by: Rita A. Leonard, Looking in on the adult kayak-building class at Trackers NW. From left are students 
Brandon Liles and Jeff Bramlett, and instructor Thaddeus Koster, with framework made of local cedar and hazelnut woods.

An innovative program to connect kids with nature has taken root in the Brooklyn neighborhood, at 5040 S.E. Milwaukie Avenue. Trackers NW is a cooperative organized four years ago by Tony Deis, who was then working at the Portland Audubon Society. 'There was clearly a need to reconnect students with the natural environment, to develop their sense of self-reliance and respect for the earth,' Deis says. 'The Educational Director at Audubon, Steve Robertson, encouraged me to start up this business.'

Portland has several large natural areas, such as Forest Park and the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, which invite interaction with the environment. Trackers NW, located toward the northern end of Oaks Bottom, has a unique location that allows nearby nature study in both urban and riparian environments. Instructors at Trackers NW are developing a complete curriculum to help students of all ages push the edges of their comfort zone, by interacting more closely with the natural environment.

While various experts are brought in to teach specific subjects, such as beekeeping and cob construction, the core staff of Trackers NW consists of six partners. These are Tony Deis, founder and outdoor educator; Thaddeus Koster, boat builder, lead instructor in primitive skills, and 'creative engineer'; Molly Strand, self-defense skills instructor; Peter Bauer, occasional wilderness skills instructor; Shaun Deller, art and wilderness skills instructor; and Willem Larsen, team development consultant and culture mediator.

'Our focus is to support families in the neighborhood in getting their kids out, and into the outdoors,' says Koster. 'So far, we've had a great relationship with the Portland Waldorf School, and are also building connections with other schools.' Deis adds, 'Our primary focus is on home-school families, who want to expose their children more to the outdoors. We have a lot of incredible parents concerned with their kids' freedom and accountability, which matches well with our philosophy.

'Many of our after-school kids are coming from Llewellyn School. We just donated a week at day camp to the Llewellyn School Auction. We've been doing a number of one-hour presentations through different REI locations, and are helping organize and host an Open Space event June 20-21. We expect about 500 high school students, many from Cleveland High, who have attended Outdoor School. We expect them to give valuable feedback on outdoor education and tell what it has meant to them.'

Trackers NW's bimonthly e-magazine is filled with class information and thoughtful pieces written by staff. It can be accessed at the Internet website: Here you can find information on wilderness safety, re-wilding, green creative engineering, maps and myths, and adventures at places with rock climbing walls and swimming opportunities. Call 503/453-3038 for more information or to register for classes.

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