On Thursday, 6-year-old Hayden Stene is eager to go out on his first snowshoeing adventure at Kalispell Montessori School.
Stene gets help strapping into his neon orange snowshoes, which stand out against the white snow.
“Look, it makes squares,” Stene exclaims as he makes a waffle pattern in the snow with the snowshoes.
When asked if he hopes to find animal tracks during the hike, he is quick to reply, “Yes.”
There’s not much time for talk when Stene jogs and then runs off with his classmates in wide steps. He appears to have quickly adapted to the oversized platter-like snowshoes strapped to his feet.
Stene is part of the Elementary I class, the Montessori way of grouping first- through third-graders.
Elementary I teacher Angela Hong says the school tries to get students out snowshoeing at least once a year.
“We snowshoe sometimes in Glacier [National Park] sometimes on Big Mountain, but we thought this time we’ve got a beautiful environment right in our own backyard — why not try that,” Hong says.
Outdoor activities are an important part of the learning process at Kalispell Montessori.
“Getting out to nature is part of Montessori,” Hong said. “They’re learning and they’re excited.”
The snowshoe trek is led by Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center Executive Director Brett Holmquist and new Program Director Jennifer Bresee.
“We’ll snowshoe. We’ll play a bunch of games. We’re going to hear some stories — adventure a little bit — build some forts and learn outdoor skills. We’ll definitely do a lot of tracking with the fresh snow,” Holmquist says. “Today I’ll probably be telling a traditional Kootenai story that I don’t get to tell very often because it’s a story told during winter.”
When all 29 students have their snowshoes on, they are ready to leave, having talked about the things they should watch out for when hiking: wildlife, ice, thorns, branches or barbed wire.
They begin hiking away from the school toward the Stillwater River. Before walking into the woods they regroup in a circle. Some students sit down while others flop on their stomachs, sinking a little in the snow.
“You have this wonderful opportunity living here now to try to understand this land and its history and the people that are from this place and call this place home,” Holmquist said. “The funnest way to do that is by playing games.”
As students stand in a long row, Holmquist tells them how to play a game called “run and scream,” which has origins as an American Indian game.
“It’s really fun. It’s really easy. All you have to do is yell and run. But there’s one important rule. You can only run and yell on one breath of air,” he said. “You run until you run out of breath.”
The students take big breaths and take off screaming. The screams are loud enough to be heard back on the school playground where students stop from tossing a football to look.
After expending some energy, the children form a circle and talk about their next destination into the woods to Stillwater River. Soon, all eyes turn to the sky where a bald eagle is flying overhead.
Holmquist takes a canoe-shaped basket made from bark out of his backpack. He asks what kind of wood it is. Eight-year-old Margo Cummings is certain it is cedar, likening the fibrous bark to “strings of hair.” Cummings said she was familiar with the bark, having camped with her family in a cedar forest.
Before walking into the woods, Holmquist and Bresee task the students to count as many birds as they can see. When it comes to tracking animals, Bresee tells them how to take in “everything at once” using their “owl eyes.” Because owls have such large eyes, they have different muscles that don’t allow for back-and-forth movement, according to Bresee. Owls can turn their heads as much as 270 degrees, but since students can’t do this, Bresee suggests another method.
“To have owl eyes stretch your arms apart. Try looking straight forward. Wiggle your fingers. Look in the corners of your eyes to see your wiggling fingers,” Bresee said.
Several students notice a chunk of deer hide and a pungent odor. Bresee face lights up at the find. She speculates it’s from a fox’s food cache.
Before continuing their hike, Holmquist leads them in games such as hide-and-seek or what he calls “camouflage” before continuing their hike exploring the surprises and wonders of nature.
Hilary Matheson is a reporter for The Daily Inter Lake. She may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kalispell Montessori first-grader Luciana Kress runs past Hana Houston while playing a game of "run and scream" during a outdoor learning experience with snowshoes on Thursday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake}