A rite of passage – Coastal expedition is crowning moment for students | TheUnion.com

A rite of passage – Coastal expedition is crowning moment for students

For students at Seven Hills Middle School, it is a tradition passed down from parents and siblings from a very early age.

For the past 16 years, sixth-grade students from Seven Hills Middle School have spent a week in the wilderness of the Marin Headlands, traipsing through the terrain and frolicking in the flora of one of the last preserved sections of open wilderness in the Bay Area.

During the first week after winter break, 173 students in six, sixth-grade classes descended upon the craggy hills of the Marin County coast in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge for a lesson in nature.

They hiked for miles up rugged peaks, visited a lighthouse, ate cabbage native to a tiny corner of the world and watched a nighttime San Francisco come to life, viewed at the top of Hawk Hill.

For the students, some of whom had never seen an ocean or put on hiking shoes, the trip was an awakening to another world.

“It was a really good experience to learn somebody else’s culture, living near the beach,” said sixth-grader Makela McTighe, 11, a student in Steve Belch’s homeroom class.

The Marin Headlands is part of 76,500 acres of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The headlands include large swaths of barren land formerly used as an Army air defense site, a historic lighthouse and Fort Cronkhite, where the students spent each night bedded down in an Army barracks from the early 1940s.

Teacher Steve Belch has been taking students on the trip since the second year of the program.

“The kids really grow up on this trip,” he said. “And it’s not like an environmental-wacko situation at all. They come out with a new sense of what they can do to be more productive people on this earth.”

The sixth-graders worked with college students to study the habitats of plants and animals that live a freeway exit away from blacktopped civilization.

They saw gulls, raptors and turkey vultures, and visited lagoons and freshwater ponds.

For students who grow up in the Nevada City School District, the expedition is a long-anticipated trip to a world most never see.

“It’s a tradition,” Belch said. “By the third grade, everybody’s talking about it.”

Belch, who has taught close to two generations of students at the school, remembers attending a wedding several weeks ago of former student Jamie Barber and Amy Atkins, and how both vividly recalled the trip for their former teacher.

Chris Griggs, 12, remembers the trip from stories his two older sisters told over the years.

“I knew it was going to be fun for me,” he said.

Each day began at 6:45 a.m., with students assembling in a cafeteria for breakfast, followed by a full day of hiking on trails, journal writing and soaking up the coastal life, one that was shared by the U.S. military decades ago.

Kate Preece, 11, said she enjoyed viewing bunkers covered long ago by the military and visiting a marine mammal recovery center, where students saw animals being nursed back to health.

Keaton Pezzaglia, 11, said he enjoyed a visit to the Point Bonita lighthouse and dining on cabbage native to the tiny peninsula corner.

“All that area hasn’t been affected by man, and it’s kind of neat that it’s been untouched for such a long time,” said Kaitlyn Christensen, 11.

There’s a new cadre of students waiting to explore the area next year, Belch said, and it’s likely their excitement will be as high as it was this year. The trip, he noted, never gets old, for the teacher or each new class.

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