By Kerry McClay
Winter is nearly upon us and that means SnowSchool sites across the country are gearing up to engage thousands of kids in an exploration of snow covered public lands! And while we often talk about SnowSchool in these big-picture terms, of critical importance are the individual educators and leaders who make these programs happen in dozens of communities across the country. For example, our SnowSchool site in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah- Cottonwood Canyons Foundation– recently brought Katie Burbank onboard as their new Education Director. To highlight the importance of local leadership, I’ve included below an excerpt from my interview with Katie. Her inspiring story illustrates the impact WWA can have on individuals and communities through the combination of our programs.
KM- Welcome to SnowSchool Katie! Can you tell us the story of how you got involved?
KB- I had always thought that my love of nature would guide me to a career path protecting our environment. However, my curiosity of the natural world led me to a PhD program at Montana State University, and subsequently, a position teaching chemistry at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Recently, I found myself re-visiting the notion of focusing my efforts on our public lands. This past winter I was up in McCall, ID for a ski race and attended the WWA Backcountry Film Festival. One of the films was about SnowSchool. I was incredibly inspired and thought to myself, “Now, that is something that I would really like to get involved in.” As luck would have it, a month later, Cottonwood Canyons Foundation advertised that they were seeking a new Education Director who would oversee the Salt Lake City site for SnowSchool. I wound up getting the position, dove head first into a pretty drastic career change, and am so glad I did.
KM- Why do you think it is important to have programs like CCF’s SnowSchool to get kids outside?
KB- While CCF is a non-political organization, I feel that environmental education is a very important component of advocacy. If we can get kids outside and teach them, I believe that it is more likely that they will feel connected to the outdoors when they grow up. Specifically for CCF, by introducing kids to the unique environment and incredible biodiversity of the Cottonwood Canyons, we hope to cultivate a sense of ownership for these public lands. Additionally, Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons provide 60% of the drinking water for the Salt Lake Valley. By connecting our local youth to the mountains that are their watershed, we hope that they will become aware of the importance of protecting this area for their community’s health and for future generations to enjoy.
KM- What excites you about CCF’s SnowSchool program?
KB- I grew up in a more urban focused family. It wasn’t until I attended a sleep away camp in the wilderness of Northern California that I cultivated my own connection to nature. Many of the students that we take snowshoeing have lived in the Salt Lake Valley their entire lives but have never been up to the Canyons. I love being the one who introduces them to this new environment. I hope that their experience with the program gives some of them the same spark that I had when I first discovered the magical world of nature.
KM- What do you personally like to do outdoors?
KB- I pretty much live and breathe backcountry skiing. I just love it. So much so that I even wound up marrying my ski partner. It has been a real treat to live next to the Wasatch Mountains. In the summer, I like to mountain bike and trail run, but mostly so that I can be outside in the mountains and stay in shape for skiing.
-Kerry McClay is National SnowSchool Director with Winter Wildlands Alliance