Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier

by Stacey Ebert / Oct 08, 2019 /
Stacey Ebert's picture

Alaska–we finally made it to our 50th state this past July. When we landed at 11pm, it was still bright light outside, and the pilots who delivered us to the last frontier even took a picture with us to mark the epic journey. It was official– the ground of Alaska was actually beneath our feet. Goal achieved. This was not one of those goals that popped up overnight– it took years to flourish, more to facilitate, and, oddly enough, it was heaps of time before we even knew it was ever a goal. 

Growth, education, and travel take time to foster, sit with, develop, and affect change in the present day. Our journey to Alaska did all of that and more.

Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier

As a student and camper, I knew I wanted to see the world, but I never dreamt it was possible. After meeting people who spoke different languages, ate different food, and traveled to amazing spaces, I wanted to glimpse a portion of that world; it was that world that I tried to impart to my students. Young minds between the ages of 14 and 18 come into our classrooms and cross our paths daily– how can we help them dream big, set their sights on the big picture, and become well-rounded, open-minded, and kind humans? Whether it’s worldschooling, roadschooling, home schooling, informal education, or that of the traditional kind: sharing the idea that the world is out there, the world is both bigger and smaller than we think, and that there’s learning that takes place every where and in every moment is our job as educators and global citizens. 

We teach those in the next generation as much as they teach us.

It was more than two decades ago when a ninth grade student came into my class excited about the picture of puffins on her cereal box. After looking at their adorable faces, we did our best to learn a bit more about them. So, since I consider myself privileged to still be in touch with that former student (and former class officer), when we officially booked our trip and secured an experience to actually interact with rescued puffins, I had to let her know just how influential she was in our travel decision. Learning goes both ways; if we’re lucky enough, our students often become some of our greatest teachers.

The journey to Alaska was a different one than we traditionally take. We hired a camper van with sleeping capacities both in and atop the vehicle and a small kitchen in the back. Our quick 6-day journey took us from Anchorage to Denali National Park and then south to the waters of Seward. Comfort zone-blasting experiences, epic scenery, wandering wildlife, and kind Alaskan hospitality filled our adventures. 

With each mile, we learned. 

With each campsite, we were changed. 

With each new national park, we were transformed.

Denali National Park. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier
Denali National Park

This was an experience we won’t soon forget. It was as if we were true students of the Alaskan wilderness and nature was our best teacher. Between trying our hand at emptying a gray water tank, refilling a freshwater tank, navigating campsite life in our amazing campervan from our new friends at Get Lost Travel Vans, and exploring the Alaskan wilderness, there were lessons far too many to count. It was the first time we experienced those endless hours of daylight. It was the first time we stayed in a campsite in a national park. It was the first time we stayed at an RV Park. And, it was our first up close and personal encounter with puffins. Our faces were like those of a kid in a candy store. For all of those days, it was as if we never stopped smiling.

Cooking in Alaska. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier
Cooking in Alaska

Of course, each person’s experience is his/her own. Our Alaskan adventure is quite different than that of a colleague who went on a National Geographic research ship, than that of a friend who cruised the inner passage, and to that of the friends who helicoptered in to ice hike a glacier. Ours included bears and huskies, glacier calving and friendly otters, an actual glimpse of one of the country’s mega peaks, and a taste of Alaskan delicacies. 

Each adventure teaches us, opens us up, cracks us open, and reinvigorates our soul. 

Our students deserve that chance to experience wonder, explore the world, and create endless opportunities. Alongside ample Alaskan kindness, we wound our way up and down the highway, stopping along the way. Throughout the entire journey, we found kind humans, ignited senses, and discovered heaps of experiences to fill to our memory box. 

Wherever your journeys take you, the important part is to have those experiences. Roam often, take in as much as possible, be open to differences, welcome diversity, expose those in the next generation to the vast education of travel and exploration, and assist in the growth of the next crop of knowledgeable, kind global citizens. There’s learning everywhere...if we only open our eyes and see.

Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier

4 Educational Experiences we encountered in Alaska

Camper van and campsite experience

Our classroom on wheels taught us heaps of new lessons. We tried our hands at emptying and refilling a water tank (tip: gloves are a good idea–it gets messy). We were gifted the opportunity to stop at any roadside viewpoint we wanted to, cook food, eat with a picturesque landscape before our eyes, pack out what we pack in, and learn as we go. Cameron, our newly named minivan, kept us on our toes. From learning to pop up the tent (and then take it down), to sticking on the magnetic mosquito nets when we chose to sleep in the set up in the car, and, of course, learning the ropes of setting up, breaking down, and cooking at the campsite, it was a constant learning experience. We followed the fire codes, made sure to secure our food to protect us and the bear population, religiously carried our bear spray, and were kind to our neighbors. Each campsite and RV park experience gave us the opportunity to see so many types of set ups, campers, caravans, and amazing RVs–and see how so many people live, work, and play in various ways. We chatted with fellow park goers, always had baby wipes to share, and kept our eyes peeled for all sorts of the intriguing and interesting travel gear used by fellow wanderers. Each night, under a blanket of slight dusk and a few stars, surrounded by other explorers taking the opportunity to enjoy and experience these natural elements, we knew we had done this trip the right way for us.

Get Lost Be Found. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier
Get Lost Be Found

National park exploration

This trip took us to two national parks. Denali shared her bus system (protecting roads, escorting weary travelers, and keeping the elements safe for future generations) with us to take us much further into the ever-changing scenery of this epic park. Before our eyes, the colors and trees shifted to reveal endless peaks, tree-lined valleys, and trails as far as we could see. Dall sheep dotted the mountainsides; bears tumbled with their cubs while caribou and moose hugged the road to get a better view of our arrival. The rangers and drivers were filled with stories, information, and tips about this vast park and its limitless benefits. And, on our last day, on our way out of the park, the skies cleared, the clouds parted, and Denali , in all her splendor, showed herself to us and let’s just say…. she’s completely worth the hype! Traveling from Denali’s open landmasses, our second national park stop, Kenai Fjords, contained epic waters and massive glaciers. Here you can hike to a glacier while navigating the trail through well-placed signs showing the glaciers' path directly affected by climate change. Joined by Vicki, an incredibly knowledgeable guide and ranger, our experience on a 5 plus hour boat ride into one of the country’s only fjords was unimaginable. Here we were visitors in the lives of whales, otters, dolphins, puffins, and heaps of seabirds. Here our captain and ranger shared information regarding habitat and habits of these beautiful animals, and got us up close and personal with an active, calving glacier. The noise of its thunderous crack and magic of the icy colors is something I won’t soon forget.

Ranger Vicki at Kenai Fjords with Major Marine Tours. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier
Ranger Vicki at Kenai Fjords with Major Marine Tours

Interaction with puffins

Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness: we fed a puffin! The Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, Alaska, has heaps of experience in the rescue and rehabilitation of the nearby sea life. After whisking us into an information room, a staff member gave us a presentation filled with information on the seabirds we were about to meet, their habitats, their life cycles, and their family habits. Armed with insight and a growing excitement, we wiped our feet on a mat, went into the back of the puffin enclosure, and met Clinger, a puffin who regularly wants to get up close and personal to visitors and trainers, and is sometimes so active that he needs a bit of time alone in his own enclosure. He likes to be involved, know what’s going on, and hang with the family he’s created there. Inside the enclosure, we were again a visitor into the lives of these seabirds–and the entire time we spent picking up slimy fish, plopping them into the nearby area of birds, or literally hand-feeding them into the waiting mouths of puffins, we gleamed from ear to ear. We learned proper protocols, why we couldn’t touch any of the birds as the oils in our fingers could affect their feathers, and looked on from a safe distance as to not disturb a few of the newest members who had recently hatched into the Sea Life family. This first-hand experience not only brought us physically closer to these amazing creatures, but also, indelibly stamped them into a part of our hearts. Learning by doing (although it took many hours later that day for us to reach our intended destination) the smile of that morning’s encounter never left our cheeks.

Puffin Encounter Alaska Sea Life Center. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier
Puffin Encounter Alaska Sea Life Center

Witnessing the growth, development, work, and care of Denali’s Alaskan huskies

If you’re one of the few visitors to Denali National Park who actually gets to witness her beauty sans clouds, you officially join the 30% club. The club, eponymously named since only 30% of the people who come to Denali actually get a clear view of that epic peak, has far fewer members than the group of people who come to Denali and get up close and personal with their Alaskan huskies. The only US National Park that still uses this traditional mode of transport, the huskies, while cute and cuddly (well, not so much for the people like me who are allergic–but hey, they’re still cute) are an historic part of this park. Bred for their strength, agility, diligence, ability to withstand and enjoy Alaska’s record temperatures, and desire to be working dogs, these guys steal the show and often the hearts of visitors. Park volunteers sign up to walk them during the week, many have favorites whom they visit often, and still others who live in those colder climates even try to adopt the pups when they retire. Between the information available from the handlers, the history encountered in the buildings that house the leashes and details, the awesome video available on the Denali National Park website that we watched prior to our arrival, and the demonstration and details regarding the pups themselves (and of course the opportunity to get the photo op of your chance to be a musher), all enhance the experience, the learning, and the memories created by these lovable and hardworking dogs.

Demonstration of Denali Huskies. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier
Demonstration of Denali Huskies

The land of vast wilderness, colorful scenery, endless peaks, and countless wildlife of both land and sea calls visitors each year. Whether it’s your choice to take in the brilliance of the Aurora Borealis during the time of darkness, your opportunity to experience the delights of the seasonal shifts as the land begins to be flooded with more light in late spring, or your dream to visit in the height of sunlight hours–if the opportunity arises, go! No matter what part of the beautiful state you explore, no matter what wild animals grace your path, and no matter whether your journey is by land, by air, or by sea: Alaska will invigorate your spirit, elevate your senses, and warm your soul. The last frontier is calling –will you answer?

Glacier - Kenai Fjords. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Alaska, the Last Frontier
Glacier - Kenai Fjords

Stacey Ebert, our Educational Travels Editor, is a traveler at heart who met her Australian-born husband while on a trip in New Zealand. Stacey was an extracurricular advisor and taught history in a Long Island public high school for over fifteen years, enjoying both the formal and informal educational practices. After a one year 'round the world honeymoon, travel and its many gifts changed her perspective. She has since left the educational world to focus on writing and travel. She is energetic and enthusiastic about long term travel, finding what makes you happy and making the leap. In her spare time she is an event planner, yogi, dark chocolate lover, and spends as much time as possible with her toes in the sand.

Check out her website at thegiftoftravel.wordpress.com for more of her travel musings.

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Stacey Ebert, except word photo, creative commons, adapted by Wandering Educators.

 

 

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