Field trip up Stikine teaches lifelong lessons for elementary students

A simple 30-minute trip by jet boat could be the outing of a lifetime for many Wrangell and Petersburg youths, and if they pay attention, it could mean extending that lifetime.

On May 2, a mix of fourth and fifth graders from Evergreen Elementary and Petersburg's Stedman Elementary traveled up the Stikine River on a warm, sunny day to Cottonwood Island to learn about everything from identifying wildlife to surviving the elements.

Field trips up the river have been going on for about 23 years, according to Wrangell teacher Brian Merritt, who got the idea from a former student. What started as just an outing has evolved into a daylong educational series.

"It all started when I had a child named Brooke Leslie in my class in third grade," Merritt recalled. "Her dad is (jet boat captain) Jim Leslie. She said, 'Hey, dad, is there any way we can bring the kids for a field trip up the river?' Jim, being a conqueror of any obstacle, said, 'Yeah, I think we can do that.'"

The first year, jet boat crews took kindergarteners through fifth graders to a spot up the river and stayed for about 30 minutes. They would then be taken back and another group would be brought up. After some years, only the fourth grade class was brought up. As class sizes dropped, Petersburg fourth graders were invited along.

"This has become a fourth grade field trip that has the six centers: Hooligan fishery, bird walk, survival camp, Tlingit history," salmon camp (leave no trace) and fire starting and safety, Merritt said.

Fifth graders from Wrangell joined the fourth grade classes from both schools this year since the past two years were canceled due to COVID.

Delayed start provides

onshore learning opportunity

As other students were on their way up the Stikine on May 2, Merritt's group was delayed when there was engine trouble for the jet boat Chutine Warrior captained by James Leslie, Jim Leslie's son. The boat returned to port for quick repairs.

Ever the educator, Merritt used the time to take his class for a short walk to Shakes Island to identify birds and watch their habits. Along the walk, eagles, herring gulls, ravens and at least three other species were seen and heard. The teacher pointed out how the songs of many birds were to let mates know they were available while warning off rivals.

Moments later, the boat was fixed and the group was off. Partway up the river, a jet boat transporting kids from Petersburg was spotted stuck on a sandbar. It gave Merritt the opportunity to talk about tides and depth.

Farther on, a tree hung precariously off the side of a hill, the soil crumbling beneath. That led to an earth science lesson on erosion.

The boat passed chunks of ice floating down river toward the ocean.

"We've been doing it this way for the past 15 years where we come to Cottonwood Island and then branch out all over the place," Merritt said. "We used to have three or four drop-off spots along the river, but it took so long to move the kids back and forth with the jet boats that we finally came to the conclusion to do everything on one island. Once we get the jet boats here, we stay here the whole day."

From transporters to teachers

Since the very first trip, Brenda Schwartz-Yeager, co-owner of Alaska Charters and Adventures, has been bringing the kids on the river outings.

"Originally, we did it 100% volunteer, but it is kind of expensive for us, especially when we started including Petersburg," she said. "They pay some nominal fee that helps us with our fuel, but it ends up mostly a donation by the time we pay for our fuel and crew. In the beginning, we didn't (charge) but, of course, fuel was a lot cheaper then."

John Yeager, who crewed for James Leslie this year, has been bringing the kids up since 2005, but it's not just his piloting skills that were put to use. He's also a survivalist teacher.

"A few of you should be building shelter, some of you should be signaling out here on the riverbank and watching for boats or airplanes that are coming by," Yeager told a group of fifth graders after instructing them. "We have different items you can use. There's an oar, there's a boat cushion, there are walking sticks, there's a tarp in here, there's rope you can tie the tarp up with."

He encouraged the kids to listen to each other's ideas and to brainstorm, then discuss what could be done better. The training is a simplified version of what Yeager has learned from 17 years in the U.S. Coast Guard and other courses he's taken.

Alicia Stearns, who works in helicopter operations and teaches aviation survival classes for the U.S. Forest Service, stressed the importance of survival skills. She volunteered for the field trip as a chaperone for the fifth graders, including her daughter Lily.

"(Lily) is very excited. We love coming up the river," she said. "Some kids spend a lot of time up here, some don't get as much, but it's good to have the survival skills just in case."

Yeager said he has had many comments from students from both schools stating that the survival training was their favorite part of the trip. Merritt is among those who enjoy it.

"Survival camp is one of my favorite things," he said. "I've told (the students) they could learn something there that at 16, 18 or 25 is going to save your life. You won't even think about it right now until you've rolled your boat or rolled your snow machine and can't get back to help, or your four-wheeler and you're 30 miles out and nighttime's coming. All the sudden, you're in a pickle. 'Hmm. How do I stay warm? I remember! Get out of the wind, get under a tree, get next to a root wad.' All these things John is teaching them."

Kids taught to respect nature,

maybe even bite into a hooligan

Along with survival camp, students had the opportunity to learn about respect for the wilderness area from Corree Delabrue, recreation management specialist with the Forest Service.

"We're talking about Leave No Trace, which is a set of guidelines which helps recreationalists think about our impact on wild places, anywhere you recreate, and especially an area like the Stikine River," she said. "All areas should be kept pristine, especially the river because we recognize it as such an important resource in terms of the wildlife and enjoyment for people getting to experience a really wild area."

Delabrue went through a list with kids, who then teamed up in pairs to act out a skit that depicted each principal on the list.

One of those was to respect wildlife. Children were taught to watch from a distance and to not interact. Surrounding the area where the kids sat and listened to Delabrue, moose tracks and scat, wolf tracks and bark peeled from trees were reminders that wildlife (apart from fourth and fifth graders) roamed the area.

"We are guests here. This is not our home. This is not where we live," said volunteer and mom Kaelene Harrison, whose son, Malachi, was part of the trip. "We take everything with us that we bring here. Do not leave garbage all around. ... Let's leave this place better than we found it."

A few yards away from the Leave No Trace station on the beach, Brennon Eagle and son Kellan Eagle demonstrated a hooligan fishery. The duo cast a net into the Stikine to gather the oily fish to show kids how to catch them.

"It's just technique because there's no hooligan up here now," the elder Eagle said. "About the first of April is the best time to be up here."

Eagle's older son, Tyler, who is now 26, was with the last fourth grade group to come up when it was held in early April, before the trip was rescheduled to the beginning of May to take advantage of more amenable weather.

"They were always fighting weather up here. Moving it back has helped us," Eagle said. "It's cool to be up here when the hooligan are running because there's so much activity. Sea lions and the birds and all that stuff. It's so alive."

After netting some frozen and planted hooligans, students were offered a chance to engage in the tradition of biting heads of the small fish.

"It don't taste good," said Derek Heller after biting a head off. "Not one bit. I don't like it."

Students learn a lot about

Native culture, Tlingit history

For seven years, Virginia Oliver has made the trip, waiting for students to arrive so that she can teach them about Tlingit culture and language through stories and history, tying it to the Stikine.

"Today we are going to talk a little about the mighty Stikine River," Oliver told one gathered group. "Say, 'Shtax'heen kwaan.' The Shtax'heen kwaan, we are the Wrangell people."

She then beat slowly on her drum and began to sing the Paddle Song, encouraging kids to sing along.

Not only were Petersburg fourth graders in attendance, their teacher Greg Kowalski was there to teach about identifying the five different species of salmon. He likened the names and sizes to the fingers of a hand.

Pinks, he said, are like the smallest finger, the pinky. Silver salmon, or coho, are the ring finger. King, or chinook, are the largest, like the middle finger. Reds are the index finger, or the one that will sock you in the eye (sockeye), making your eye red. And lastly, dog salmon or chum for the thumb.

"A lot of these kids are quite versed in salmon, especially the Wrangell kids, so it's a harder sell to them," he said, even though kids from both communities have parents who are commercial fishermen. However, Kowalski kept kids' attention by handing out salmon eggs (Skittles candies) as rewards for correct answers.

While Kowalski quizzed kids on their fishy knowledge, Merritt took others on a tour of bird species, trekking through the brush to talk about habitats, migration paths, mating calls and identifiable markings.

Kids learned that there's no such thing as a seagull, rather several species of gulls which live next to the ocean. Many could point out Bonaparte gulls, which have a black head and white body, compared to the black-tipped wings of a herring gull.

Merritt pointed out the correct name for those black, brown and white geese are not Canadian, rather they are Canada geese.

And if someone invites you to go snipe hunting, know that it is a real bird, but it's not a sandpiper, even though the two closely resemble each other.

"There's all kinds of things going on here," Merritt said. "Some kids in Wrangell never do come up the river. I've met some adults that are 25 or 30 and have never come up here. That's really sad. For some kids, this might be their only trip up the river ever."


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