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GALBRAITH LAKE - Willie Via used a break during his first hike into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to watch a distant group of Dall sheep traverse a mountainside.
"I was always kind of interested in seeing the area," the student from Fairbanks' Randy Smith Middle School said while perched on a plateau just inside the refuge's boundary. "It's on the national news and stuff because of the oil debate."
Via and fellow students received a rare chance this month to spend several days in the region, exploring the Arctic and visiting with scientists who have studied it.
Fairbanks teachers Jim Lokken and Marty Foster received a $22,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take students on a trip to the refuge area. The funding for the trip followed an equal-sized grant from the Toyota USA Foundation for Lokken and Foster to develop a Web-based curriculum for the Arctic.
Lokken and Foster said their goal was to provide students with a personal experience in the Arctic, a chance to examine the region on their own terms without getting lost in the polarized rhetoric of the drill-versus-conserve debate.
Activities focused on largely informal exploration of the area with students recording their observations in a journal.
"The arctic refuge has never really had a personal voice," said Cathy Curby, the refuge's wildlife interpretative specialist for Fish and Wildlife and one of the organizers of the trip.
"The development side has had its voice and the environmental side has had its conservation voice," she said. "But there's never been kind of that middle voice that says, 'This is what's really happening on the ground level and you're both exaggerating.' "
Lokken, a wiry, athletic science teacher, said he prefers the exploration model of education over any technical assignments or paperwork.
"I'm more of a let's-go-climb-every-mountain type," he said.
The first mountain on the agenda came on the morning after the students and 20 adults who attended the excursion set up camp at Galbraith Lake, near an old trans-Alaska oil pipeline construction airstrip sandwiched between ANWR and the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in the Brooks Range.
On the morning of the hike, the group traveled to a pipeline access point near where the ANWR boundary is closest to the road. Lokken led them under the pipeline, into the refuge and up a tundra-covered hill.
Taking a lunch break atop a plateau before ascending a steep mountain, the students passed around a set of image-stabilizing binoculars and viewed Dall sheep near the base of the mountain. The hike also included exploring a cave, a search for fossils in the once-oceanic area and a spirited effort at throwing a few rocks off the summit of the mountain for perspective.
Lokken, who has become familiar with the area through trapping arctic ground squirrels for research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said his main goal was for students to take away their own appreciation of the refuge.
"A lot of these students, they have never been up here before," said Curby. "They know what Interior Alaska looks like and they probably know what Anchorage looks like, but this is a chance for them to see a little more of their own backyard."