A Time to Grow Back Stronger

Rebuilding Whiskeytown Environmental School…

Between 1970 and 2018, some 134,000 fifth- and sixth-graders got to splash in Clear Creek, hike, camp overnight, marvel at star-filled skies and learn about the natural world during a weeklong outing at the Whiskeytown Environmental School.

Friends having fun climbing trees. Photo courtesy of WES Community.

For many, it was their first time away from home and their first extended outdoors experience. It was a chance for personal growth and it became a unique North State initiation of sorts. It all ended on that hot July day in 2018 when the Carr Fire tore through the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

Photo by Jessica Zettlemoyer.

The Whiskeytown Environmental School (WES) Community, a nonprofit organization, is working hard to return the humble school to its former glory with a capital campaign it has titled “Grow Back Stronger.”
The school remains open, but is limited to daytime use only. It continues to be operated by the Shasta County Office of Education. More than 2,000 K-8 students attended field trips in 2023. Melinda Kashuba, president of the WES Community board, says her group appreciates the daytime use but notes the real magic happens when kids get the chance to settle in for a week of hikes, activities and camaraderie.

Science in nature. Photo courtesy of WES Community.

Judy Flores, Shasta County superintendent of schools, agrees: “For some of our students, this was their first time away from home overnight and proved to be a real growth opportunity. For other students, this intensive focus on science and nature proved to build their love for the outdoors and reinvigorate their curiosity in nature.”

Photo by Jessica Zettlemoyer.

Flores, who brought her fifth-graders to WES while a teacher at Shasta Meadows School, says after the Carr Fire, her office heard from dozens of people who spent a part of their childhood at WES. “Many have called it a ‘rite of passage’ that they want future generations to benefit from. Others have shared how they pursued specific careers based on their experience and wanting to work in nature. And still others have shared how much it has fueled their passion for hiking throughout our county and region as a result.”

Judge Eaton at WES. Photo courtesy of WES Community.

New housing is required before WES students can enjoy nature at night, and toward that goal, the “Grow Back Stronger” campaign has raised $5.5 million for three fourplex cabins that can each house 120 students and 24 chaperones for a total of 144 individuals per week. Each fourplex unit would have its own restrooms and showers. The new cabin project has a current price tag of $7.5 million.

Hiking in the rain. Photo courtesy of WES Community.

Fundraising for a separate $75,000 project to rehabilitate the WES amphitheater is well on its way as well, with about $55,000 collected. Four Rotary clubs (Redding, Redding East, Redding West and Anderson) combined for a $17,250 grant for materials and will donate labor to help rehabilitate the amphitheater. Last fall, East Redding Rotary members began clean-up of the amphitheater area and continue restoring the trail from the amphitheater to Clear Creek.

Other projects in the master plan include an administration building, dining hall, utility improvements and road repairs.

1970s guitar circle on the lawn. Photo courtesy of WES Community.

The WES Community’s progress is exciting, says Scott Einberger, a supervisory interpretive park ranger, and it demonstrates how important the school is to the North State. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to show our regional office how much the WES Community has fundraised and find a pot of money in the National Park Service to help rebuild.”

Frog catching is a kid’s favorite. Photo courtesy of WES Community.

Although the park service is committed to rebuilding the school, “it’s not going to happen overnight. When we try to get funding after disasters like the Carr Fire, we’re competing with every other national park,” Einberger says.

Einberger and his colleagues agree the school is providing its highest value when it’s able to host kids for the weeklong sessions. “As great as the day programs are, it adds a massive level when you get youths out overnight in the great outdoors,” he says. “There’s just no substitute.”

Photo by Jessica Zettlemoyer.

Kashuba and fellow board member Kathy Hill, both former teachers, are fans of the science taught at WES. Following California’s Next Generation science education standards, the hands-on lessons cover topics like photosynthesis,the food web, conservation, natural resources, sustainability and Native American history.

“Helping students to get away from screens and experience the outdoors has created a love for the outdoors and for all that is available in our area to explore,” says Flores, the county schools superintendent. A week at WES provides a first-hand experience with science concepts they’ll be learning about later in school, she adds. “Experiencing the science standards in nature builds understanding in a way that reading about it in a text cannot.” •

Whiskeytown Environmental School Community •

About Jon Lewis

Jon Lewis is a Redding-based writer with 37 years of experience. A longtime San Francisco Giants fan, his interests include golf, fishing and sharing stories about people, places and things. He can be reached at [email protected]

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