOS. Check back soon to see what the finished product looks like. We can't wait for the middle of January! 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Drought, Beetles, and Fire, Oh My!

Have you noticed any trees with browning foliage in your area? When looking up towards Sierra Outdoor School from the town of Sonora, the hillsides are dotted with brown. Sometimes this color is from deciduous leaves preparing to drop from trees like California buckeye and black oak, however this year there is significantly more brown on the hillsides. As you drive up to the school you see that the brown color is from ponderosa pine trees that have died over this summer. How did this happen? What can be done about it? Is this a fire risk?

After four successive years of drought, these trees have suffered and have been unable to respond normally to environmental stresses. One thing that can stress the trees are bark beetles. These insects lay eggs underneath the bark and the larvae feed on the wood. A healthy tree responds to a bark beetle attack by filling the hole with a thick, sticky, fluid called pitch. When the trees are under water stress, as they have been due to this drought, they cannot produce enough pitch to fill the holes and keep the bark beetles out. Once a few beetles get under the bark and into the wood, they send out a chemical that lets other beetles know there's food to be had. They also lay eggs in the phloem, the layer between the bark and sapwood. The area where groups of eggs are laid is called a gallery. This gallery tunneling damages the phloem which carries sap throughout the tree, further inhibiting their ability to fend off bark beetles and stopping the flow of energy to growing parts of the tree. These beetles can also bring in a fungus that, in addition to damage from gallery construction and feeding, also contributes to tree mortality.

 Once the tree has died and the needles are all brown, it becomes a fire hazard because it is more flammable than green, living trees. However, once the dead foliage has dropped to the ground, the standing dead tree (or snag) does not pose an increased fire risk. In fact, snags provides great habitat for a variety of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Once the snag has fallen, though, it can become fuel for future fires.

There are things we can do to protect our forests and private property. Once you’ve identified the trees and the beetles they may be susceptible to, there are some steps you can take:
1) Thin tree stands:  reduces competition for resources, keeps the healthiest trees, keeps a variety of ages of trees, hinders the chemical communication between beetles, and allows you to keep more drought tolerant species.
2) Clean up blown down trees or green slash so you don’t attract beetles to this food source.
3) Be careful not to weaken trees through injury by digging near them or removing bark.
4) Remove any trees that have beetles in them and any green material >3” in diameter or chip, bury, or burn it promptly. (Depending on the beetle species, this tactic may or may not be effective)
5) Have a professional properly apply pesticides to unaffected, susceptible, or high value trees in extended drought periods. This may help the tree(s) in the long run, but it not a guarantee.
6) Water trees during extended droughts by saturating the soil down two feet near the outer edges of branches. Careful not to over water!

Much of this information comes from a USDA pamphlet, “Bark Beetles in California Conifers”.  For assistance in managing forests on private land, contact Cal Fire. For info on insect and forest management on public lands, contact the USDA Forest Service. Here is some additional information on bark beetles.

Stay tuned for the next post to see what Sierra Outdoor School has done with our ponderosa pine die-off and how we’ve managed this forest to limit the risk of forest fires. And learn how these actions affected the Oak Fire that broke out on September 8, and came within a mile of our school.