- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2015

LA PINE, Ore. (AP) - Dan van den Broek walked down a path from La Pine State Park’s day-use parking lot so he could rejoin a group of about 15 birders he left scanning a clearing on the banks of the Deschutes River with their binoculars and field scopes.

“What did I miss?” asked van den Broek, a field guide with the Audubon Society of Portland who was taking this group of birders, most in their 60s and 70s, on a weeklong tour of Central Oregon with the Road Scholar program.

Group members responded to van den Broek’s question by listing the names of the birds they had spotted - a chickadee, a kingfisher, a rough-winged swallow.

He added to their findings by pointing out a spotted sandpiper that landed on a branch in the river, and adjusted his scope so they could all see it.

Formerly known as Elderhostel, the Road Scholar program helps people who are 40 or older keep their minds sharp by providing them with an opportunity to continue learning, regardless of their age. It started offering summer school-like programs at colleges and universities across New England, and has since grown to an organization that runs 5,500 theme-based travel trips that take people to all 50 states and 150 foreign countries.

Excluding airfare, the average domestic trip costs about $173 per day, and the average international trip costs about $351 a day, said James Moses, the program’s president and CEO. But Moses said the program, which has been a nonprofit since 1977, maintains a scholarship fund that helps 200 to 300 people per year who may not otherwise be able to afford the cost of these trips.

“It’s really an exciting time for us here,” Moses said, explaining the first wave of retiring baby boomers has just started signing up for Road Scholar trips. He said the program changed its name from Elderhostel in 2010 to welcome this new crop of participants, who don’t like to be called “elders,” and reflect the fact they no longer stay in hostels or college dorms.

But while the name may have changed, the program’s primary mission has stayed the same.

“Our participants really value education and learning as part of their lives,” Moses said, citing a study the program conducted that found 87.7 percent of its participants have a college degree or higher.

Moses said the key to making sure his program can provide these experiences is its ability to work with groups like the Audubon Society of Portland to make sure its participants - a majority of whom are in their 60s - learn something no matter how long they’ve taken part in an activity.

Van den Broek lived up to this reputation when he gave the birding trip’s participants an impromptu lesson on the spotted sandpiper as they peered through their binoculars and watched it splash around in the Deschutes River at La Pine State Park.

“Most sandpipers pass through Oregon, but we do have a handful that breed here,” he said, before listing a few members of the sandpiper family - the spotted sandpiper, the willet, the Wilson’s phalarope - that lay their eggs in the eastern half of the state.

Steve Foster, a 73-year-old participant from North Carolina, said these lessons were one of the main reasons he kept coming back to Road Scholar. He joined the program’s guides on previous birding trips that looked at parts of Arizona and Colorado.

“The people they bring out here are phenomenal,” said Foster, a casual birder who got hooked when he was in graduate school. “You learn a lot, and you’re with people who have similar interests and like learning.”

Foster said he could plan his own birding trip or head out with a group of people he called “listers” - birders who set out on a mission-like excursion where they check off a list of bird species found in a particular area - but then he’d miss out on the lessons and it wouldn’t be as much fun.

He’d also miss out on the lessons provided by Ivan Phillipsen, owner of Portland’s Volcano Lands Nature Tours, who corrected a guest who said chipmunks and golden mantled ground squirrels were the same animal.

Earlier in the week, Phillipsen took the tour group up to the top of Pilot Butte and identified all the volcanoes - or at least the bases of them - that were visible on a cloudy and overcast afternoon. It was enough to impress Keisha Bryson, 63, who was on her first Road Scholar trip this week.

“Even though I’m from the Pacific Northwest, I’ve learned something about the geology here,” said Bryson, who was surprised so many volcanoes could be seen from Bend even though she knew about the six that surround her home in Federal Way, Washington.

Bryson was also impressed by the other people who headed out on the Road Scholar tour because they brought so many different perspectives and life experiences to the table. During the trip’s first day and a half, she met Foster, who lived in Connecticut before he moved to North Carolina; a former newspaper reporter from Virginia who was working on a book about the beginnings of the civil rights movement; and a man who sang with a barbershop quartet and planned to team up with a similarly themed singing group later this week.

Participants on the trip also came from California, Maine, Minnesota and Texas, van den Broek said.

“This is an interesting and diverse group to be with,” said Bryson, a retired educator who was happy she had a chance to talk with so many different people. “I’m used to just hanging out with teachers. . It’s kind of fun.”

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Information from: The Bulletin, https://www.bendbulletin.com

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