Fourth graders learn a river of information on field trip

A class of fourth graders and a few third graders from Evergreen Elementary School traveled 10 miles by jet boat up the Stikine River to Cottonwood Island on a chilly, rainy May 14 to learn about nature, fishing techniques, wilderness survival and Tlingit culture as part of an annual field trip.

Fourth grade science teacher Brian Merritt, who has been the main organizer of the yearly school outing for over two decades, felt this latest excursion was a great success. "Everything went according to Hoyle," he said. "Some years they don't, but everything scheduled worked out perfectly."

Merritt was quick to point out that the annual field trip is a huge group effort. "It isn't just me," he said. "It's people who teach the centers. It's the chaperones. It's the jet boat operators. ... There's like... 20 or 30 people involved to make this one-day thing happen."

"It rained but it was fun," said Schools Superintendent Bill Burr who volunteered as one of the chaperones. "Good day. Water wasn't too rough. Saw some scenery, a lot of moose tracks."

The 21 students were joined on the island by a fourth grade class of 36 students from Petersburg. Also, five Wrangell third graders came along as they were part of a combination class taught by Merritt.

The students separated into smaller groups on the island to visit stations led by volunteers that focused on a diverse array of subjects.

Merritt took students on a bird walk and taught students how to identify birds in the wild, while John Yeager focused on survival training. "He teaches the kids how to survive hypothermia if they were to roll a canoe or get stuck on an island," Merritt said, adding that Yeager will show them other skills, like how to build a shelter against the elements.

Emily Klosterman of the U.S. Forest Service showed kids how to "leave no trace," using existing trails and fire pits, and minimizing impact in a wilderness area. At another stop, Petersburg teacher Dan Sullivan taught students how to identify different types of salmon.

The hooligan station was led by Tammi and Greg Meissner, who showed the students how to catch hooligan with a net and, if they want, bite the heads off the fish. "It's kind of a Wrangell-Stikine tradition," Merritt said.

The challenge to keep the hooligan head in their mouths for at least five seconds. Fourth grader Kaden Fish lasted 30 seconds. "It actually tasted sort of good," he said, adding that he would do it again.

Tammi Meissner said one of the girls from Petersburg went even further. "She had put it on a stick, cooked it over a fire and then she ate it," she said. "I had some really brave ones this year. It was great."

"Those kids were so excited to be up there," said Virginia Oliver who taught the students Tlingit history at her station. "Smiled the whole time, even if it was raining cats and dogs up there."

Oliver loves going every year, trading Tlingit stories with the students about Raven. "He's such a trickster," she said.

She brought an umbrella with her that she jokingly said served the dual purpose of providing her with shelter and a cane.

Merritt said the field trip started over two decades ago when then grade schooler Brooke Leslie asked her jet boat operator father James Leslie, a member of the Stikine Jet Boat Association, about taking her class up the river. "Jim's a real problem solver and he said, 'Well, yeah, I think we could do that if we got some other jet boat operators and we got a schedule,' so sure enough that year they hauled all the kids K through 5. It was just basically a boat ride."

Merritt noted how the annual field trip has changed over the years from a simple boat ride to a fourth grade learning experience. "It's changed because now we just go to one island ... and we do all the centers in one spot," he said. "15 years ago, where they used to drop me on the flats, they'd go further up the river four or five miles and drop another party... and we're all over the river. And the jet boat operators spent most of their day ferrying kids from one place to the next. Now we all go to the one spot and we can just walk to our centers, so it's made it a lot more efficient."

Merritt said that they will probably have to change the location for future outings. "Cottonwood Island now is starting to grow so much with alders, we're probably going to have to find a different spot next year because it's getting so overgrown, we're having trouble finding space where there isn't a bunch of trees," he said. "But there's places on the river where there's less trees and we'll just have to probably move down river."


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