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Climbing moulins, kayaking by glaciers — Waterford students experience Alaskan wilderness firsthand

Sep 30, 2019 03:52PM ● By Julie Slama

Twelve Waterford students, joined by their teacher and local guides, jumped into sea kayaks and paddled near glaciers and wildlife in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Watkins/Waterford School)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Twelve Waterford high school students and their adviser, along with wilderness guides, were dropped off by a bush plane in a remote area of Alaska. With gear on their backs, they backpacked days in solitude, crossing a 27-mile-long glacier, then a second and third glacier. Then, after practicing their ice-climbing skills, they summited a 5,000-foot peak.

This was before they jumped into sea kayaks to paddle alongside seals, porpoises, sea lions and many waterfowl.

“It was incredible to see,” Waterford senior Niklas Nilsson said. “It was a stark contrast, but really amazing. It was two trips combined in one trip. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Hiking, ice climbing and sea kayaking were some of the highlights Waterford’s outdoor program students experienced after embarking this past July on an Alaskan adventure in which they planned and prepared for. 

“There are no words to describe the beauty of what we saw,” said outdoor program teacher Christopher Watkins. “But this wasn’t a sightseeing trip, it was a wilderness experience, and the students used their outdoor skills to expediate and survive.” 

Watkins, who has taught many of these 12 students three days per week for each term since seventh and eighth grade, had them submit their ideas for the trip so they could develop the ability to create an itinerary. From there, two upperclassmen ironed out the details of the 17-day trip, which included 14 days sleeping on the ground and using skills in two different landscapes.

Nilsson, who has been enrolled in the outdoor program two terms per year since seventh grade, helped plan the backpacking portion of the trip since his family has a cabin in the area.

“I’ve gone on day trips, but never anything like this. I love backpacking, but this was more challenging,” he said, comparing it to his backpacking trips in the Uinta Mountains as well as in Olympic National Park with Waterford.

The students’ adventure began after arriving in Anchorage and catching a van shuttle to McCarthy, Alaska.

“There’s a fascinating history in McCarthy,” Watkins said. “We walked around the town and went to the McCarthy Museum and toured Kennecott Copper Mining, which is the same Kennecott as here in Utah, and learned its fascinating story. But it really was our gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.”

McCarthy was a fishing village where Athabaskan natives got their catch of salmon — as well as copper nuggets from a nearby creek. As others discovered the copper, Kennecott Mining Company set base at a mine, which was named after Kennicott Glacier. After the copper boom died 30 years later, the town dwindled until the establishment of the national park, which drew in tourists.

It was in McCarthy where the Waterford delegation met their guides, checked their gear and took the plane into the national park.

“The plane dropped us off between the lateral moraine of ice on a mountainside,” Watkins said. “It was beautiful; it was quiet. We didn’t see another person in eight days.”

The group backpacked across Kennicott Glacier to Goat Hair Ridge.

“We crossed many glacial moraines and had to navigate around streams and moulins on the ice,” he said. 

Moulins are vertical shafts found in glaciers, created when water melts through a crack in the ice. 

After a day hike to Packsaddle Island, a nunatack, or peak in the ice at the base of Mt. Blackburn, the group headed out the next day to backpack across Gates Glacier and set camp at Upper Donoho Lake.

“We spent a couple days using our ice-climbing skills. We had learned some introductory skills, but most of our experiences we had done were rock climbing. This was much more technical,” he said.

The group first learned by wall climbing some easier routes, then they climbed harder ice walls and moulins on a second day, Nilsson said.

“When I was ice climbing out of the moulin, I could hear the water, but when I looked down, it was pitch black,” he said.

Between the two days of ice climbing, nine students and the guides climbed the summit of 5,000-foot Donoho Peak.

According to a Wrangell-St. Elias National Park pamphlet, the 14-mile round-trip hike from Kennecott to the summit is described as strenuous, and those seeking out on the adventure need to don crampons (spikes attached to the bottom of boots that makes hikers feel more secure on ice), and many choose to carry an ice axe or trekking poles.

“There wasn’t any ice that day, but those nine students made it to the top and have written amazing reflection pieces after the trip,” said Watkins, who stayed back to help three kids who weren’t feeling well that day.

Nilsson said reaching the summit after 12 hours was “definitely a highlight” especially after scrambling up rocks the last hour.

“We took a harder route, first reaching the south summit and then going to the top. It was more challenging, and we’d have to yell when we knocked a big rock loose so it wouldn’t hit someone behind us, but reaching the summit was huge,” he said.

Even though clouds blocked their view that day, Nilsson said, “We just rejoiced. We could see the other mountain peaks and saw how far we came up the mountain.”

After their journey into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the students then went to the 4,000-person port town of Valdez on Alaska’s south coast. Here they jumped into sea kayaks and paddled toward Columbia Glacier in the wild, protected waters of Prince William Sound.

“That was definitely challenging, too. We were in tandem kayaks and with our camp gear and personal gear, they were pretty heavy and occasionally, we had choppy water,” he said about paddling to a chain of islands where they camped under a tarp to protect them from rain. “But it was very beautiful.”

“It was really phenomenal. We saw lots of wildlife, lots of bald eagles, mountain goats, oyster catchers and all sorts of birds. Waterford has a big birding program, so our students were into photographing all the birds and wildlife. It was amazing to see the glaciers receding; it really is impactful,” he said.

Watkins said the trip was amazing.

“It was an incredibly successful itinerary and the students are extraordinary. It was good having information come from local guides and learning their perspective,” he said, adding that in the past, high school students have used their outdoor skills in other areas, from 12 days in Washington to three weeks in Norway. “There’s tremendous value in being in true wilderness. There are no cell phones, which kids actually appreciate, and they learn to be the best version of themselves with other people who love the outdoors. They learn who we really are at our core and develop leadership skills and true friendships.”

The middle school outdoor program also offers a summer trip, although those are scaled to their abilities and closeness to home. They have backpacked in the Escalante and had adventures in Grand Teton National Park.

“These students are with their peers, using outdoor skills and having experiences that may be completely different than a family trip,” Watkins said. 

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