Outdoor Wilderness Lab (OWL) is a week-long outdoor learning experience for sixth graders at Bookcliff Middle School in Grand Junction. GOCO funding helped expand the program to the entire sixth grade at Bookcliff through the first-ever Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director’s Innovation Fund grants. OWL graduate Rylee Halcomb describes the impact of OWL on her life.

A week away from home. Nerves were getting the best of me. What would I do without my mom? Surely, I would be a mess. The picture I had created in my head of the Outdoor Wilderness Lab consisted of a nightmarish cabin with crazy rows of bunks and staircases leading to nowhere, days of reviewing hunter safety facts, and an overwhelming fear that I may experience frostbite. But much to my delight, OWL turned out to be a remarkable lifetime experience.

From the windows of the stuffed school bus, my best friend and I laughed until our sides ached and scanned the budding scenery in the hopes of spotting a lone deer in the greenery. Around the bend, a line of cheerful camp counselors greeted us with smiles and waves. At the main cabin, we gathered and received our journals where we would collect our thoughts for the next five days. I filled those first lines with descriptions of the numerous wild rabbits I witnessed springing about. We settled into camp with a delicious lunch, a few teambuilding exercises, and choosing our bunks in what turned out to be a fabulous cabin. That first night concluded with a relaxing review of our day. Our journals in hand, we were answering a few questions when the sky turned into a swirl of pinks and purples. Perhaps it was the higher elevation or maybe the unobstructed view or even just the simple fact of taking time to look up, but that sunset seemed closer and clearer and more real than most.

Survival skills were the center of attention at our OWLympics where our OWL Teams went head to head in learning how to build a fire with flint and steel and building a stretcher out of a piece of cloth and two sticks. Even though we were all having the time of our lives playing games, we were also learning valuable life skills that I was excited to show my family the next time we went camping.

Fishing in the past had always been a little boring for me. I had never paid attention to my surroundings or knew the importance of my line weight and bait, but after scouting out the entire lake and observing the patterns of my fellow fishermen, I ultimately used two weights and a green bait on a short, light pole with a long cast. After coming home from OWL, I couldn’t wait to buy my own fishing pole and bait and go fishing with my family. This one experience at OWL has changed the future of all my fishing experiences.

With a lot of preparation and hard work, I was able to come home with my Hunter Safety Card. Although I am proud of the card itself, I am more proud of the skills and confidence I came home with. From learning that I am right-eye dominant to learning archery and gun safety, I now know that hunting is a sport that requires patience, responsibility, and perseverance. Coming from a family of hunters, I was extremely excited to share my experience as well as show off my card.

I can honestly say that I learned more in a week at OWL than I have in years in the classroom. The hands-on field experiences make learning come to life. My team project investigated hydroelectric dams. Our goal was to build a dam that would not interrupt fish migration, so we created a fish ladder. The ladder would allow for the fish to easily jump up the staircases and then be scooped in a bait bucket to be safely moved to the other side of the dam. Our presentation included a dam, ladder, and wheel constructed of cardboard, sticks, beads, and lots and lots of duct tape! On the final day, I was proud to present to my family, and I could tell all of the parents were impressed by all we had learned.

The most memorable part for me was the night hike where I took my walk into the wild. In the pitch black of night, a dim moon was encircled by clouds and the crickets sang like a chorus. As we were each dropped off along the hike to observe our surroundings using our five senses, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming fear of being left alone. But strangely, as afraid I was to be sitting alone next to an enormous bush, I also felt connected to nature and to all of the people I had become so close with over the week. When I came back from my walk in the wild and back from my week at OWL, I came back grateful.