Seattle ICO

“I’m touching my nose, but I can’t see my hand!”

“I think I felt a bat!”

“What if the cave collapsed and we got trapped down here forever?”

The musings of sixteen middle school students filled the completely dark chamber within Mt. Saint Helen’s Upper Ape Caves, a series of lava tubes formed during an eruption roughly 2,000 years ago. For most of the Seattle-based students – participants in an overnight camping and hiking trip sponsored by Seattle ICO – this was a weekend of firsts; their first time setting up and sleeping in a tent, their first experience in a cave and their first visit to a volcano despite living within sight of mighty Mt. Rainier. In attending this overnight trip, the kids had traded a weekend of their normal routines within the city, opting to instead explore and challenge themselves beyond their comfort zones, guided by two teachers and five adult volunteer Trip Leaders from Seattle ICO. Sometimes the challenges were physical, like hiking nearly two miles through the lava tubes, which included a few instances of boulder scrambling and a short crawl up an eight-foot lava flow. And sometimes the challenges provoked introspection, such as when the students were asked to turn off their headlamps and attempt a couple minutes of silence within the cave in order to observe how the absence of light affects the other senses.

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“OK – on the count of five, everyone switch their headlamps back on.”

Twenty-two headlamps slowly came back to life and the group continued their hike, navigating another mile of underground terrain before climbing a ladder back into the light of day.

Despite Seattle’s excellent location for weekend wilderness explorations, many residents of the city do not have the means or the time to discover and experience Washington’s natural abundance. Poverty, homelessness, refugee status and a lack of program funding all contribute to the disadvantages faced by many students in Seattle’s public school system, particularly within schools that are located in underserved and lower income areas of the city. Many of these schools don’t even have a set recess period, further restricting urban youth’s access to the outdoors, a terrible thing indeed as a disconnect from the outdoors has been directly linked to disturbing health issues in children such as increases in obesity, attention disorders and depression.

Seattle ICO

The all-volunteer nonprofit organization, Seattle ICO (Inspiring Connections Outdoors) is a branch of the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors Program that provides opportunities for all people to explore and enjoy the outdoors. Seattle ICO teams are comprised of volunteer Trip Leaders who partner with nine public elementary, middle and high schools to plan and lead wilderness-based outings on weekends during the school year. These trips provide students with the important opportunity to exercise and play in the outdoors while also fostering respect for the environment and are 100% free for the students to attend; all gear, clothing, food, transportation and fees are covered by Seattle ICO.  Sometimes these are overnight camping and backpacking trips, but more often they are day-trips to kayak, hike, snowshoe, mountain bike or horseback ride throughout Western Washington.

Seattle ICO

Since its inception in 1991, Seattle ICO has led more than 10,000 local students on wilderness trips; in 2013-2014, volunteers led 639 students on 48 trips throughout Washington State. As an all-volunteer nonprofit, Seattle ICO’s continued growth depends on its ability to attract new revenue sources, new equipment, and, most of all, a select group of new volunteers who want to both lead outings AND participate in activities that help sustain the organization. Non-outing activities include event planning, fundraising, grant writing, public relations, marketing, financial reporting, steering, committee participation and more. Every September, new volunteers attend a fun weekend training session near Snoqualmie Pass where they receive guidance on trip planning, working with youth and being part of a team. Volunteers are also required to hold a current Sierra Club membership for insurance purposes as well as certifications in CPR and First Aid.

If you would like to get involved with taking Seattle’s youth outdoors, contact Seattle ICO’s volunteer coordinator at or come to an informational pub night on February 25th at The Loft in Ballard, Seattle ICO Night Out.

Seattle ICO

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