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Kayaking college course helps students reassess their views of Southeast Alaska

The Tatoosh School kayakers completed their maiden voyage last week in Wrangell. A group of four university students and their two instructors paddled around the Inside Passage as part of a new hands-on college-level ecology and resource management course.

“We kayaked a lot. Approximately 208.34 miles,” said Brandi Lynn Welch, one of the students.

They spent 20 days of their 40 day excursion out on the water. None of the four students had ever kayaked before, so they underwent rigorous safety training. They said that luckily none of them ever flipped, and the hardest part of kayaking, once they were used to it, was wearing dry suits for the last few days of paddling when visiting Le Conte glacier.

“Physical exertion while having the blood cut off from your hands and head is kind of not the best,” said Wynter Larson.

Peter Chaille and Erin Steinkruger developed the school with the idea of getting students out of the classroom and into the field to experience new ecosystems and the people who use them.

The group started in Ketchikan then visited places like Otter Sound, the Harris River, and Wrangell. They paddled alongside whales and seals, and experienced the weirder parts of nature.

On Friday the 13th, “two eagles came screaming and crashing into our woods, fighting over a freaking shark head!” recalled Welch.

The students also spoke with loggers, resource managers, scientists, and others who rely on the Tongass Forest for their survival. The instructors used prepared readers to teach academic classes at their campsites. All of the students said it changed their perspectives on forestry issues.

“I really enjoyed being reminded that things are a lot more complicated than I like to make them. I can’t just in my head say ‘logging is bad’ while I sit here reading my amazing reader made out of paper,” Welch said.

“I guess you could say I’m sort of a hippy,” remarked Zoe Wiggers. “But now that I come up here…timber is so much more than an industry up here, it’s definitely a lifestyle, and there are issues and it really affects everybody. It’s definitely a necessary thing, like there’s no way around it. And so I think with the proper management, the timber industry is a beautiful thing up here.”

Larson said they gained a sense of place by interacting with the communities and kayaking and camping in the wilderness. “The philosophy of this program and the mission of this program is to kind of instill a sense of place and a value in that sense of place. And I think that experiential learning in that way is really, really important. I’ve always seen that as a valuable tool to take anywhere you go.”

The Tatoosh School is based out of Portland in the winter and around the Southeast in the summer. This is their first summer offering academic college courses. Their second group of students will start in Wrangell and start paddling toward Ketchikan this week.

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