Q&A: How Nature Lover Chelsea Ernst Started a Nature School

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October 12, 2022

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(Bend, Ore.) Chelsea Ernst is the Co-Founder of Nighthawk Naturalist School, an experiential outdoor school that encourages people to connect with nature. She started Nighthawk Naturalist School in 2021, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It challenged small businesses across America and many of them shut down. But Nighthawk thrived, in part because the outdoors was a haven where people could safely congregate. Connections to people, and the environment, were in high demand.

The Click: What is Nighthawk Naturalist School?

Chelsea Ernst: It’s all about connecting people with nature through natural history skills and survival skills. The courses I’m most passionate about are our adult immersion courses. There’s a survival-focused one where a group of 10 folks gets together once a month to learn different survival skills, making tools like obsidian knives or learning how to build a shelter. The other one is a naturalist course where students learn natural history skills like birding or wildlife tracking and it’s more scientifically based.

The Click: Why is wilderness education important?

Chelsea Ernst: Having an element of play and community with your peers is important. And to be reminded that it’s okay to get dirty. When you’re an adult, it can become more spiritual. For some people, it can become transformative, like something is flipped in people’s brains about connecting to something bigger than themselves and the people around them. No matter what people say, they’re never going to know everything about the natural world. That’s inspiring for some people. But it’s intimidating and overwhelming at first. Connecting by doing challenging survival skills outside, you see sides of people that you wouldn’t normally. That can help bring people together in a very powerful way.

Tyler and I, my co-founder, think those classes can help give you a connection to the natural world that is not typical in the mainstream world. It’s more than just knowing what the names of the plants are. It’s knowing what humans’ connections have been to those plants for thousands of years. It’s getting back to skills that have been important throughout human history.

The Click: How did your background help you start Nighthawk Naturalist School?

Chelsea Ernst: I did ecology and wildlife biology in undergrad at UNC Asheville. That’s where I started doing field biology. I moved to Washington and took an alternative environmental ed grad program that focused on natural history. And also business management, but from the nonprofit side.

It’s been my passion for all of my adult life, and parts of my youth. I want to share that. That’s the whole impetus for my business. I want to share that passion rather than it being extraordinarily lucrative. And we don’t have a competitive mindset. We want to work in connection with other businesses. Just sharing what we love is the whole idea.

The Click: How did you start Nighthawk Naturalist School?

Chelsea Ernst: We started with a small group of adult students that wanted us to help them finish a program they started. We had run programs like that before. I don’t know if we considered it Nighthawk at the time, but that was our first time leading a class of adults. Then COVID-19 started and we didn’t do anything that summer. We started back up that fall of 2020 with small homeschool kid pods outside because people felt a lot safer being outdoors at the time. We thought that was something small we could offer just to get the word out. In 2021 we started all the programs that we have in the mill now.

The Click: Why is Bend, Oregon a good place for this business?

Chelsea Ernst: Here there is a lot of easy access to the outdoors. For us, it was the access to public lands, a loving place and feeling connected to the place. And often, a lot of businesses in Bend focus on getting people outdoors. There are endless opportunities for outdoor recreation in this town. One could say that it’s oversaturated. So starting a business here from that lens, it’s like, what if this is just another random thing that Bend has so much of? But I think we offer a niche that isn’t oversaturated. I think that we offer something that’s different.

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