Cottonwood Crossings Summer Institute – in the beginning

Arlington High School students Ryan Hahn and Andrew Frail work on a plant inventory with Oregon Parks Natural Resource Specialist Noel Baheller at Esau Canyon. The two earned free college credits at Eastern Oregon University in Biology while doing the project at Cottonwood Canyon State Park.

It takes a special-kind-of kid to endure cheat grass in their socks and dust in their pancakes.

But by the great dust devils of Cottonwood, we had eight of them this year. And they rocked this 8,000-acre canyon land of sage and basalt with some extraordinary park projects.

Arlington High School Student Anakin Welp and Instructor Jeremy Lurgio set up a shot in a video journalism story on invasive species.

High school students from Arlington, Condon, La Grande and Boise camped out for five days here in late June and undertook projects in archeology, botany, writing and photography.

“The camp was a really great experience to have because a lot of people don’t have these opportunities; it opens doors for people,” said 17-year-old Andrea Galvin of Arlington “And it is a great intellectual and emotional experience to be away from phones and technology.”

CCSI teachers and students rafted 11 miles of the John Day River to take in flora, fauna and amazing geological formations in the basalt river canyon. Splash fights, swimming and feats of paddling strength were also part of the program.

This was the inaugural year for a five-day outdoor school at Cottonwood which featured high school students and teachers earning free college credits via Eastern Oregon University and Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Professionals.

Gilliam County Judge Steve Shafer lit a fire under CCSI Students on opening day, letting them know that he was depending on them to bring their best work to the table. Students did abide.

“Both Shannon (Duerdon-Thompson), and I were so pleased with the students involvement and finished projects,” said Arlington High School Teacher Lori McGuire “It was so neat to see it finally come off in such a great way. The river day was perfect and the kids couldn’t stop talking about the entire experience…”

Shawn Steinmetz with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indians delved into the meaning of Water Salmon, Deer Roots, Huckleberries and Water and how that vision steers restoration projects.

Lori McGuire was instrumental to the institute’s success, able to muster 6 students from the local area to complete the college coursework. She was on the ground floor in designing the program and cannot be thanked enough for her dedication.

Teacher Shannon Duerdon-Thompson doles out the sausage one morning while Andrew Frail and Ryan Haun anticipate the breakfast.

Parks Archeologist Nancy Nelson led groups on discovery and interpretation of stacked-rock features within the park. In addition, Nelson took special care to point out best ethics when coming into contact with historic or prehistoric artifacts.

Condon’s David Re was always the first to be up and at ’em at camp, bringing his best in both studies of archeology and plants. Re was also strong on paddles when it came to his trip down the river.

“I really enjoyed being at this institute it was a great way to get outdoors and learn; sitting in the classroom can get really old and boring and this did not. I am definitely interested in coming back next year,” said 9th -grader Rachael Keniry.

Mustache girls
Leah Harbaugh and Rachel Keniry had some interesting hair growth after the Chili Cook off. Mustaches might have been a prize won during the contest. The two students focused on a brochure that helps explain what CCSI is all about. They also worked on public service messages on stacked-rock features.

Oregon Parks Natural Resource Specialist Noel Bacheller spearheaded a plant inventory in Esau Canyon via beltline transects. Students were able to track native and invasive species through this process and then make comparisons to previous inventories to see if there were any trends. Unfortunately, it appeared that non-native grasses were increasing. But the number of native forbs had also bumped up.

Volunteer Hosts Jim and Dana Harnish tally scores at the chili cook off held on Thursday night. Word has it that there will be a dutch oven cook off at camp in 2016.

Cottonwood Crossings also brought in a couple of ringers. I mean, inside the shoe, metal-to-metal ringers.

Art Rzasa, an English teacher from Montana who has completed outdoor education programs for more than two decades, brought his magic to the table in writing skills. In addition he sought and got the talented Jeremy Lurgio, whose skills in photography and video journalism were bar none.

Jeremy Lurgio and Art Rzasa shoot the breeze after the sun went behind the canyon walls. These two powerhouses were task driven and helped students create professional videos, posters and writing that knocked the socks off viewers at final presentation held on Friday.

The two focused in on both botany and archeology, creating “Not Wanted” posters for invasive species, an “Oregon Field Guide” feeling journalism piece on doing plant inventories, and then two features with students Anakin Welp and Andrea Galvin. Welp narrated a piece on the native American Pictographs and its nearby  recent graffiti. And Galvin looked to the stacked rock and its message from the past to deliver a riveting poem.

Students and teachers were split into teams to do the cooking and the dishes.

“I’ve never seen kids that are more interested in what they are doing or adults who are more willing to help them,” Rzasa said. “I hope the institute will continue to grow and serve more teachers and students in North Central Oregon.”

Sherman County Teacher Carrie Danchok chats with Jeremy Lurgio and Anakin Welp behind the windbreak in group camp. Wind kept the first few days lively. We only crippled one sun shade though:)

While the program had a strong year, it is definitely still in the development process and much work is yet to be done in developing a sustainable program.

Rafting on Wednesday was truly a highlight of the week. Students even located something a little too big and splashing in a back channel. Unsure of what they saw, they simply named it “Jonny” the great river monster of the John Day.

But the effort to give students from rural communities in the John Day River Basin will remain strong. “Students in parks doing projects is a natural,” said Park Manager Tom Peterson. “Who better than the next generation to come and study these beautiful resources and create the layers of interpretation or understanding of them?  We need stewards. And they will be the ones to pass this on to their kids.”

Andrew Frail felt the heat as he worked on his plant inventory in Esau Canyon. Students went through a lot of bottled water and sports drinks during the week.

The Oregon Parks Foundation is currently working to raise funds for an experience center that would serve as a classroom as well as interpretive center. If the money can be put together, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has agreed to build 5 cabins and a shower facility to complete a small campus for continuing outdoor education. Those facilities would also be open the public when not in use by school programs.  This year, Cottonwood Canyon has held outdoor programs for schools in  Condon, Moro, Grass Valley and Arlington, and we hope to improve upon that in years to come. Those who are interested in donating to the experience center should email Oreg John Hoffnagle  at

Arlington Teacher Lori McGuire takes a short break atop Division of State Lands property to peruse the ridgeline for Medusa Head and Goat Grass.


Huge support for CCSI has come from Parks via Director Lisa Sumption and Deputy Director MG Devereux, Department of Environmental Quality’s Randy Jones who undertook the Memorandum of Understanding with Eastern Oregon University, OPRD District Manager Chris Parkins, Nancy Nelson, Noel Bacheller, John Hoffnaggle and Tim Wood with the Oregon Parks Foundation, Park Rangers David Spangler and Ryan Bell, Volunteer Hosts David and Heather Cross and Jim and Dana Harnish.

Archeologist Nancy Nelson had her first chance to spy the canyon walls from the river at Cottonwood in hopes of finding locations that might make sense for later surveys.

Art Rzasa and Department of Environmental Quality’s Randy Jones, who undertook and completed the memorandum of understanding with EOU,  went above and beyond to see this program through, never wavering in their dedication. And a huge shout out to my wife, Peggy! She brought the organizational skills to purchase groceries for a week for 24 people and designed the menus and even found prizes, such as Tums and Red Hots for the chili cook-off!

Parks Natural Resource Specialist Noel Bacheller points out an invasive species to nearby students Liam Duerden and David Re during a field trip to a wind swept ridge above the John Day River.

“I loved this institute, it was super fun and I enjoyed all of the great company. I also really liked how we didn’t have cell service because it definitely changed the experience in a good way,” said Leah Harbaugh.

For more information about the school, contact Tom Peterson at


And that’s a wrap. Our first school in the books, and we can’t wait ’til next year. See you then! Here is our group photo -good folk one and all. Participants are from right to left back row, Jeremy Lurgio, Art Rzasa, Liam Duerden, David Re, Randy Jones, Andrew Frail, Lori McGuire, Anakin Welp, Nancy Nelson. Front row, right to left, Chris Parkins, Shannon Duerden-Thompson, Julie Keniry, Andrea Galvin, Rachael Keniry, Leah Harbaugh, Tom Peterson, Ryan Hahn.
pink night
Teacher Carrie Danchok caught this quintessential photo of an evening at Cottonwood, warm with the sun’s sweet pink fingers stretching out in a last chance to touch the land before night’s veil captures the canyon.

6 thoughts on “Cottonwood Crossings Summer Institute – in the beginning

  1. Are you ever planning any full hook up RV sites? My husband has disabilities that make electric necessary. We want to explore Cottonwood Canyon but currently are unable.

    1. Katrina,

      Right now we don’t have enough power coming into the park to provide full hook-ups. In the coming years we plan to do an electrical use and availability assessment to see if this would be possible. However, local private and state parks in the area do have full hook-ups.

  2. What an impressive experience for these talented young individuals! Thank you for the efforts to bring outdoor interpretive education to such an important area in our region.

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