WALLA WALLA - Yvonne Segovia and Jazmin Llanes wanted a unique experience for their summer vacation. So together, the girls applied for the Cascades Climate Challenge through the North Cascades Institute.
The challenge would take them on a three-week exploration of the state's vast natural resources in the setting of the North Cascades National Park.
Although eager for something different, the two Walla Walla High School students weren't exactly seasoned nature explorers.
"I had never been in a summer camp," said Llanes, a senior this year. "It was going to be my first time."
Segovia, a junior, had been camping with family, but thought bringing computers on the trip took away from the experience.
"We watched movies," she said.
Segovia, 16, and Llanes, 17, both got accepted, thanks to strong school commitment and good community service. They were among 19 teens from throughout the Pacific Northwest who represented the 2010 Cascades Climate Challenge team.
In its second year, the Cascades Challenge seeks to expose youth to nature while exploring the impact that shifting global climate is having on glaciers, lakes, rivers and wildlife habitat.
The teens spent three weeks in July in the North Cascades National Park, with about seven of those days spent backpacking and camping in the wild. That meant hiking through rugged terrain most of the days, and carrying the clothes, food, sleeping bags and supplies they needed.
Segovia and Llanes each entered the challenge with an open mind, knowing at least they would be together. Each said without the other, they might not have gone through with the trip.
But keeping the girls together was not part of the coordinators' plans. The good friends were kept in separate groups for most of the challenge, slept in different tents and took hikes and trails on different days.
Instead, the girls got to know the students from other parts of the region who also took the Cascades Challenge. The students came from a variety of cities including Napa, Ore.; Shoreline; Everett; and Vashon Island.
All the teens were thrown together from morning through night for those three weeks.
"We were like a big family," Llanes said.
The program left a unique lasting impression for each girl, and inspired each to explore nature more while also respecting it.
For Segovia, one memorable experience was also among the most challenging: the day her team hiked up Desolation Peak.
"It's five miles up and it's really steep," she said. But the challenge made the reward at the end that much more gratifying, she explained.
"When I got up there I was so happy to be there," she said. "It was incredible."
For Llanes, the trip was full of first experiences: her first real outdoor adventure, her first time using a sleeping bag, and her first time navigating waters in a canoe.
The time spent paddling across Ross Lake stood out as Llanes' favorite moment.
"It's so pretty," she said about the lake. "The water is so blue. You can see the fish."
The seven days of backpacking started from Sauk Mountain and took the team to Mount Baker, Cascade Pass, Desolation Peak, Ross Lake, and throughout.
"It was all nature," Llanes said. "There was no technology at all, just cameras. It was so peaceful."
Learning about nature with a focus on climate change was a key part of the experience. Llanes said they learned the different between weather and climate, as an example. Put simply, weather is what occurs over a short period of time, while climate is a long-term look at what is happening in the atmosphere.
Each student was assigned a job, but the variety of jobs were rotated between all the participants, so that everyone got a chance to learn the different tasks. Those jobs included cooking, cleaning, leading and handling cameras to document the trip.
At the end, the teens made presentations on what they learned about climate change to other students.
Llanes and Segovia talked about climate change to students at Mt. Vernon Elementary School. But their work is not done yet. The girls also committed to performing a service project in the Walla Walla area as part of the challenge. The project is still in the works, but could include efforts like planting trees in the community, or taking local students on a nature walk in the spirit of what they learned on their three-week challenge.
The girls now have their sites set on a North Cascades leadership conference in November.
What started as a trip that they regarded with some hesitation, is now an experience that they can't wait to duplicate.
"We were about to cry the day before," Llanes said about the start of the trip. "When we had to go home again we were crying a lot."
"I'd go back if I could," Segovia said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.
For your info
The North Cascades Challenge is open to high school students from throughout the Pacific Northwest. Students must fill out an application, submit letters of recommendation and write a personal essay on why they'd like to participate. The students are asked to present a report on their findings and the experience once the program is done, and commit to a service project that focuses on lessons learned through the challenge.
The program is run by the North Cascades Institute through a partnership with the North Cascades National Park and the National Park Foundation.
Find out more about the Cascades Climate Challenge online at ncascades.org under Youth Adventures.