Students work on a trail that will lead from Eatonville School District's GRITS farm site in the Ohop Valley to a higher place as an escape route in case of a Mount Rainier eruption. (Eatonville School District courtesy photo)
Students work on a trail that will lead from Eatonville School District's GRITS farm site in the Ohop Valley to a higher place as an escape route in case of a Mount Rainier eruption. (Eatonville School District courtesy photo)

On a rainy day just before Thanksgiving, Eatonville School Board member Jeff Lucas paid a visit to teacher Tod Morrish and his GRITS class at the Eatonville School District's Kjelstad-Burwash farm in the Ohop Valley.

The four-acre site is what remains of a 114-acre homestead farm, centered around the main barn, built in 1910. The farm was gifted to the district by the Nisqually Land Trust, a regional organization working to preserve and restore the Nisqually watershed, which usually includes removing any structures. A joint effort between the Trust, the school district and community groups preserved the heart of the historic farm.

Morrish leads efforts to “Grow Relationships In The Soil” (GRITS). The program seeks to blend STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning with outdoor and agricultural experiences available to all students at every grade level. There are plans to house student teachers at the site in an effort to address the shortage of teachers in rural areas and expose them to a community they may otherwise not encounter while in training. Work is underway to build learning spaces inside and outside, all over the site, including classrooms, lab space, gardens and orchards.

The GRITS class is a high school group that works at the farm a couple days a week, assisting younger students and working the farm through a unique learning curriculum. It has been a great way to increase elective and dual credit opportunities for students who do not always get the most benefit from traditional credit courses, according to district officials.

A trail crew has been tasked with building a lahar escape trail up the valley wall to a safe elevation, in the event of volcanic activity from Mount Rainier. Their early efforts, attacking the slope with their youthful energy and meager collection of tools, resulted in slow progress. About 20 feet of a planned 200-plus were achieved.

During a public tour of the facilities with community members and legislators, Lucas learned of the trail, viewed the progress, and came up with an idea for Morrish.

Lucas is a firefighter and 26-year wildland fire expert. A significant part of fighting wildfire involves digging trails to stop them. He offered to come out for a day with specialized firefighting hand tools and show the GRITS students how to use them as a cteam.

Training was an introduction to each tool, how it was intended to be used, its strengths and weaknesses, and how each one was an innovation based on earlier tools. Next, Lucas demonstrated how to “line out” the tools – which one leads based on topography, soil, vegetation and the task at hand, and then the order of the rest of the tools. Finally, the teamwork. Each tool leaves a specific mark on the trail; make a few swipes, move a few steps, repeat. Over and over, every tool works the same ground in different ways, and those few swipes from a dozen tools soon turn into a trail. Everyone learns to trust those around them to be careful swinging, and to do their little piece of the trail, so the last couple of tools do not end up doing most of the work.

After a slow start, the work began to smooth out and advance up the hill. The teamwork blossomed into a teen-powered machine. Lucas and Morrish each donated some of their own sweat and helped steer the direction of the trail, but at the end of the afternoon, 12 GRITS students had blazed almost 150 feet of new trail.

During a debriefing, everyone shared what they learned and any thoughts about the day. District officials said a new sense of accomplishment began to fuel ideas to finish and maybe expand the trail to an observatory above the rim of the valley that hosts students throughout the year.