Squeals of delighted laughter echoed through the forested canyon on a warm Spring day in Northern California. We looked up as a young boy went running up the trail with his arms wide open. He was the first to spot Smokey the Bear rambling his way toward our group. A moment later the young boy had wrapped himself as far around Smokey as his short little arms would go. Within seconds Smokey was surrounded by a throng of children with eyes dancing and arms outstretched toward the big furry guy in anticipation of their own hug. Smokey's visit was the closing event of a very precious day.
Nevada City Rotary partners with the Tahoe National Forest Service to offer a very special outing for a group of more than 40 local middle school students plus teachers and aids. Half of the students are members the Seven Hills Middle School Leadership Class who for the day are paired with special needs students, many of whom were in wheelchairs.
The students are being treated to a nature hike along Rock Creek Nature Trail. The young buddy teams load the buses together for the drive into Rock Creek Canyon. Rangers from the US Forest Service lead the hikes interpreting the sights and sounds along the way. The Leadership students are responsible for acting as a buddy, friend and, if needed, assist on the bus and along the trail. Rock Creek is one of only a few wheelchair accessible trials in the area. Accessibility is a significant consideration this day because a number of the students are wheelchair bound. For them, hikes in the forest are a rare opportunity.
The Rock Creek Nature Trail is located approximately 10 miles north of Nevada City, CA in Tahoe National Forest. The trail meanders through the forest along babbling Rock Creek. Ranger guides point out details of the rich ecosystem of plants and animals and how they interact with the soil, climate, air, sunlight, and water systems to form a natural community. Rangers talk about the wild life, including bears, who inhabit the forest. The children collect leaves, nuts, cones and other elements to share.
While the students and rangers are hiking, Nevada City Rotarians fire up barbeque grills and cook over 80 hamburgers and vegie burgers. When the young hikers return, Rotarians serve the hungry group hearty burgers and homemade cookies.
After lunch is complete, a very special guest joins us. When Smokey the Bear shows up, the excitement of the youth reaches a heart touching crescendo.
The day is a choreographed partnership. Tahoe Forest Service staff act as nature guides and of course brings the big furry talking Smokey Bear. Teachers and staff of Seven Hills and Union Hill Middle Schools organize the students. Durham Transportation provides the school busses including several with lifts designed to easily accommodate wheel chairs. Nevada City Rotary brings barbeque grills and food. Rotarians also bake home cookies. The young hikers provide the wonder and joy.
The students interacting together with their buddies is an innocently powerful demonstration of Rotary's commitment to Service above Self. For Rotarians the day is a profound reminder of why we are all proud to be Rotarians. Access to the beautiful natural world of the Sierra Nevada Foothills is limited for many. The nature hike with this special buddy system is a unique treat for all.