I still maintain that my parents were far too paranoid in my youth. We left California because my parents were certain I’d be murdered or forced to join a gang if we stayed in the Bay Area. I wasn’t allowed to attend the fifth/sixth grade trip to “Outdoor School” because my parents didn’t want me away for that long, or something. I had strict curfews through high school and when my sister and I wanted to go to Portland for a concert, my parents were convinced we’d be shot. In college, my parents knew that I’d be subject to some terrorist plot if I spent a year in Berlin.
I always felt my parents had caused me to miss out on some things (though, in college, I determined I was old enough to make my own decisions and I did spend a year in Heidelberg, Germany) so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to co-chaperone the Juneau Community Charter School’s eighth grade class trip to Denali last year. The parent who was supposed to co-chaperone had something come up, so a few weeks before the trip I, the comics exploratory teacher, was asked if I could attend.
As luck would have it, my boss at the time was at the school helping in her daughter’s class and was able to grant me permission on the spot to take off to the wilderness with a bunch of teens and one of the teachers.
The trip itinerary included a flight from Juneau to Fairbanks via Anchorage, staying overnight at a church and a hostel (all wall tents), then driving to Denali, staying in a school in Healy, and eventually driving back to Fairbanks, then back to Juneau with a long layover in Anchorage.
Some of the students I knew from my comics class, others I was just meeting. Eighth grade felt like it was decades ago. But I guess, at the time, it was only about 12 years in the past. I was suddenly introduced to the pop culture I had never wanted to know. Justin Bieber. The playlist of the most bubbly student must have been payback for that time I nicknamed a student “Biebs” because of his overgrown locks that he would flip to the side to unobstruct his vision. I take it back. I take it all back.
There was actually a rule that nobody was allowed to sing that pseudo-pop atrocity “Friday” by Rebecca Black unless it was to ward off a bear. We only saw one grizzly, but I must have heard that song six dozen times, and it was not during the bear sighting.
Aside from somewhat questionable musical taste, those kids were really cool. They were the first 8th grade class to graduate from the Charter School and this year’s group will be the second.
Every student had at least one thing about them that really stood out, whether it was a student whose artistic abilities surpassed mine (even though I was the teacher), a student who quietly carried the weight of experience beyond her years and had real survival skills, or the student who knows better who she is at 14 than many adults.
Many of the students had started at the Charter School and had grown up together. They were close friends, about to start high school but with one last adventure before them. But before I turn this into a sappy coming of age film, I’d like to hit on some of the best things about the trip, like how educational it was. We all visited the University of Alaska Fairbanks to learn about wildfires in forests. We all learned about the cycle of the forest growth and visited different forested areas that represented different times in the cycle.
I bet those kids could probably still speculate pretty accurately how old a forest is, based on the existing flora.
During the introductions at the start of that educational session I was mistaken for a student. My mom tells me I’ll appreciate it someday. We also stopped and admired some muskoxen and visited the museum.
We stayed at a hostel one night, in wall tents, and somehow a pair of shoes was thrown into the branches of a tall evergreen, to be followed by several balls and some rope in an attempt to extricate the shoes from their perch. I think it took a solid hour for all the items to be removed from the tree, eliciting quite a bit of laughter.
At the hostel was the second time on the trip I was mistaken for a student. I’m still waiting for this “looking 10-plus years younger” thing to be a blessing.
We drove to Denali (oh, the playlists, oh, the agony) and learned a lot about the history of the park at the center. We took a tour bus out as far as we could go and stopped along the way to hear from an Athabascan woman and a man play-acting as an old settler.
We hiked around with one of the Park Rangers, who showed us trails and tracks, a ptarmigan, a juvenile Dall Sheep, a hare and other birds.
In the evening, we all had another road trip. We drove into the park as far as we could on our own, hoping to see more wildlife. As we drove, all those sharp eyes scanned the landscape for any movement that could be wildlife. We did manage to see some caribou and perhaps some more hares, but it wasn’t until we were driving back out of the park, somewhat disheartened, that we saw what everyone had been hoping to see. Luckily with a ton of steel between us.
Right in the middle of the road was a big, tawny Grizzly ambling along. Smart phones came out and we all snapped photos or took video as the bear walked within arm’s reach of the rented SUV, pausing for a moment to stare into the window, directly at a tawny haired student. I told her he thought she was cute. Then the bear continued to amble and we continued on our way, satisfied at our wildlife sightings for the day.
We also hiked to horseshoe lake and back, admiring the blue lake that was once the bend in a river, then slapping at mosquitos as we gazed over the placid water up close.
I think some of us wouldn’t have minded staying longer in Denali, but we did have return tickets.
Once we made it back to Fairbanks, we drove out to the Chena Hot Springs to go swimming, but luck wasn’t on our side and the pool that is open to minors was closed. Instead, we took the geothermal tour (neat!) and visited the little ice sculpture museum.
On our way back to Juneau, we stopped in Anchorage and visited the museum there, and while riding in the wrong direction on a city bus with a conspiracy theorist bus driver, some of us saw our first moose (right in city limits).
That trip was a really big deal to those kids. They worked hard to raise money, they learned a lot and they really had one last bonding experience before moving on. As much fun as I had on that trip, I know it was a lot more important to those students and it will be important to this year’s group as well. If you are interested in making a donation toward the trip, contact the Charter School at 586-2526.
• Contact Neighbors Editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.