Dawn breaks early at this time of year at Henry Hagg Lake in remote Washington County, and the normally quiet mornings are usually punctuated only by bird calls and the occasional fish breaking the surface of the water, leaving circles of spreading ripples in its wake.
But on the morning of May 24, the peace and calm were broken by squeals of excitement coming from Laurel Ridge Middle School students in Travis Simpson's survival class who were accompanied by members of the Tualatin Valley Chapter of the Northwest Steelheaders, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife employees, the Tualatin Cabela's marketing manager, Asha Aiello, and some of the kids' parents.
The students were on a mission: To practice their casting skills and catch some fish, with the event serving as the capstone in their year-long quest to learn survival skills.
For the second year, Simpson has taught the program and exposed students in his two survival classes at LRMS to a wide variety of situations they could encounter if they ever had to fend for themselves far away from civilization, while also providing solutions.
Simpson also has formed partnerships with some local businesses and experts who have provided his students with equipment and expertise to expand their horizons even farther.
"The goal of the year-long class is to give them more confidence in being in the outdoors," Simpson said. "I'm exposing them to hobbies that bring you peace and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, and whether it's the beauty of nature or recreational sports, being outside relieves the stresses of life. Everything is hands-on."
Simpson is especially pleased with how the partnerships have developed, starting with Aiello at Cabela's.
"Cabela's has provided the compasses we use for land navigation, survival matches so we could test match brands and water-filtration systems as well as fishing rods," Simpson said.
Last year Simpson, who has 50 students in two survival classes, started an archery program and formed a partnership with the Oregon Hunters Association, which donated $2,000 worth of bows and arrows, supplemented by a $1,000 gift from the LRMS PAC and a $1,000 grant from the National Archery in the Schools Program.
"Now we have 14 bows, and we used them for a month in the fall and two weeks in the spring during the school day, and every Monday after school, we now have an archery club with roughly 20 students," Simpson said. "My hope is that when the kids get into high school, they will want to get a program started. We are the Bowmen after all. The Sylvan Archers do demonstrations during the Robin Hood Festival and would love to get archery into the high school."
But fishing has been an ongoing theme in the class, with Simpson saying, "My hope is that parents, whether they fish or not, will take the whole family out fishing. The Oregon Department of Fish & Game offers multiple free fishing days where everything is provided."
Cabela's loaned the class seven fly rods and 13 spinning rods, "and both can catch trout," Simpson said.
Ten members from the Tualatin Valley Chapter of the Northwest Steelheaders came to the school and taught the kids how to tie two types of knots, and "they made trout spinners (fishing lures) that would normally cost $2 to $5, which we made for pennies," Simpson said.
Aiello also connected Simpson with community members who have proven to be great resources for the class. One such connection was Jim and Donna Teeny, world-famous fly fishermen. Jim invented the Teeny nymph and a series of fly lines that revolutionized the sport, and Jim and Donna, who are based in Gresham, hold multiple fly-fishing awards.
"They came here and showed the kids how to tie the nymph and practiced fly fishing with them," Simpson said.
Aiello also introduced Simpson to Tom Vanderplaat, water supply project manager for Clean Water Services and Salmon Trout Enhancement Program, (STEP) volunteer director, who, according to Simpson, "took the bull by the horns and ran with it, teaching the kids water safety and fish identification. Tom ran the show for both the fishing days in the classroom, as well as the fishing day at Hagg Lake."
In addition, Aiello was responsible for bringing "Trapper John" with the Oregon Trappers Association to the class with 30 furs "that you can trap legally," Simpson said. "He's a class favorite."
All the weeks spent learning about fishing and practicing casting culminated at Hagg Lake, an event that was sponsored in part by Washington County Parks and Recreation.
Vanderplaat, who serves on the Tualatin Valley Chapter of the Northwest Steelheaders, brought along about a dozen chapter members who were eager to teach and assist the students with their casting efforts.
"They are a phenomenal group of people and have been a real boon to this program," said Simpson, with Vanderplaat adding that the group enjoyed working with the kids this year.
"Fishing is great fun, and we have a motto, 'I want a place to fish and a fish to catch,'" Vanderplaat said. "Actually, fishing is more skill-based than soccer and basketball. A lot of kids don't get this experience.
"Travis is unique in offering this program, and it needs to be done in more schools. Kids need to get out of the classroom and need to know about our great resources."
Aiello added, "Fishing teaches patience and an appreciation for the world around you. To be a good fisherman, you must know a lot about the environment, fish runs, the water and the land. Kids learn where food comes from.
"The kids sent letters to Trapper John, and I got misty-eyed reading them. Two kids signed up for a trapping class. The more people who get outdoors, the more you know and care about what is going on around you and the more you care about the environment."
May 24 was a great day to fish at Hagg Lake, as it had been stocked with 6,000 additional rainbow trout the day before, and the final catch among the students and parents included two bass and three rainbow trout, which had to be minimum of eight inches long to keep.
The Steelheaders brought worms, which they cut in half for the kids, and they also bought colored "power bait," giving the kids a choice of bait.
As the kids were casting their lines, a fish jumped out of the water off-shore, and a boy said, "He's scared of me. I'm too good," but another student, Jake, lamented, "It would be a little more fun if I caught something."
Bryce said, "It's slow but fun. It's nice being out here. I like casting, and it's fun learning how to cast."
Keith said he was enjoying the experience because "I get to be away from school."
A Steelheader named Doug, who said he had been fishing "off and on for 64 years," noted that "it's exciting when they catch a fish," while a Steelheader named Becky said, "I'm just excited to see them outside and experiencing something different. I love fishing. I've done it my whole life."
When a girl caught the first fish among the students, Becky said, "I knew it would be a girl. When guys and girls go fishing together, it becomes a competition."
A month earlier at LRMS, several students talked about what the survival class has meant to them this year.
"I've learned a lot," Jackson said. "I liked making survival kits and learning to fish. And I liked the plant identification – I still have the book."
Tate added, "We like that Mr. Simpson lets us be hands-on and make things. And we get to go places like Hagg Lake and go outside and do stuff."
Josh commented, "I like that we get to learn how to survive and go fishing and tie knots – things we need to know to survive. Mr. Simpson teaches us a lot."