An international school field trip is always exciting, but events this month made a Cook Inlet Academy outing to the Yukon doubly significant.
On Sept. 11, 20 seventh- and eighth-graders from the Soldotna-based Christian school started their day about as far from the terrorist disaster as possible. They were beginning their second day in Dawson City, preparing to canoe down the Yukon River.
Teacher and organizer Don Shields was puzzled that the Bush pilot who was supposed to help them with their transportation for the day did not answer his phone. He drove to the airport and found it nearly deserted. He found some people at the control tower who told him what had happened in New York and Washington, D.C.
Shields took the grim news back to the school group. He gathered them around the campfire.
"I just said, 'Our nation is in trouble.' That got everyone there pretty quick. ...
"We stood in the little campground in Dawson in total disbelief that that was happening in the world," he said.
The Alaskans spent hours phoning relatives, seeking news and discussing the shocking events. They huddled around their campfire and tried to figure out what to do next.
Through it all, the Canadians were totally supportive.
"Everyone around there was just like it was happening to them," he said.
Adding to the alarm was concern that a Korean plane, possibly hijacked, was on its way to Whitehorse. It turned out to be a false alarm.
"We didn't know what was going on there for a while," Shields said.
"We had to reorganize."
The chaperones, two teachers and eight parents, worried about how to arrange their transportation, that the border might close and that students might need to abort the trip and get back to their families if the crisis intensified.
Eighth-grader Austin Staton, 13, said the students were anxious.
"It was scary. We were scared maybe we wouldn't be able to get out (of Canada)," he said.
In the end, the group decided to stick with the original itinerary and head down the river.
Shields explained how the trip happened in the first place.
"This all started because I'm teaching grades seven and eight Alaska history," he said.
He had made a similar trip 20 years earlier and always wanted to do another.
"So I knew it was possible. I just had to convince the parents and staff," he said.
The students prepared by studying about the Gold Rush and brushing up on
their paddling skills, learned on a past trip to Swanson River.
On Sept. 9 they left Soldotna, heading for Canada. They arrived in Dawson City in time to catch the season's last day of official park service tours.
Stephanie McNutt, 14, said the most memorable thing she saw was Gold Dredge No. 4 by Bonanza Creek. The huge structure was like a combined building and machine.
"It had, like, seven stories," she said.
Staton was equally impressed.
"It is pretty amazing how people thought to make those things. You'd have to be really smart to engineer those things," he said.
Shields said that, ultimately, the decision to continue the trip despite the tragedies elsewhere helped everyone's sanity.
Seventh- and eighth-graders visited the Yukon as part of their studies of the Gold Rush. Gold panning proved popular with the students, such as Mike Kytonen, Ian Orth and Austin Staton.
Photo by Don Shields
The river and the canoes required the group's full attention and drew them away from the mesmerizing, depressing spectacle of world events. The rest of the trip proved to be the perfect cure for the blues.
The travelers boated 108 miles from Dawson to Eagle in a flotilla of 15 canoes. They were on the river 2 1/2 days, spending their nights camped on the riverbank.
Shields described the float trip as idyllic.
Students said they liked the fall foliage, the mountain scenery and the echoes as they floated through canyons.
The CIA group had the river to themselves most of the way. The current carried them along at about six mph. It was so peaceful that at times they tied all the boats together and played cards across the gunwales.
In the end, the group elected to return to Soldotna one day early. They got home Sept. 15.
Shields said the East Coast disaster was the only blight on a beautiful trip.
"The kids never really got tired of any of it," he said.
"I'm glad we stayed," he said.
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