Natalie Carter (left) and Paris Knuteson gather seaweed for their breakfast.
Natalie Carter (left) and Paris Knuteson gather seaweed for their breakfast. (Susan Shain)

When Your Final Exam Is Surviving the Wilderness

For 45 years, eighth graders in Ketchikan, Alaska, have gone on an overnight survival trip to a remote island.

BACK ISLAND, ALASKA —   “Oh my god, I feel like a murderer,” exclaimed 13-year-old Bonnie Bright. “I’ve killed so many things on this trip.”

Sporting pigtails, glasses, and Xtratufs—the brown neoprene boots affectionately called “the Alaskan sneaker”—Bright didn’t look like a serial killer. Yet in her hands was her latest victim: a chubby sea cucumber the color of burnt umber. Bright cleaved the slippery echinoderm down the middle, then removed several white slivers of meat and cooked them over a fire she’d built. It was time for breakfast.

All around her, on the rocky gray beach, 19 of Bright’s classmates were performing similar drills. In total, the Coast Guard had dropped 103 Schoenbar Middle School students—the majority of Ketchikan, Alaska’s eighth graders—on six nearby uninhabited islands to survive for two days and nights last May. I’d accompanied Bright’s group to Back Island, where, like the rest of their classmates, students had each brought nothing more than a 10-by-15-foot sheet of plastic, a sleeping bag, clothing, and whatever additional supplies (rice, knives, foil, twine, matches) they could fit into a 12-ounce metal coffee can.

“The survival trip,” as it’s known in this isolated island community, has occurred annually for 45 years. It serves not only as the students’ final science exam but also, more importantly, as preparation for growing up in the unforgiving wilderness they call home.

Sitting at a square table in Schoenbar’s library last year, Stephen Kinney, the mind behind the trip, told me that he had no idea it would become such a long-standing tradition. The amiable retired educator said his main goal had simply been for students to enjoy school (because growing up, he never had).

Retired educator Stephen Kinney points to a newspaper clipping from the survival trip's early days. (Susan Shain)

“Learning should be fun,” Kinney, 77, explained. (He and everyone else in this story are identified with their age as of last year’s survival trip.) “There needs to be some kind of a hook. [Students] need to be involved in their education.” He recalled the time he found a dead sea lion and brought it to his science class for dissection; decades later, students still mention it when they see him around town. “That’s a really critical piece of education: to catch students’ imagination, to grab them,” he said.

Kinney, who grew up in Maine, moved to Ketchikan in 1965 to teach eighth-grade science at the brand-new Schoenbar Middle School. The lifelong outdoorsman was surprised by how many of his students didn’t know basic survival skills, such as how to build a shelter or start a fire. So in 1973, along with a fellow teacher, Don Knapp, he brought a group of eighth graders to Settlers Cove, a state recreation area 18 miles north of Ketchikan. “Our goal was to have them live off the land,” Kinney said. “To realize that the land provides if you understand it.”

That was the Ketchikan students’ very first survival trip. In the years that followed, more students and teachers joined. When Kinney and Lyle Huntley, another eighth-grade teacher who’d become the trip’s co-organizer, both transferred to the seventh grade, they brought the concept with them. They launched an annual two-night camping trip that taught basic outdoor education in preparation for the big eighth-grade trip the following year.

Today, both grades spend the last six to eight weeks of the school year on a Southeast Alaskan science unit—environmental science in seventh grade, and safety and survival in eighth grade—that culminates with each grade’s much-anticipated overnight adventure. (While students aren’t required to go on the trips, the majority do. The school does not allow students who have significant behavioral issues or who are failing three or more classes to attend.) Other teachers integrate the themes into their curriculum at the end of the school year, too: For their final English project, for example, the eighth graders must choose a book set in Alaska.

“It’s so Ketchikan,” Kinney says. “I mean, Ketchikan is living outdoors, is hiking, is fishing, is boating, is being out there. And so learning to do it safely makes a lot of logical sense, but also was a lot of fun.”

On a crisp sunny day last spring, the U.S. Coast Guard ferried Ketchikan’s eighth graders to their respective islands. Each group consisted of approximately 20 students (separated by gender), one teacher leader, and three or four parent chaperones. (For safety, the adults had access to cellphones and radios—the kids did not.)

On Back Island, the leader was 29-year-old Jamie Karlson, a sprightly music teacher with a pixie cut and a quick laugh. Right away, she directed the students to find shelter. In groups of four, they headed to the woods and employed techniques they’d learned in class: draping plastic sheets over twine strung between evergreens, and wrapping rocks along the edges to weight them down. Shelter secured, they played cards, gossiped, and hid from one another during a round of sardines, exhilarated with the freedom of being outdoors on a school day.

Later in the afternoon, Karlson blew her whistle three times, signaling the students to assemble on the beach. “You have 10 minutes to collect tinder, kindling, and fuel, and then it’s time to gather food,” she said.

Gabriella Mas (front) and Bonnie Bright pry limpets off a rock during low tide. (Susan Shain)

Karlson wanted the students to begin searching for food several hours before that evening’s 8:08 p.m. low tide, explaining that “it’s best to forage things as they're getting uncovered.” Since Southeast Alaska has some of the biggest tides in the world, changing as much as 25 feet in six hours, each year’s survival trip is timed around lower-than-average “minus tides,” which provide the best opportunities for foraging.

The girls scattered, gathering wood and old-man’s beard, a pale-green lichen that makes a good fire starter. One of the chaperones, Tony Yeisley, approached his daughter Savannah. In his hands was an unruly clump of dried moss, cedar, and seagrass. “That’s going to light up like a Roman candle,” he told his daughter with a grin. An easygoing plumber who plays the electric guitar, Yeisley had already been on four survival trips: his own, 34 years prior, and three of his four older children’s. This trip, with his youngest, could be his last.

When it came time to forage, the students seemed unsure how to begin. They cautiously fanned toward the tideline, scanning for anything that looked edible. Gabriella Mas decided to look for limpets, tiny marine snails that cling to intertidal rocks. But about 15 seconds into her hunt, she shouted, “There’s none!” Karlson called out, “They’re tricky; look closer to the water.” A few moments later, Mas exclaimed to her partner, “Oh my god, there’s so many here. There’s like a million—use your knife!”

A student shells limpets with a pocketknife; she'll cook them over a fire, using her coffee can as a pot. (Susan Shain)

Limpets, easy to spot and pry from their perches, turned out to be the protein of choice for many students’ first meal. Most of the girls boiled them with rice and bouillon cubes from their coffee cans, along with a variety of sea lettuces salvaged from the shore. (One lettuce called “sugar rack” was unanimously declared to sound better than it tasted.)

On the horizon, seals peeked out of the water, and a humpback whale swam by with her calf. Enormous bald eagles skirred overhead. The girls relaxed quietly around the fire, or in their shelters, before tucking into their sleeping bags at 10 p.m., just as the last rays of light faded from the sky.

The first Alaskan city along the famed Inside Passage, Ketchikan is known for several things: commercial fishing (77 million pounds of salmon, halibut, and other seafood passed through its docks in 2017, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service), rich Native American culture (it’s home to the biggest collection of totem poles in the state), and cruise ships (more than 1 million passengers visit each summer).

It’s also famous for its “liquid sunshine.” Located in the 16.8 million acre Tongass National Forest, the largest remaining temperate rain forest in the world, the region’s lush mountains and streams are fed by an average of 152 inches of rain each year. (By comparison, neighboring Seattle averages 37 inches.) Strong winds are common too; in 2018, a winter storm clocked gusts of 112 mph.

Tony Yeisley shows his daughter Savannah a clump of moss, cedar, and seagrass that will "light up like a Roman candle." (Susan Shain)

While the land area of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough (Alaska’s administrative equivalent of a county) is larger than Connecticut, it has just 13,754 residents. When considering both land and water, a mere 0.1 percent of the borough is inhabited, according to Jonathan Lappin, an associate planner for the borough.

This combination of extreme weather and extreme remoteness is why many view survival education as a vital part of Ketchikan’s curriculum. Sam Pflaum, a 29-year-old electrical worker and commercial fisherman, told me that the eighth-grade trip was “the most useful thing” he did in school, saying: “It probably has saved my life.”

He cited the night of December 27, 2012, as an example. While he was on his way home to Ketchikan, the pull cord snapped off his boat’s engine. It was nearly dark, so Pflaum and his companion decided to spend the night on the beach. In the 15 minutes of daylight that remained, buffeted by wind, rain, and snow, they managed to light a fire and set up a shelter—skills Pflaum had learned a decade prior. Despite experiencing 50-mile-per-hour gusts, a foot of snow, and hypothermia, they made it through the night.

To Pflaum, the survival trip is an indispensable part of growing up in Ketchikan. The skills acquired, he explained, are “not something that just grows dust in the back of your brain”; they’re something many residents use. “[In] a lot of places, the wilderness is somewhat canned—it’s in a park or whatever—but up here this place is still pretty wild,” he said. “It’s the most beautiful place on Earth, but it will kill you.”

The sun rose at 4:30 a.m. on the survival trip’s second day. At 7:30 a.m., Karlson roused the students; low tide was a little more than an hour away, and they needed to scavenge their breakfast. Hungrier and more confident than they’d been the day before, the girls were ready to expand their boundaries beyond limpets. The husky sea cucumbers were tempting, but the young survivalists had no idea how to turn them into food.

The chaperone Brett Summers took charge. Summers, a lifelong Ketchikan resident who was there with his daughter Piper, wore Dickies jeans under his Xtratufs and a baseball cap over his black ponytail. As several students gathered around, he pulled a knife from his belt loop and cut a six-inch cucumber open. A gush of seawater poured out, revealing its spindly guts. The girls peppered Summers with questions and concerns: “Ugh, why is that happening?” “Is that his butthole?” “It looks like spaghetti!” “Does that hurt?” His response: “Eat it—it won’t kill you.”

Hunger, indeed, soon vanquished squeamishness. Pairs of girls ventured off to different parts of the island; within 10 minutes, they pranced back to camp with their prey draped across their arms.

Jamie Karlson, a teacher-leader, shows Natalie Carter (left) and Paris Knuteson (right) how to prepare sea cucumbers for cooking.  (Susan Shain)

Karlson, who jokingly referred to the cucumbers as her “breakfast bacon,” fluttered between groups, answering questions and observing dynamics. She would, eventually, have to grade each student in 10 categories, including fire building, shelter arrangement, staying dry, cooking food, common sense, and attitude. “It’s fun to see them out here in a totally different environment,” she told me. “They have to work together in ways they probably never would in a classroom.”

All told, the morning’s haul was impressive: In addition to limpets and sea cucumbers, the girls tracked down gumboots, rock scallops, urchins, red rock crab, and tiny shrimp. They had also grown more adventurous with their recipes; one group even created seaweed “wraps” filled with rice and sea cucumber. One student, Makena Johansen, admitted that foraging was easier than she thought it would be, and that the sea cucumbers tasted better than she’d imagined. “Yeah,” added Wileena Baghoomian, another student; “At first they were gross, but now they’re kinda good.”

The rest of the day was spent on a fire-building contest, a hand-built stretcher race, a talent show, and, of course, more foraging. Despite their growling stomachs, the students’ morale remained high. Many conversations centered around food—one student, Julia Spigai, said she’d never again forgo a box of leftovers at a restaurant—but they didn’t complain much.

They seemed to understand that the discomfort was part of the 45-year-old rite of passage their friends, siblings, and parents had all completed. “They’re preparing you for living in Alaska so you know you’re not gonna die,” Savannah Yeisley said matter-of-factly. “A lot of people don’t think they could get stranded, but it happens.”

Around the campfire that night, the chaperones actually lamented the unusual abundance of sun; they worried the good weather was making the trip less challenging for the kids. “It’s not as much of a survival trip in this weather,” said Todd Bright, a stay-at-home dad who had been on two prior trips (his own, in 1987, and his older son’s). “Out here you’re not going to starve—it’s the rain and cold you’ve got to worry about.”

That tough Alaskan attitude permeates the culture of the survival trip, and is shared by students, parents, and even those responsible for orchestrating the event. “You can’t help but think of all the things that could go wrong—but they haven’t,” says Sherilynn Boehlert, the principal of Schoenbar Middle School. “They’re going to be hungry, and they’re going to be fine.”

From left to right, Jenae Rhoads, Bonnie Bright, and Gabriella Mas filet sea cucumbers on a piece of plastic discovered in the woods. (Susan Shain)

In this age of helicopter parenting and standardized exams that require teaching to the test, it is hard to believe Ketchikan’s survival trip has, well, survived for so long. Yet despite the massive commitment involved—especially on the part of teachers, who aren’t paid extra for their time—no one seems to question the importance of the trip, or the likelihood that it’ll continue for another four decades.

Talk to people from Ketchikan for long enough, and they will invariably recall their own trip: the rain and wind, the sweet Dungeness crabs, the after-dark incidents that caused the trips to stop being coed (everyone wants to take credit for that). Kinney, who’s probably been on more survival trips than anyone, tells vivid stories of eighth-grade girls skinning an octopus on a tree branch, the chaperone who brought—and slaughtered—a chicken one year, or the time it snowed “three to five” inches during the trip. In this town, the survival trip is education, yes, but it’s also history, community, and tradition.

“Education constantly needs to go back to where the real world is, and tie what you're learning into what really life is all about,” Kinney said. “That's a part of why the survival trip strikes such a rich chord with people. Students learn by doing—by seeing life.”