Back to nature

Class takes learning outside

Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2007


  Students in the natural resources class offered at Homer High School paddle through a water portage at the Swan Lake Canoe Trails in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Sterling on Sept. 29. Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

Students in the natural resources class offered at Homer High School paddle through a water portage at the Swan Lake Canoe Trails in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Sterling on Sept. 29.

Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

A classroom with no walls? No ceiling? No desks?

No problem when they're replaced by the whisper of windblown birch and aspen, hooting owls, the scent of ripe cranberries bordering a lake. Where better to learn about Alaska's natural resources?

The 14 students in the natural resources class offered at Homer High School recently had such a front row seat.

Shortly after noon Sept. 29, the class loaded backpacks into canoes at Canoe No. 1, a lake at the west entrance of Swan Lake Canoe Trails in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Sterling. Leaving the school's confines far behind, the class and instructor Al Poindexter launched into three days and two nights in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge for their first of several outdoor opportunities during the 2007-08 school year.

"This state relies on natural resources for 100 percent of its income," Poindexter said, describing the importance of such a class. "Our citizens have to be well informed and knowledgeable about those resources so they can make wise decisions at the ballot box and also help develop policy Second, I think everybody needs to understand how to manage our resources in a sustainable manner so that they don't run out."

This is the third year Poindexter has taught the class as the quarter-time education specialist for the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District. It is the sixth year the district has sponsored the class.

Poindexter also works half time as the program coordinator for the Alaska Association of Conservation Districts. He also owns and operates Anchor Point Greenhouse.

Poindexter taught at HHS from 1974-94. The first half of that 20-year period, he taught physical education; the second 10 years he taught vocational education. Part of the time, he served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. After leaving HHS, he spent three years on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board.

"While I was on the school board, I served on the curriculum committee for the borough school district and helped write the curriculum for the natural resources class," he said.

The campout is part of the curriculum for three reasons: It introduces students to the national wildlife refuge and outdoor recreation opportunities; it gives them a close-up experience with the outdoors; and it offers a bonding experience to develop the class into a team.

Only a few students had canoed or been in the refuge before the weekend outing. That became clear as students began paddling their two-person canoes. The sound of wooden paddles striking aluminum hulls prompted Poindexter to remind the novice canoeists that paddling was a sound-free activity.

Paddling wasn't the only noise. Shouts of "Which way, Al?' and "Where's the portage, Al?" and "How much longer, Al?" echoed across the lake as seven canoes awkwardly zigzagged across the water, searching for the first of four land portages. But Poindexter wasn't there to provide answers; the class was there to learn.

"No one told Lewis and Clark where to go," he said.

Near the last overland portage, Homer resident Skip Richards, EMS program manager for Chugachmuit, joined the group. Richards was headed to a spot on the shore of Martin Lake. While camping there two weeks earlier, he and his camping companion were visited by a brown bear during the night, the bear making it clear the stream near their campsite was the bear's private property.

Poindexter and his charges continued across Martin Lake, wound through a narrow water portage and onto Spruce Lake, where they set up camp. Within short time, a tent village was erected, wood gathered for a fire, camp instructions given by Poindexter and the contents for individual dinners emerged from packs for the group's first meal around the campfire.

Saturday morning, the class enjoyed some free time to fish, paddle and explore before Poindexter introduced them to several team- and trust-building activities.

The students soon learned that even when Poindexter designed the "games" so they were divided into teams, working together to develop strategies was the best approach for solving the challenges presented.

A nature walk led by Poindexter turned the forest into a textbook. Students learned to differentiate between types of spruce trees. This plant was high in that vitamin. Here was a plant that could staunch the flow of blood. There was a plant that could give a boost of energy during an emergency. Over there was, a plant you should leave alone. Trails created by wildlife were pointed out.

During the afternoon, Richards joined the group. The creek-claiming brown bear had returned during the night, communicating in clear terms that Richards and his camping partner were trespassing. Richards' partner returned to Homer; Richards asked to join Poindexter's group. Where safer than with a group of 14 energetic teenagers?

The campfire was a setting to share tips on water-filtering and wilderness meal preparation. Girl Scout songs were sung at full volume. Ideas for games were shared. April D'Water, a senior who is new to Homer this year, asked a series of get-to-know-you questions, which were answered by each person in the group; Do you have any siblings? What do you want to be when you grow up?

A reluctant group broke camp Monday morning, leaving a trail of gear behind as they paddled back to Canoe No. 1. Bringing up the rear, Poindexter picked up stray paddles and assorted pieces of camping equipment.

"I tell them I'm in the back to keep an eye on them, but really it's because I'm slow," he said laughing.

Ron Keffer, principal of HHS, said Poindexter and the students' enthusiasm for the class is what keeps it going.

"It doesn't get the kind of support that other courses do because we (the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District) don't supply the teacher," he said. "But this bunch of kids is always doing something so timely. How much more timely can you be than teaching natural resources and taking care of the planet?"

Awards won by the students also prove its effectiveness.

"These kids are off to national conventions, taking medals. They're performed superbly on a national level," Keffer said.

In April, students in Poindexter's class compete in the state Envirothon, a hands-on natural resources education event that tests the students' knowledge. It is sponsored by Canon and the Alaska Association of Conservation Districts and held in conjunction with the state FFA convention. The 2007 event was won by Homer students Chelsey Nieman, Hannah Bradley, Katie Connor and Anna Duz. In July, the state winners compete at the North American Envirothon.

"Homer's done that for the last a four of five years," Poindexter said, adding that the winners of the Envirothon also qualify for national FFA, formerly Future Farmers of America, natural resource competition. Refusing to take all the credit for the students' success, Poindexter said he draws on experts from the community to help teach natural resources. "I like to think, in fact I was talking to the kids about this, that it's not just a Soil and Water District class. It's a community class," Poindexter said. "It really does take a village of professionals to get these kids educated in the field of natural resources."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at

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