Home-Schooled by Mother Nature

Student stories from Mount Ellis Academy.

There isn’t much that would make a sane person want to go back to high school, but Mount Ellis Academy’s outdoor program might do just that. From bombing down their private ski hill, to hiking through the Tetons, to canoeing the Missouri River, students of this unassuming little school in Bear Canyon learn as much from the outdoors as they do from their academic curriculum. “We use the outdoor world as a classroom” says MEA principal Darren Wilkins, “and take learning outside whenever we can.”

Kids from all over the world, about 70-80 each year, come to Bozeman to study at MEA. About 40 percent of the students are local and live at home, while the other 60 percent live on campus. And for all the students, the first week of school is spent outside.

In their first three years of high school, the students experience Grand Teton National Park, the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River, and Glacier National Park. Seniors get to take a survival and leadership course in the Crazy Mountains.

Though the trips are fun and physically rigorous (for example, an 18-mile day hike in the Tetons), they are also learning experiences. “In Glacier, they hike up to Grinnell Glacier and learn about geology, glaciers, and the retreat of glaciers,” Wilkins says. “They look at fossilized stromatolites in the mountains, and learn about Park and Native American history.”

While canoeing the Missouri River, students study the journals that Lewis & Clark kept while navigating the same waters. They sleep in the same campsites used by the Corps of Discovery and write in their own journals, which they compare with the famous explorers’.

As a state-accredited, Seventh-Day Adventist high school, outdoor learning is built into the curriculum and outdoor adventures are really disguised interdisciplinary learning experiences.

Seniors have their own suffer-fest in the Crazies. For a week, they build bivouacs, cook over a fire, and dig latrines. They learn how to survive in the mountains while they work on leadership initiatives. “We build into those seniors that they are the leaders of the school,” Wilkins explains. “They spend the week deciding how they are going to apply that leadership.”

Outdoor adventure is the norm at MEA. Every Labor Day since 1939, students have raced to the top of Mt. Ellis, the nearby, 8,000-foot peak for which the school is named. Since that year the school has also run the Bear Canyon Ski Area for its students. “It does draw kids,” Wilkins says. “We call it a poor man’s Yellowstone Club.”

So, are you ready to go back to high school yet? Maybe these kids’ stories will entice you.

South American Mission Trip
by Alix Harris

Can you say adventure? Just think about it—going from the frigid, dry weather of a November in Montana to a humid and hot climate in Peru. Those first moments—stepping from an air-conditioned plane onto the tarmac of the Iquitos airport and into the drenching humidity and scorching rays of the Amazonian sun—defined my time in Peru.

It was such a dramatic change from what I’m used to, living in Bozeman. Not only was the weather there Bozeman’s polar opposite (and not a completely unpleasant change from our nine months of winter), but there were also so many things that pushed me from my comfort zone, making me really immerse myself in Peru instead of just traveling through it.

The jungle was incredible. I’m used to hiking in Montana’s forests, but this was nothing like I’d ever experienced. The trail was flat, and our guide cut his way along the path with a machete. The trees were huge and so different from the pines we see around here. There were frogs, huge bugs, and brilliant flowers. And when it rained (which was inevitable, even in the dry season), the rain was warm.

While we were staying along the Amazon, our group took day trips to nearby villages and held medical, vision, and dental clinics for the people there. We had a dentist, doctor, and optometrist with us, and we got to work right alongside them. We took patients’ blood pressure and temperature before they went to see the doctor, checked their vision with an eye chart so the optometrist could prescribe glasses, played games with the kids who were waiting outside, handed out hygiene packs, and some of us even got to pull teeth! My favorite part was watching someone who was practically blind put a pair of glasses on. The smile on his face as he looked around at a now-clear world was priceless.

After one week on the Amazon, we headed for a much cooler climate—Machu Picchu. Standing in its ruins, perched high in the Andes, was an awe-inspiring experience. The mountains around it shot straight up into the sky, and in the early morning they were blanketed with a fog that gave the whole area a very surreal feeling. But as the sun burned off the fog and the valley opened up below, it finally hit me—I was really there, standing in a village where Incas had walked hundreds of years ago. Standing in a place that has plastered the covers of countless social-studies books. Standing in one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. I was there! 

This trip was one of the highlights of my life. Experiencing a different culture changed the way I see the world and how I see the way I live; it made me look at what is important and why it’s important.

Learning in the Great Outdoors
by Mariah Weaver 

The first week of school at Mount Ellis Academy always holds surprises for poor, unsuspecting students. You may be thinking, “Yeah, I remember those first-week jitters.” Well, we have first-week-of-outdoor-school jitters. 

Spending a whole week in the wilderness seems like an adventure for some, but for others, it holds only the looming thought of no showers for a week. But hey, we get to miss an entire week of “normal” school. Even better, the absence of any morning hygiene routine allows a teenager to sleep in a little later—if that teenager is actually able to sleep at all through howling winds and bitter cold. Sure the people smell, their hair turns into nests, and their skin is burned from forgetting to put on sunscreen in the morning. But you might be surprised to hear that I love Outdoor School.

We’ve had so many amazing outdoor adventures in my three years at Mount Ellis. We followed the path of the Corps of Discovery on the Upper Missouri River. Our arms ached from paddling 50 miles on the almost nonexistent current, but the scenery was well worth it. Lewis and Clark must have had a much harder time hauling their 2,000-pound canoes against the current. I wonder if they ever stopped to have epic mud fights like we did.

I live in Wyoming when I’m not at school, so I was excited to show my classmates the wonders of my home state during our trip to the Grand Teton National Park last year. We put in long, hard miles on trails into the backcountry, and our efforts were rewarded with a whole lot of good learning in addition to wonderful scenery. We examined fresh burn areas to determine the cause and extent of a recent forest fire. A highlight was snorkeling in a mountain stream to observe trout habitat during our stream-ecology learning module.

This year, we took a journey to Glacier National Park. Just the name of the place had me imagining an icy wasteland, but it was actually warmer than the Teton trip. We got to hike to a glacier and see how ancient rivers of ice had carved out deep valleys and jagged peaks in the landscape. We also observed how the glaciers are in such rapid retreat that they won’t be around for my children to enjoy. A Park biologist gave us a stern talk about bears—and how to avoid being eaten by them. She left quite an impression with stories of some of her own close calls with the big bruins. I had heard that there were a lot of bears in Glacier, but I didn’t expect to see a total of 11 of them. On one hike, a bear appeared right on our trail, giving us a wonderful opportunity to put some of those safety tips to good use. After that I became a champion noisemaker on the trail. I figured it was better to annoy my friends than to annoy a grizzly by coming upon him unannounced. 

Mt. Ellis: More Than a Mountain
by Sarah Ojeda

At 8,331 feet, Mt. Ellis supplies endless enjoyment for hikers, skiers, and mountain climbers year-round. A small trail starting at New World Gulch leads to a meadow below the summit, but from that point no trail exists.

For the students and staff here, Mt. Ellis is more than just a mountain—it is our name. It is our people. It is a valuable educational resource. It is a place to enjoy nature any time of the year. And it is a means of helping others around the world.

The water that flows off the slopes of Mt. Ellis joins to form Bear Creek, a creek vital to the ecosystem of the surrounding area. The creek also provides an outdoor educational experience for students at Mount Ellis Academy. Every year, James Stuart, our science teacher, takes the biology class to Bear Creek to study the invertebrate life living beneath the rocks. Students enjoy wearing the waist-high waders and scooping up the creatures to count them and investigate the workings of this tiny aquatic world.

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Mount Ellis Academy jumped in to help. The students and staff asked for sponsors and climbed Mt. Ellis a month after the fifth deadliest and most costly hurricane in American history pounded the Louisiana coast. “Climbing for Katrina” raised $11,000. It felt amazing to know that we made a difference in the lives of the victims by simply coming together and making the decision to help.

Five years later, Mount Ellis Academy once again used its mountain to help during a disaster. A former Pakistani student, Muhammad Saad “Saadi” Iqbal, wrote to us about the devastation caused by the massive flooding along the Indus River, and asked us if we could help. Soon after we received the letter, our principal, Darren Wilkins, showed us a video of the flooding. Our hearts went out to the people of Pakistan when we saw the raging waters sweeping away homes and fields and destroying the lives of thousands. We responded to Saadi’s request by climbing Mt. Ellis once again, and through sponsorships, we raised $20,000 in an event we called “Peaks for Pakistan.”

Mount Ellis Academy’s ski hill, situated near the base of Mt. Ellis, has given students a place nearby to enjoy the snow since 1939. There is nothing like enjoying the powder with friends and family while soaking in the spectacular views. 

Mt. Ellis has given us our name. It has given us a place to enjoy the outdoors during all seasons. It has given us an outdoor classroom. And it has even brought us together to help others and to make the world a better place.

Located in Bear Canyon just east of Bozeman, Mt. Ellis Academy is a Seventh-Day Adventist high school that integrates the outdoors and the traditional classroom environment with faith-based education. Only 40 percent of the students come from the surrounding area; the other 60 percent live on campus and come from all over the U.S. and the world. Learn more at mtellis.com or call 587-5178.