By Jenny Neyman
Getting there, in this case, was not half the fun.
“It took for-ev-er,” said Madison Orth, one of the junior high students at Cook Inlet Academy that went on a nine-day field trip to the Yukon to study the gold rush era.
“It was the longest drive of your life,” said Reece O’Dell.
Though they would just as well forget the two-day drive from Soldotna to Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada, the rest of the trip proved a memorable educational experience that will stick with them for, like, ev-er.
“They get to put their hands on history,” said Pat Shields, the CIA teacher who organized the trip. He’s led three of these Yukon trips in his time at CIA. It’s become a junior high tradition at the school.
“They learn quite a bit about gold rush history in class, and this reinforced what the kids had already learned. Now anytime they read about it or talk about the Yukon River, they know what the Yukon River is — they’ve run it for three days. Or when they talk about the gold rush, they remember seeing a dredge and gold panning. People from the 2001 trip still talk about all the benefits of the trip and what they learned — the history of our country and our state.”
A group of 46 — students, a couple siblings and chaperones — left Soldotna on Aug. 27 and drove for two days, camping along the way, to get to Dawson City. Once there they immersed themselves in gold rush history.
One of the first stops was visiting Gold Dredge No. 4, alongside Bonanza Creek. The dredges were huge floating machines that allowed miners to quickly work large amounts of ground. Gold Dredge No. 4 was the largest, wooden-hull, bucket-line dredge in North America, operating from 1913 to 1959.
They also visited Gold Bottom Creek, home to the discovery in 1896 that started the Klondike Gold Rush. Students got to see both a current-day hydraulic mining operation and try their hands at mining the old-fashioned way.
“They gave us gold pans and let us keep whatever we found — which was just a
little dust-type stuff, visible but small. One girl found nine different pieces so they were pretty excited about that,” Shields said.
That’s one of the striking differences between reading about history and seeing — and feeling — it in person. The experience creates a much better understanding of the less-lustrous reality of the gold rush.
“We were only doing it for like 10 minutes each. You’d stand up and it was like, ‘Oh, my back!’ I can’t imagine doing it all day,” said Jessie Zimmerman.
Repetition is a good re-enforcer of memory, too, a tactic apparently favored by tour outfits and informational sign-makers throughout Dawson City.
“Gold is 19 times heaver than water,” chimed Orth, O’Dell and Zimmerman.
That fun factoid was repeated everywhere the students went, they said.
“One lady asked us that, and said, ‘I can’t believe you know that!’ She was so excited,” O’Dell said.
After Dawson City the group embarked on a three-day, 110-mile paddle of the Yukon River, from Dawson City to Eagle.
“Everybody thought the canoeing was awesome,” Shields said. “It’s a safe part of the river, kind of like being on a lake — until you look to shore and you see you’re moving seven miles an hour, or 10 to 11 miles an hour when the river narrows.”
With several parental chaperones — including a paramedic — and a powerboat escorting the canoe flotilla just in case, Shields said that the students and parents had confidence in the safety of the excursion. But that doesn’t mean the trip was boring.
On the first day the water was calm enough for all the canoes to raft together.
“The kids could crawl across canoes and talk or play cards with other kids and
just kind of intermingle when they’re all tied together,” Shields said.
The first night on the river was spent at Forty Mile, a now-deserted gold rush town the students had learned about before the trip, which henceforth is known to students as “that super muddy place,” Orth said.
Conditions got a little more challenging the next two days, meaning the canoes stayed separated and students needed to paddle. That became a dicey endeavor at some points.
“It was so windy. Sometimes you would go around a corner and you could feel it. It was coming at you,” O’Dell said.
If you didn’t approach the bends in the river at the right angle or didn’t paddle furiously enough you were liable to be spun around and heading backward, the students said.
“The windy day was the worst. ‘Why are we even here? Why did we come?’ But now, looking back, it was a lot of fun,” Orth said.
The same may not be said of actual gold seekers, who found more bust than gold dust.
“All the people from the Lower 48 traveled up here. They started out when they heard the news, but they got here two years later and pretty much all the claims were already taken by then. They couldn’t even get a claim because all the land was already taken,” Orth said.
The students did great putting up with wind, mud and other inconveniences that one would ordinarily expect to cause grumbling in teenagers — such as limited access to showers and a lack of computer and cell phone usage.
“They really didn’t miss the lack of communication. Once you leave Dawson City you go around the corner and that’s it for communication from the rest of the world,” Shields said.
But there was ample opportunity for communications amongst the group — which is one of the unofficial goals of the trip.
“We find it’s a great thing, when you have new seventh-graders coming in and eighth- and ninth-graders, it just bonds them together as one grade. When you get through with the trip they all just feel like one class. They’re able to get to know a pretty well-rounded amount of the kids. And when they come back they always do better in class. They feel like they already have some friends and it’s not hard to make friends because they already did it on the trip,” Shields said.
Of all the lessons learned, relying on each other was a key one — from paddling straight in the wind to steadying each other while exploring creaky old paddleboats beached on the shore, to lending extra clothes and warmer gear if someone came unprepared.
“Bring gloves,” said O’Dell.
“And make sure you get up early enough for breakfast,” Zimmerman said.
Still, there’s something to be said for self-discovery, too.
“They can find out the rest themselves,” O’Dell said.