The Siskiyou Field Institute in Selma organizes more than 100 classes, field trips and outings a year, ranging from half-day wildflower hikes to daylong bird outings to multi-day trainings, including first-responder classes, whitewater courses and wilderness skills. - Photo courtesy SFI

Wild School

If you've ever pondered the complex world of lichens, the communal life of wasps and bees or the mysterious world of bats — or if you're simply curious about our natural environment — you are a field trip away from becoming a naturalist.

The Siskiyou Field Institute, situated on the 850-acre Deer Creek Center outside Selma, provides a thriving home base to scientists, researchers, families and local folks who seek a deeper understanding of the eco-abundant Klamath-Siskiyou ecosystem.

The Illinois Valley, southwest of Grants Pass, provides a rich backdrop for exploration of this verdant region with its concentration of rivers and streams, mountainous terrain and abundant native vegetation and wildlife. Every year, scientists come from all over the world to study the unique bio-culture of the area and pass along their knowledge.

SFI's Deer Creek Center is a field-based research station, co-managed by Southern Oregon University. It operates year-round, offering a wide variety of classes and workshops that range from "being present in nature" to backpacking trips along the Rogue River and native plant-identification workshops.

"We have a wide range of courses because the relevancy of the material can change from season to season," says Cory Alvis, program coordinator for the center.

"We challenge our instructors to come up with innovative ideas each year.

"For instance, we're having a new high desert botany course where they will learn about plants over in the Lava Beds National Monument area. Another is 'Extinction is Distinction,' which is usually taught by a gentleman who works at the Oregon Caves. It's an ecology course that discusses how climate change may or may not be affecting things here in Southern Oregon," Alvis said.

With its unique assortment of course offerings, SFI engages the talents of some of the area's leading experts. "Our instructors come from all over, some from down in Southern California, but we also have a lot of local instructors because they know this area so well," Alvis says. "We have some Southern Oregon University professors that teach here; a variety of professionals who have experience with research and teaching."

Class sizes are kept small, and one class in particular — about winged denizens of the night — always fills quickly.

"Our bat ecology course is really popular," Alvis says. "That runs every year because it's such a phenomenal thing to see. We actually go out to the Lava Beds National Monument and watch the fly-out of the bats from the caves when they come out to feed at night — it's a breathtaking thing to see — it's just a mass of bats."

Open all year, SFI takes advantage of seasonal changes to explore differences that are particular to each time of year.

"The busiest part of the season is summer, but there's also a lot going on in spring and fall. For fall this year we will have an amazing course line-up between birding, geology and overall ecology, and then we wind up the year with our mushrooming courses. People really get into learning about the edible, and the non-edible, mushrooms in the area. Those are always some of the most popular classes," says Alvis.

"We have a winter field ecology course based in Ashland that's scheduled for 2010. Folks who register for that will go out with a local botanist, learn some twig identification and do some snowshoeing and tracking."

Cost for classes can range from free evening classes to $10 for a half-day, family-oriented hike to $620 for a weeklong wilderness first-responder course. In between are a $100 nature sketching class, a $120 class that lets you go out to sea with local birder Stewart Janes, and a $450, three-day whitewater rafting trip in which you not only learn how to run a river, but how to identify plants and animals along the way.

In all, SFI has nearly 100 workshops and classes scheduled between now and next spring. Some of the classes earn participants certification in wilderness or outdoor disciplines, such as first aid, while others count toward college credits.

Although the Deer Creek Center hosts visiting university professors, researchers and scientists from all over the world, it is a comfortable place where the most casual nature lover will feel at home, with basic classes in recognizing native species of birds, wildflower identification, rafting trips and youth programs. They provide family field courses, some of which are designed for just kids, some for families and kids together.

The center is also a retreat destination, suitable for company events or business meetings, and provides overnight accommodations for guests. The facility can be rented year-round for conferences, reunions or group get-togethers.

"We have two private rooms in the house, and we have dorm rooms that sleep six. We also have a big, cozy yurt that's a lot of fun to stay in, and a beautiful spacious area for tent camping. There is a state-of-the-art bathhouse, so even if you're camping, you can always have access to a nice hot shower. It's a pretty unique facility," says Alvis.

With classes ranging from astronomy to wetland exploration, SFI's hope is to empower future generations with the knowledge and the will to preserve what no human can ever recreate.

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