Students of the Peak

About this time four years ago, 25 people stood in a circle in the parking lot of Mary’s Peak. Each an expert in a field related to the mountain, they introduced themselves to each other one by one. Dave Eckert and Barry Wulf, co-founders of the Mary’s Peak Alliance, had gathered the group. They were all volunteering their time to lead 200 Cheldelin Middle School earth science students on the summit loop trail and show them the physical beauty, ecological diversity, and cultural importance of the Coast Range’s highest point.

“It was stunning because we hadn’t quite realized what we had done,” recalls Eckert. “We had gotten all these people together, most of whom didn’t know each other, and all had this interest in one place. It was great to see all these adults getting together and getting excited like little kids,” he said. “We knew we had something then.”

Flash-forward to the present and you will find a similar scene playing out, now with strangers-turned-friends leading the trips and even more students attending them. Between May and June, Cheldelin, Linus Pauling, and Franklin earth science students make their way to the peak for the same purpose. After a year spent learning about geology, oceanography, ecology and the like in the classroom, the field trip is “kind of a celebration they build up to… It’s the capstone. It’s the final thing that puts it all together,” Eckert says. 

During each field trip, groups of about a dozen students, a parent, and a teacher or administrator walk the summit loop with the help of certified interpretive guides that take them to different stations led by the aforementioned experts. This way, each individual has “a different learning experience. They see different things, so when they come back, they share it, and that’s part of the education is that they become trainers… You don’t know anything until you can tell it to someone else,” explains Eckert. 

Along the way, interpreters may point to the Pacific Ocean and ask the group who has ever been there. A flood of hands rise. Later on, they’ll point out the Cascade Range, and similarly excited to share their experience, students raise their hands more enthusiastically. Being in a place where the students can see the entirety of the region they live in is what “gets into the soul of the students more than us telling them the dates that things happened and the names of people. You know it’s the human relationship with the peak that really gets them,” says Eckert. 

Considering that some students have never been to Mary’s Peak before, or even spent much time in nature, it is especially significant that these field trips are completely free to the students and schools that attend them. 

Funding from the Sierra Club, private donations, the dedicated volunteers that lead the trips, and a smooth permitting process with the U.S. Forest Service are responsible for this. Money raised goes towards running training for the interpreters, paying for school buses to transport the students, teachers, and parents, bringing in additional portable toilets, and providing any supplies needed. Each year the MPA must raise about $5,000 to cover these costs. Eckert laughs. “We do it by the seat of our pants. We don’t have any grand funding plan, we just do it.” 

This gung ho attitude is perhaps characteristic of the rest of the MPA as well. 100 percent volunteer-led, a seven-member steering committee leads the group underneath their umbrella organization AFRANA — Alliance for Recreation and Natural Areas — which works as a “friends of natural areas and parks in the Benton Country area,” Eckert explains.

To carry out the MPA’s mission of “inspiring the public and Mary’s Peak property owners to appreciate the ecological communities, physical features and cultural importance of Mary’s Peak so we all work together to protect & conserve this special place,” each member of the steering committee brings different experiences to the table. While some may be forest service retirees, others are well-versed in Kalaypuya histories, and still others know the ins and outs of the City of Corvallis Watershed on the peak. 

In addition to running the middle school field trips, the MPA puts on talks at the Old World Deli about topics related to Mary’s Peak. The organization is also working with the current property owners of Mary’s Peak, the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians to name headwater streams in indigenous languages. Members representing the Kalapuya, Mooshin (Alsea), and Yacone (Yaquina), whose namesake watersheds all start on different faces of Mary’s Peak, have complete control over what these names will be. 

While students on the field trips may not be involved as deeply with these efforts, they do leave the peak with a new perspective of where they live and how they relate to it. This is key to any future management plans. Eckert explains: “Once they have that foundational care for Mary’s Peak, things fall into place. The students want good things to happen to it. They want to go there and respect it.” 


By Ari Blatt