WRANGELL — The kids came stomping down the gangway wearing life jackets and rubber boots, carrying backpacks containing lunches, rain gear, and in some cases, binoculars. Teachers deftly organized the 15 fourth-graders from Wrangell's Evergreen Elementary School into a line, not an easy thing since these kids were pumped on what they were about to do.
Since the first day of school, teacher Brian Merritt had been preparing his class for this moment, when the students would climb aboard a flotilla of jet boats and roar upriver to explore one of Southeast Alaska's most fascinating natural features.
Older students had told youngsters about the trip, too as had some parents. It's a tradition, they all told me, a rite of passage for those living and going to school in this tiny town located on Wrangell Island in the Alexander Archipelago.
The Stikine River was our destination; a sandy, shallow, murky-looking delta of bars and fallen trees that boasts a surprising amount of life, both on land and in the water. We would travel about an hour from the mouth of the Stikine on Wrangell Island's northern tip and spend the day exploring, learning and living the life that every parent dreams about for their active 9- or 10-year-old child.
For 19 years, Merritt, himself raised in Wrangell, and a cadre of local businesses, organizations and agencies have teamed up to make the Stikine River Field Trip, as it is known, an annual foray to a place only a handful of kids had ever visited.
The trip is part reward, part learning opportunity, says Merritt, who first brought the entire school of kindergarten through fifth-grade students upriver in 1997.
"We basically took everyone up to Limb Island, let them out for 20 minutes and brought them back to town," he says. "After doing that for two years, we decided to make it an all-day, fourth-grade-only trip."
Maximizing the efforts of everyone involved and spending more quality time on the river was a priority, he told me, and now, students arrive on Limb Island and nearby Cottonwood Island for a day stuffed with activities. Kids fish for hooligan, a type of smelt, learn how to build a fire, practice leave-no-trace principles, gather on fallen logs to hear Tlingit stories and relate classroom work about local culture, science and math to their day on what Merritt calls "The Land of Sand."
The Stikine is a 335-mile river snaking from northwestern British Columbia through the canyons of this rugged and scenic section of Southeast Alaska. Emptying in a wide delta that attracts a plethora of birds, fish and mammals, the river has been central to those who have lived on its banks or fished its silty, chilly water for millennia. The Tlingit call it simply "The Great River," and great it is once you've traveled its tricky channels. So shallow in places that ordinary outboard motors would prove useless, jet boats are the primary form of transit for safe passage, taking hunters, fishermen and travelers upriver.
Jim Leslie, owner of Alaska Waters, a local jet boat company specializing in tours upriver, said the Stikine River Jet Boat Association bands together each spring for the field trip, offering up boats, captains and crew to make the day work.
"Wrangell Island and the Stikine River are pristine wilderness areas, and the people who live here place value on quality of life and the enjoyment of the outdoors. We're instilling that sense of stewardship in our children."
Partnering with both the Wrangell School District and U.S. Forest Service for the day's activities, Leslie said the entire production is a community collaboration. Local merchants donate supplies and funds, a Forest Service ranger accompanies the students for added impact and parents reinforce that good behavior and effort in school means one can attend this special day on the river.
"Everyone's invested in this," he said.
Back on board Leslie's boat, the kids strapped on seatbelts and readied themselves for the ride. I asked how many had not yet been up the river. At least half raised their hands. Leslie fired up the engines and pulled away from the harbor as heads turned aft to watch the rooster tail of spray.
McKinley Gillen, on her first trip, told me she had been looking forward to this all year.
"Mr. Merritt said we could stand on a sand bar," she said, eyes widening with anticipation of this unusual way to spend a school day.
I asked what she thought the river delta would be like.
"I think it's going to be really peaceful," she said, after thinking about it for a minute.
Peaceful? Not exactly, not with the 15 Wrangell students and the later arrival of 36 kids from nearby Petersburg, who have joined the field trip the last two years. But there was definitely a sense of quiet in a mechanical sense. Birds sang and the river mumbled to itself as nature took over the soundscape.
Breaking everyone into their respective groups, some on Limb Island took a bird walk with Merritt and then investigated the intricacies of the salmon life cycle. Others took turns with a hooligan net or journaling at the leave-no-trace station. The atmosphere was busy and happy, kids shrieking when classmates grabbed a slithery, flopping hooligan from the net in triumph or upon the discovery of bear, river otter or moose tracks in the deep, soft sand.
I tagged along with Merritt during one of his bird walks on Limb Island, aptly named for the collection of downed trees collecting on the bars that will, he told the kids, be covered by water come summer.
Like a pied piper in XtraTufs and camouflage rain gear, Merritt strode quickly from place to place, calling out questions to the kids who followed closely.
"Who can tell me the name of this bird?" he asked, holding up a kid-created picture of a belted kingfisher. They knew.
"What animal made these tracks? Don't step on them, just look," as the kids crowded closer and closer for a better view. A river otter. Why were the tracks so high up on the sand? Guesses and hands flew.
"The water went down?" someone said.
"Correct," replied Merritt, bringing a satisfied grin to the respondent's face.
Attention to little details in the environment matters, Merritt said later in an email. The things they learned on the field trip may save their lives one day, especially when kids begin to frequent the outdoors on their own.
Merritt told me some students have been so impacted by their day on the Stikine that as they took shop class in high school, they built simple jet boats and now transport themselves up the river.
"I can tell people lots of things, and even show them cool pictures of what I'm talking about, but nothing can replace seeing and touching the real thing."
Judging by the excited voices coming from the back of the boat that afternoon as we motored back to town, Merritt is absolutely right.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska On the Go: exploring the 49th state with children and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska's family travel resource. Her second book about traveling the Alaska Marine Highway System with kids, is due out in 2017.