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Nurtured by nature

Forest education

They've whooshed across the woods on skis in subzero temperatures. They've planted hundreds of pines, tapped maple trees for syrup and spied on trumpeter swans.

Lately, Waubun students have often ditched the classroom for their school forest, 160 acres of maples, oak and ironwood where classes rarely ventured.

In the past couple of years, a broad community effort has spruced up forest facilities and ushered an en masse return of students. That campaign was spearheaded by two retired teachers and outdoor enthusiasts concerned about climbing rates of obesity and diabetes on the White Earth Reservation.

Teachers and volunteers now hope the frosty pocket of wilderness will help cultivate a passion for exercise and a taste for adventure.

"Students start looking around and seeing their environment a little bit differently," said science teacher John Short.

The Waubun School District has owned the 160 acres in the White Earth State Forest since the 1980s. The acquisition was part of a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources school forest program; its Web site touts outdoor learning for boosting focus and self-esteem.

But for the longest time, Short and a colleague were the only ones who brought students there. Rampant brush claimed the trails.

A couple of years ago, retired teachers Ray and Carolyn Thorkildson lobbied the school for a return to the forest. The Thorkildsons are longtime cross country skiing buffs whose daughter, Jill Troutner, competed on the national biathlon team.

They decry teens' "lack of exercise and too much watching TV," as Carolyn puts it. "We've noticed that when the kids sweat, it's almost something new to them."

Ray groomed the trails. The district moved out a portable classroom and turned it into a warming hut. An energetic group of volunteers - mostly parents and retired teachers - hit up businesses and community groups for donations to buy skis and snowshoes.

Students have made frequent visits to the forest this year. Groups from neighboring districts also come.

Short's high school students tested the water quality of once badly polluted Jessie Lake and watched trumpeter swans return this past spring. They built wood duck houses, which they're hoping to equip with cameras so they can watch hatchings at school.

"I try to take the classroom dryness out of it by doing the real science out in the forest," Short said.

Vicki Haugo takes her physical education class to the forest several times a week, including on a recent sunny afternoon when the temperature was about 5 below. After following the trails, fourth-grader Peyton Syverson and his crimson-cheeked friends dashed into the hut in search of hot cocoa. Their mouths stuffed with cookies, they told of adventures such as crashing into a tree.

To think that if they had stayed inside, they probably would be doing sit-ups and jumping jacks, Peyton pointed out with a lack of enthusiasm. He said his classmates were unfazed by the cold: "They were pretty excited. When we had to reschedule a couple of times, they went, 'Aw.' "

Friends Ali Kent and Anna Lehrke said this time of year, they're mostly cooped up inside, so they've enjoyed the skiing lessons and take the occasional setback in stride. "When we fall down, we laugh," Anna said.