PORTAGE — Esha Yang, 9, is pressing a pair of binoculars to her eyes in hopes of being the first to spot Portage Glacier, even though she's never seen a glacier before today.
Yang and her classmates from Creekside Elementary School in Anchorage are clustered around the top deck rails of the M/V Ptarmigan as it navigates Portage Lake, cruising as part of a field trip to expose fourth-graders to their public lands.
"Is that it?" she asks no one in particular, answering herself with a loud squeal of recognition.
"The glacier looks blue!"
It may have been a sloppy, soggy Southcentral Alaska day, but for the 48 youngsters aboard the Ptarmigan, the rain and wind were all part of their introduction to nature and outdoor opportunities. Public land, they found out, never closes due to bad weather.
Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Forest Service that supports a larger, nationwide program called Every Kid in a Park, the Anchorage Park Foundation hosted five field trips designed to enlighten, inspire and encourage future public land use.
Brendan Stuart, Schools On Trails coordinator for the foundation, spearheaded the trips to Portage with the hope kids would share their experience once they return home and perhaps return with their parents or siblings.
"The focus is to reach students and families who do not normally access our public lands, or get out into the wilderness areas outside of Anchorage, and provide them with an educational outdoor experience," Stuart said.
She added that many of these kids — and to a larger extent their families — do not have opportunities or knowledge to access the wild, beautiful places just outside Anchorage.
"All Anchorage residents have a right to connect to the beauty that surrounds our city," Stuart said. "By providing a structured field trip though a school, we hope to offer an introduction to these wilderness spaces so close to the city and encourage a return trip for further adventures."
Public land fees vary greatly — it might be $5 to enter a visitor center, $25 for a car and driver to enter a park, and so on. The Every Kid in a Park program provides free passes to fourth-grade students and their families for one year. The printable pass is available online for kids, parents, and educators.
Lots of materials focusing on the outdoors, science, camping and public lands are available too, with a state-by-state guide helping families plan outings no matter where they live or where they may visit in the future. Stuart said about 250 passes were handed out over the course of five Alaska field trips.
Grace Lee is executive director of the National Park Trust, the organization overseeing the Every Kid in a Park program. She knows the challenges many families face when considering outdoor activities — transportation, finances and other barriers. But many times, she said, it's simply a lack of knowledge.
"When families are not enjoying our parks, it is often because they think they are far away or are not kid-friendly, safe places to play," she wrote in an email. "That's why the Every Kid in a Park pass is a powerful public awareness and engagement initiative."
I asked a bunch of the kids if they'd ever been to Portage before. They all said no. A few volunteered that they'd never been on a boat. I asked how many of them knew what a national park was and if they'd ever been to one. Nobody. So I turned to class chaperone Teresa Louangsisongkham, who was busy taking photos of the glacier, and her granddaughter, Esha. Louangsisongkham recently moved from Iztapalapa, Mexico, to be closer to family and marveled at the scenery she'd seen between Anchorage and Portage.
"Alaska is simply breathtaking," she said, snapping another photo. "I'm just crazy about getting the grandkids outside, but I just don't know where to start finding the information of places to see close to home. I'm glad I can start here."
That starting point, Lee said, doesn't need to involve long drives, camping or fancy equipment. Families can begin with simple activities like walking or riding bikes to a neighborhood park, or attending an event like Public Lands Day, which is Saturday.
Teachers can play a huge role, too, she said. Educators, camp directors, youth group leaders, home school coordinators and others who regularly work with fourth graders (ages 9- 11) can get as many as 50 free passes at a time from Every Kid in a Park.
The Anchorage Park Foundation's effort to secure a grant for bus transportation and field trip costs is in its second year and has generated increasing interest among Anchorage's lower-income schools, with Mountain View, William Tyson, Creekside and Fairview participating this year.
The students spent about an hour cruising Portage Lake before heading over to Begich, Boggs Visitor Center for lunch and a scavenger hunt among the exhibits showcasing the Portage Valley and Chugach National Forest. They listened to recordings of the calls of ravens and moose, sat in a kayak, were grossed out by ice worms and stood at the viewing windows to see bergy bits of ice floating among waves on the steely-gray lake.
Stuart hopes that taking these kids, their chaperones and their teachers just an hour south of Anchorage inspired interest in pursuing more outdoor activities. She shared the story of a student from another field trip.
"I listened to one student from Tyson Elementary, looking up at the mountains around us as we were walking back from the hike, tell his teacher hesitantly that he would like to climb on a mountain," she said. "His teacher told him, 'You are smart, active and can walk well. I see no reason why you could not do this. Ask your grandma to take you to Potter Marsh.' "
Kids who explore Alaska today may grow up to be the stewards of Alaska tomorrow, and it's heartening to know so many grownups working to inspire a lifelong, tangible love of our collective home.
Every Kid In a Park
Every Kid In a Park is a nationwide program providing free public land passes to students in fourth grade (or the homeschool equivalent) to federally managed lands and waters via the Every Kid in a Park website at everykidinapark.gov. Educators may print off up to 50 passes, and kids who apply individually are asked to complete a short, online activity. Each pass is individually numbered and is nontransferable, and allows the child and accompanying family members access to federally managed public lands that require entrance fees.
Alaska families may want to visit the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Tok for a one-stop resource of all public lands in the state. (alaskacenters.gov)
Public Lands Day is scheduled for Saturday and will feature volunteer-themed activities at a number of sites around Anchorage. Find out more at on.adn.com/2wSqGHB.
Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publisher of AKontheGO, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska.