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Seeing Alaska through an exchange student’s eyes

  • Author: Erin Kirkland
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published September 11, 2017

Nicolas Eckert, left, and Owen Kirkland, both 12, pause during a hike in Denali National Park. Nicolas is visiting from Frankfurt Germany as part of an exchange program with Rilke Schule German School of Arts and Sciences. (Erin Kirkland)

Nicolas Eckert, 12, had a few doubts when he and his classmates disembarked from a Condor Air flight in Anchorage earlier this month.

"I was nervous about so many things, like your family and the bears and wolves."

Nicolas, a student at the Schillerschule in Frankfurt, Germany, is staying with our family during an exchange with Rilke Schule German School of Arts and Sciences, where my son Owen is a seventh-grader.

We had two weeks to show Nicolas the best of Alaska, including school, work and cross-country running, but we weren't exactly sure which activities would appeal to a city kid more familiar with sidewalks than backcountry trails. Luckily, our young visitor's enthusiasm, coupled with his parents' encouragement to give everything a try, meshed well and ultimately delivered a ton of cross-cultural education for all of us.

Denali bears

An obvious benefit of exchanges like the one between Rilke Schule and Schillerschule is a chance for kids to experience firsthand the lifestyle of someone else their own age. Things like food, movies and weekend activities have dominated most of the boys' conversations, but as we made plans to go camping in Denali National Park over Labor Day weekend, discussions zeroed in on specifics.

"So, how close have you been to a bear?" Nicolas asked each of us, perhaps hoping that we'd say "Not very." His eyes widened when he heard Owen reply, "About 30 feet."

"You don't think it will snow at the campground, do you?" he queried once we had arrived at Riley Creek, and I pointed out a healthy dose of termination dust creeping its way down the mountains surrounding Denali National Park's entrance.

We were fortunate to have dry weather during our five-day adventure and spent much of it in doing what could be considered traditional Alaska relaxing; hiking during the day; swinging in a hammock; and roasting marshmallows each evening in the company of cheeky squirrels. Denali National Park is perfect for those new to the concept of camping in the Last Frontier, especially those who aren't with their parents. Nightly ranger presentations covered topics like "Sounds of Denali" with recordings of various creatures inhabiting the park, and gave Nicolas a chance to dig deeper beyond the impressions of Alaska he and his classmates had formed.

"I never knew there were so many different animals right here," he said, stroking the pelt of a black bear in the campground amphitheater.

Recess time

For Owen, a kid who has lived in and traveled around Alaska since infancy, the initial questions about life in one of Germany's largest cities were equally intriguing.

"You mean you take the train and bus all alone?" he asked after Nicolas described some of his favorite Frankfurt hangouts. "Whoa."

The concept of recess was discussed one day as we hiked Horseshoe Lake trail, a short trek near the Park Road that winds around a clear, deep lake and along the Nenana River.

Owen was lamenting a lack of quality time to play football at school, and he asked Nicolas how much time kids at Schillerschule spent outside during the day.

"Well, let's see," Nicolas said, counting on his fingers. "Two times a day for 30 minutes most days, then one day a week we have an extra 45 minutes."

"What!?" Owen exclaimed, stopping completely and staring at Nicolas. "We only get 20 minutes." (There's a program designed to increase recess time in the U.S.)

This led to comparisons of after-school activities and park spaces – where, how many, and what sorts of cool things might a tween boy do in either Alaska or Germany. Owen replayed his football fanaticism and offered fishing and biking as alternatives, and Nicolas talked up Frankfurt's skate parks and soccer fields. Both said they'd rather stay outside as much as they can, even if it's just hanging out with friends.

Nicolas also said his dad rides a bike to work and he and his sister, Emily, 15, walk or ride to school every day in contrast to most American school kids who ride a bus or are transported by their parents.

I'm always amazed at the cohesiveness of kids who live in different places on this planet, and how the concepts of compare and contrast spark important dialogue about personal perspective and our ability to adapt and learn from each other.

Over the past two weeks Nicolas has climbed a rocky peak to gaze at Denali; he's learned to respect, not fear, animals inhabiting Alaska's wild places; and he's become a competent, if not confident camper. Owen, on the other hand, has discovered he might just enjoy city life next summer when he visits Nicolas in Frankfurt if it means taking the U-bahn to a local park for a game of soccer or riding a bike to and from Schillerschule every day.

There are outdoor lessons to be learned from everyone, in every place. We need only to offer our children the opportunities, be they in Alaska or beyond.

Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publisher of, Alaska's only family travel resource.

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