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Ecosystem Exploration

Each fall, an Honors College (HC) student cohort packs up sleeping bags, tents, and rain gear and leaves Corvallis to explore oft-ignored areas of the Pacific Northwest. Led by John Buckhouse, emeritus professor in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences, and his team of hand-picked experts, the students learn about the ecosystems of each location they visit. And while they’re out analyzing rock formations and hearing about the environmental benefits of livestock grazing with their peers, they’re also finding their place within the HC’s own diverse ecosystem.

The class — called Oregon Outback Tour — began in 2009, when former HC Dean Dan Arp reached out to Buckhouse with a new idea. Arp’s original goal, Buckhouse recalls, was to “help these wonderful, bright students from wildly divergent backgrounds and majors have an opportunity to see something totally unique to them and learn something about the lesser known places and environments in Oregon, bonding [with each other] in the process.”

Sam Box, a current HC senior and chemical engineering major with an environmental processes option and a minor in environmental geosciences, first went on the trip in 2010.

“It sounded like a fun chance to go hiking and explore some areas in Oregon I’d never been to,”

Box says. “I signed up more on a whim, but I’ve never regretted it.” In fact, Box regretted it so little that he went on the trip the subsequent three years, assisting Buckhouse with lessons and overall trip execution, and he plans to go again in fall, 2014. Box says he enjoyed that first year, “not only because I was able to learn about parts of Oregon and California [that] I knew very little about, but also because the group of kids on the trip were so fun…One of my strongest memories from the first trip is hanging out around the campfire and just talking with people.”

Throughout each trip, Buckhouse asks the students to circle up and discuss what they’ve learned. By the end, Box says, “everyone automatically goes to the circle, and we have a final get-together where everyone talks about their favorite parts and what they appreciated most.”Tim 04_FinalHike (10) copy

Many students highlight the camaraderie the trip provides; “everybody, whether they were a senior Spanish major or a freshman falconer apprentice, was just as enthused as I was,” wrote Caitlyn Clark, a senior in ecological engineering, in a reflection paper from the 2012 trip. As Box says, “One of the most important concepts that we learn over the course of any of the trips is the idea that with any ecosystem management you must work within the constraints of nature, and, when possible, attempt to imitate natural processes. But the class also provides the chance to interact with and form lasting connections with other Honors College students.”

The HC community places great priority on creating conversations between people from different backgrounds and disciplines, and experiential courses such as this are designed to facilitate those kinds of interactions. According to Chris Cohen, a senior zoology major who went on the trip in 2013, it did just that: “[The trip] was an excellent way to introduce me to more of my peers, all of whom had different majors and who I might have never met otherwise.”

Buckhouse’s famed campsite cooking is a key part of the class’s success as well. “The delectable smell of London broil and baked potatoes filled the air, and after a long day of climbing and hiking, many of us rushed to the call of dinner” wrote Arthur To, a senior microbiology major, of the 2012 trip. Box says Buckhouse does this intentionally: “He realized long ago that when everyone is full, they are much happier to deal with issues like weather or whatever else comes up.”DSCN0849

But since the Outback Tour is a class for credit, the trip isn’t just about having fun at the campsite. Each year, Buckhouse invites researchers and writers to join the group and contribute to lessons. Students who went in 2013 spoke highly of the team Buckhouse selected, particularly Dr.Scott Burns, who Buckhouse calls the “the nation’s foremost geology expert on the Gorge and the Missoula Floods.” In her reflection essay, Abby Sage, a senior in fisheries and wildlife sciences, wrote, “Geology has a reputation of being dull and inert, but Dr. Scott Burns destroyed this stereotype when describing the cataclysmic events that formed the Columbia River Gorge.”

“Scott was so enthused to teach us all about the gorge, its history, and its wonders,” wrote Shelby Lofton, a junior in fisheries and wildlife science, “that he seemed to lose his voice as the day progressed, but his passion was contagious. I found myself amazed at the massive disaster that created all of this beauty.” In fall, 2014 Buckhouse will take students to the pumice dunes in Central Oregon’s Lost Forest. “If you get the chance,” Box says, “take it.”

Tour Summaries

2009: For the first Oregon Outback course, Buckhouse took students to Steens Mountain and Kiger Gorge in Southeastern Oregon, visiting Native American pictographs on the way back to Corvallis to have “a reflective moment of those who passed before our time here,” he says.

Visit the HC photo gallery to view more photos of the 2009 Oregon Outback Tour

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2010: The trip took students to Sycan Marsh, the Klamath wetlands, and Lava Beds National Monument, the site of the Modoc War. Box says the 2010 trip was his favorite “because it was the first class I ever did at OSU, and no other Honors class has managed to surpass it.”

Visit the HC photo gallery to view more photos of the 2010 Oregon Outback Tour

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2011: Buckhouse’s group went to Pallisades State Park in Central Oregon and received permission from Oregon State Parks to visit “The Island,” located where the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers meet. The area is highly protected, “off-limits to everyone but a handful of researchers,” Buckhouse says.

Visit the HC photo gallery to view more photos of the 2011 Oregon Outback Tour

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2012: This year brought the cohort to Fort Rock and Crack in the Ground in Central Oregon, an area Buckhouse considers “one of the most remote places in Oregon.”

Visit the HC photo gallery to view more photos of the 2012 Oregon Outback Tour

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2013: This past October, the trip ventured to the Columbia River Gorge to learn about how the Missoula Floods shaped the area’s geology and journeyed to Horsethief Lake, on the Columbia’s Washington side, to see She-Who-Watches, a sacred Native American pictograph well-known in the region.

Visit the HC photo gallery to view more photos of the 2013 Oregon Outback Tour 

By Jessica Kibler

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