Oregon Trail celebrates 25 years of teaching kids

ual Oregon Trail event celebrated a major milestone on May 5.
This year marked the 25th anniversary from when the event was first started by former Montgomery County Conservation naturalist Deb Karwal. Annually, the Oregon Trail draws around 200 students from area schools, as well as home schoolers in the third grade through fifth grade, and allows them to take a three-mile hike, in period clothing, simulating the journey made by the original Oregon Trail settlers.
Since her retirement in 2020, Karwal has been assisting naturalist Cassandra Alfstad in putting together the Oregon Trail. With this being the 25th anniversary, Karwal said this year’s event was quite a milestone.
“Not only is it extra special, it’s kind of amazing we got here. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the state that has a program like this where the kids come all dressed up and experience a day that takes them back in time,” Karwal said. “The first few years we had high school kids we trained and who served as presenters, and then over the years, the adults have come in to serve as presenters.”
Even though she officially retired as naturalist a few years ago, Karwal said she’s always glad to help out with the Oregon Trail.
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s intense, and when I retired and Cassandra took over, I told her I will help her for as long as she needs help, because there are a lot of little details that I didn’t even write down, they’re just things I know. As long as she needs me to help, and as long as I’m capable of doing it, I will be out here because when I’ve asked kids over the years what their favorite thing was that we did together, Oregon Trail is almost always the thing they mention first,” commented Karwal .”I remember one kid told me that they’d waited their whole life to take part in the event. Another girl told me that she was wearing the dress her mom had worn when she was on the Oregon Trail, so I’ve gotten the chance to do this event with more than one generation.”
While it’s a lot of hard work, Karwal said seeing the joy on the kids’ faces makes it all worthwhile and remains her favorite part of the Oregon Trail.
“I just really like seeing the kids. I think it’s fun to tell them stories, and I’ve always been a storyteller myself. After I retired and Cassandra took over, I realized I could be a presenter and do programs if she wanted me to, and she did,” stated Karwal.
Karwal said she appreciated all the support the event has received from the community over the years.
“It takes a lot of parents to get kids dressed up and into costumes. I think it’s very commendable that for 25 years the community has been okay with getting their kids ready for the event. I’m looking forward to the next 25 years,” Karwal said.
Like Karwal, Alfstad said she was also both surprised and pleased with how the Oregon Trail event has grown since it was first started all those years ago.
“Through the years it’s changed and evolved into event that’s almost a rite of passage for kids in Montgomery County. It’s had  lot of momentum up to now, and I still think it will have a lot of momentum over the years,” commented Alfstad.
Alfstad said the week leading up to each event is a busy one and involves a great number of steps, but this year in particular took extra effort due to a bout of sickness Alfstad was recovering from.
“Deb Karwal and I get every Oregon Trail prop, object, and craft ready, and it takes about four days, so I don’t have any programs, I dedicate the whole week for Oregon Trail prep. This year was a little special, because I was sick for a couple of days. Bless Deb Karwal, because she came in on those days and did all of the really heavy work for me,” Alfstad explained. “While the week before is busy, usually I start the yearly Oregon Trail prep as early as January, calling presenters and getting things lined up.”
Dressing up, Alfstad said, was a key component of the event. Alfstad urged all the participants to dress as they would have in 1840.
“I always ask them, who would you have been on the Oregon Trail. I’m dressed as a trapper, because I would not have been in a family, wearing a dress. I would have been one of the trail guides, blazing a trail and trapping and hunting, so that’s what I dressed up as,” Alfstad advised.
While a lot of effort is put into making the Oregon Trail a success each year, Alfstad said she loves seeing all the work pay off.
“The actual day of the event is my favorite part. I don’t have any commitments of doing a presentation, I just get to watch all the work we’ve done fall into place. It’s really cool to see everyone come as their own character. It’s super fun to be here and be in the moment on the Oregon Trail,” Alfstad said.
While it’s only been a bit more than a week since the 2023 Oregon Trail, Alfstad said she’s already laying the prep work for the event in 2024.
“If people want to donate their time, we’re always looking for volunteers. We also have some props that need replacing, so if anyone has some old time items, we would love to feature them in the event if we can do so. We also have a whole costume closet here that people can check out for free,” Alfstad explained.
To donate, or for more information, call 623-4753, or email Alfstad at calfstad@montgomerycountyia.gov

The Red Oak Express

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P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

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