The Raptor Center

By Anthony Wilson - Thieroff

On October 9th and 10th, 2017, the A1 students went to the Raptor Center. This was a new experience for most of the students. The atmosphere was one of excitement and also a little bit sleepy because we went in the morning.

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While there, we toured the outside bird aviaries, looked at some bird exhibits inside, and learnt about features of raptors. (Did you know that raptors have a little notch in their beak called a Tomial Tooth?!) We saw multiple raptors including owls, falcons, eagles and merlin.

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Raptors are different from other birds because they have talons, a hooked beak, and forward facing eyes. They are found almost everywhere in the world except for the Arctic and Antarctica. Most of the raptors at the Raptor Center are there because they have been injured, hit by cars, have gotten lead poisoning or have gotten trapped in fishing line or traps.

I have a special connection to the Raptor Center. I love birds (specifically raptors!), and I am volunteering at the Center in the Raptor Corps. This is a program that helps educate people about raptors, their environment and how to protect them. If you are interested in learning more about raptors, I encourage you to visit the Raptor Center with your family and/or join the Raptor Corps.

Upper El hikes, camps at Widjiwagan


There’s nothing 21st century about the YMCA’s Camp Widjiwagan. You can’t even rely on getting a simple snapchat. You eat in a dining hall without a single screen hanging from a wall. You hardly ever hear a beep. To experience Widji, as it is commonly known, is to step foot in the 1970s, when Montessori schools in Minnesota first started heading to Ely for a week of outdoor education (Okay true, we didn’t have Gore-tex back then. You get the point).


This was Great River’s fourth year at Camp Widji, the fourth year eating healthy, home-cooked meals in Kirby Hall and starting a fire in the woods and roasting marshmallows during Wilderness Survival class. A fourth year where getting wet is somehow something to be prized instead of avoided.

Widji’s academic-year program, started in 1973, allows schools to send students to the camp for a week of environmental education, including studying wilderness survival, plant and tree identification, basic hiking and canoeing skills, and opportunities to read the night sky. More than anything, it allows urban/suburban children who are increasingly detached from the natural world a chance to play in it. At Widji you study nature, as in, you walk outside and there it is. And then you stay there for awhile.


The Widji excursion is what Great River calls a “key experience” for elementary children.  “It’s definitely a learning experience,” said Greta McCann (Grade 4). “We learn how not to disrespect nature.” Vivian Turbak (5) calls it “a camp where you do a lot of hiking… I’ve gone two years. Last year we didn’t jump in the lake with all your clothes on, but we did this year. My boots. My socks. My clothes.” Her trailing voice transmits some discomfort.

I asked several students what stood out from their four days at Widji. For Greta, it was the Eco-Hike, an all-day jaunt through the Burntside State Forest routinely taken on the last full day of camp. Widji’s 400 acres contains almost 50 miles of trails, which enables each of the study group (comprising 8 students and 1 counselor) plenty of room to wander without bumping into another group. “We hiked through a bog and we picked cranberries,” said Greta. “We made a cranberry and blueberry sauce. We also started a fire and roasted marshmallows.”


Scarlett Goetzman (4) recounts a moment from her group’s Eco-Hike. “There was a huge rocky outcropping and we climbed down the cliff. At the bottom there was a clear pool of water. And a waterfall going [makes swooshing sound]. On the ground there was fuzzy moss and it was surrounded by Jack Pines. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”   

Another perennial highlight is the mass role-playing game called Predator and Prey. Vivian describes it as “a game where voles try to hide from their predators. Weasels have to hide from their predators and catch their prey at the same time. Owls have to catch their prey and stay away from diseases. It’s fun,” she continued, “because I started a vole but I turned into a weasel. A weasel caught me, so technically I’d be dead. But in the game I turned into a weasel. I had to hide and chase.”  In other words, if you are on one end of the food chain you only hunt. If you are on the other, you only escape. If you are in the middle, all bets are off. Vivian prefers being in the middle of the food chain.

For Harper O’Dowd (5), the high-octane strategy game was also a highlight. As a vole this year, Harper enjoyed “amassing vole power.” He and his cadre of four-foot rodents could be heard chanting, “We will stand our ground” or “Chapel Point is our land.” We found that “if we all met at Chapel Point,” he said, we could “leverage” our strength “by spreading out in all directions and confuse the weasels and the owls. They only have 10 seconds to chase us, so we could separate them from their brains [the adult in their group].” This is what Great River rodentia refer to as “The Battle at Chapel Point.” I’m not simply reporting this.

I know. I was there.


Harper learned that games can ben re-invented. Vivian learned how to identify different kinds of trees.  Mino Whitley-Mott (6) learned “how to make tea from different kinds of leaves: wintergreen, white pine and sweet fern.” Greta learned “that you should always wear rain boots when going into a bog.” Vivian also learned that she could take a 6-hour hike and enjoy it. “If you think about how hungry you are and how tired you are, then you start complaining about your sore legs and being hungry.”

Getting to learn from seasoned Widji staff is also a big take-away for most students. Scarlett thought that her Group Leader, Leah, was inspiring.“She was pretty awesome,” she said. “She let us climb cliffs. We climbed Sky Trail at night so we couldn’t see the rocks and we kept slipping. People were asking if we could turn on our flashlights, but she kept us going and confident. She said, ‘You can do it! You’ve got it!’”

-John Albright, Little Elk Classroom Guide

See the full Widji trip photo album here! 


Seniors Head North


What picture should we use to introduce “GRS Senior Canoe Trip?" This expedition contained some perfectly picturesque moments. Fifty students huddle around the fire. The light polishing bright faces as they sing “I’ll follow you into the dark” from memory. Slowly, students pull themselves away and to bed. Earlier that morning, half a dozen hammocks hung silhouetted against the dewy lake. The bundles of human inside stretched and murmured conversation. But if we’re trying to shove the message of community of our readers, we better use a story-like, quirky image. A stand-up poetry compaction lead to students throwing around the phrase “Omnipotent Sam O’Brian”.


The next camp site’s water source was across the river. Harry and Donovan, two guides, ventured across the river in a canoe filled with empty coolers, pots, and jugs. On their way back, the pair tipped spectacularly. But if you want a picture of the real community building, try these on for size. Slowly forming paddle blisters. Adrenaline dictating encounters with rapids. Sunscreen layering over bug spray, grime, and sore muscles. Tipping gloriously. Oatmeal defaced with hot chocolate mix and raisins. Bags sagging, growing heavier and wetter. These moments, these pictures, hold real community. They provide that mild irradiation that gives classmates the space to complain together, laugh together and share mess kits. The canoe trip sported not only picture-perfect poses, but measured grit to find the real community.


Odyssey East Builds Community in A1

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On September 7th, 2 busses traveling in parallel routes departed Great River School on September 7th, 2017 for the A1 Odyssey. Students through the sand dunes of Indiana, the city of Detroit, and the upper peninsula of Michigan to learn the history of the industrial revolution and build community. 

A1 Odyssey Off to a Good Start

Odyssey Update #2 From Feneti Mohamed

View the full trip album here! 

11th Grade Students Explore Colleges & Careers on Northstarquest

The North Star Quest is a key experience at the beginning of a student's junior year at Great River School. It consists of visits and tours to the following post secondary schools, including: University Of Minnesota Duluth (MDU), the North House Folk School, Northland and a choice between St Olaf and Carleton.


“The purpose of the trip was for us juniors to learn more about what colleges we want to apply for, and to gain a deeper understanding of the college application process.”

-Guthrie Pritchard and Micah Swanson.


Early on Monday morning about fifty, mostly tired, juniors showed up to the Great River parking lot, ready to camp, sweat, and tour colleges. They loaded all their bags and selves on the bus, before John, the bus driver, took off! The trip to Duluth went smoothly, thanks to gorgeous weather and plenty of food.

Two hours and one broken window later (John, the wonderful driver, met his match with a stop light in Duluth), they arrived at UMD. After listening to an info session about the school they dispersed into small groups to go on a self guided tour for an hour, before getting back on the bus.


Finally the juniors, their guides and John arrived in Grand Marais. In groups of three or more, they went out to explore the town, the surrounding beach area, and cook dinner.


In the morning they entered the folk school, splitting into groups and completing different traditional crafts. These included: blacksmithing, wood carving, bread baking, mallet making and felting. As the bread came out of the oven, John and the bus appeared, to whisk the buccaneers and their guides away.

The next day, they took off for Northland. It was almost unanimously agreed that Northland was Great River School reincarnated into a college. Before embarking on their longest journey yet, our weary travelers satisfied their hunger in the Northland cafeteria. A sundae bar made itself available, to the great excitement of the students. Five long hours later, students poured out of the bus into a rustic campsite, buggy and humid, right outside Northfield. In honor of their last night, pizza was provided and devoured for dinner.

The sun rose only an hour or so before they woke up, took down their tents, fueling up once more for the last college tours. Given the time constraint and location of the next two colleges, students had been asked to choose between St. Olaf, a school known throughout the A3 as having the best cafeteria, and Carlton. Half the students got off the bus at St. Olaf, where they received a student led tour and info session. The other half went to Carlton, where they were greeted by crisp autumn leaves, old collegiate buildings and a woman named Carla. Carla gave them a long info session before letting them go wander around campus.

After lunch, everyone met up at a square in downtown Northfield, and loaded onto the bus. An hour later they arrived back at Great River School, where they unpacked the bus, and headed home.

View Full Album here. 

-Guthrie Pritchard, Beatrice Ibes, & Micah Swanson 

Photography by Stacey Kreger

The Purpose of Key Experiences


This week many of our students are participating in Key Experiences.  These experiences are designed to challenge students, take them out of their comfort zone, and to build community amongst students and faculty. 


Students at Great River report a deep connection to the community at the school. We intentionally engage in key experiential learning trips that take students out of their normal learning environment and out into new experiences in the world. We call these expeditions “Key Experiences”. The novel environment and shared sense of discovery among the group creates a key experience of shared vulnerability. This shared vulnerability of self, combined with responsibility for one another and the group, bonds the cohort of students together through overcoming shared challenges. 

Elementary trips include travel to farms and local sites for 1st-3rd grade, and overnight camping for 4th-6th grades. Junior high experiences include extended travel across the country, overnight trips, shared projects of producing a theater production, and essential work of running a real business (bike shop or cafe), as well as biking 100 miles together over the course of 4-5 days. The high school experiences travel overnight and focus on real agricultural work, visits to colleges and postsecondary options, and expeditionary trips focused on leadership. These experiences create a shared sense of responsibility for the group and the community and help to establish a strong foundation of interpersonal connection.

Beyond the classroom, however, our key experience trips provide a model for experiential learning where students are engaged in field trips, real-world experiences, community service, internships with professional settings, expert mentor visits in a discipline of interest, and civic engagement while at the same time working to master state standards through their works. Rather than spending time addressing social-emotional growth and separate time mastering state academic standards, Great River School structures learning to accomplish both at the same time. These settings are an integrated part and anchor for curriculum. 

When a student is both in a real world setting and completing standard-aligned academic content, efficiency and multiple benefits are gained. Our overnight trips, camping, and intensives which formally occupy two dedicated weeks per year, are landmarks of the real word experiences that we seek to integrate into our everyday learning.

We can't wait to share pictures from the fall 2017 Key Experiences! 

Volunteers Needed at Harvest Fest!

See our Signup Genius page to view all opportunities!

About Harvest Fest

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Harvest Fest is our annual family fall festival. This year it takes place on Saturday, October 7th from 2-5pm. We serve "Stone Soup" where the broth is made by students, and you bring the ingredients! We need face painters, soup servers, bread bringers, and help with setup and takedown. Thanks in advance for helping to make Harvest Fest a success!