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Lessons from Southeast Alaska: The World's Coolest Classroom

Peak Academy is a small, non-profit Project-Based Learning school in Bozeman, MT. Dr. Christa Hayes is the Director of the Academy and Rab Cummings is a Teacher and Program Director for grades 4-8. In May of 2022, they visited Southeast Alaska aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion on a learning expedition with Peak Academy. This abridged article is reposted from the Peak Academy Blog with permission. Follow Peak Academy on Instagram @peakpotentialmt.

Photography by Tori Pintar
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We are standing on the bow of the National Geographic Sea Lion as the sun sets over Chatham Strait in Southeast Alaska. The air is cool, the sky is lead, the water is smooth. We are surrounded by students and parents poised in anticipation. Someone points, black fins break the ocean surface in unison, and just meters away 12 orcas rise and breathe in concert. Once, twice, three times, they slip beneath the surface leaving only ripples and the misty ghost of breath drifting in the cool evening. We have been watching this cycle for the past thirty minutes. It’s like a dream. Hugs are shared, as are tears of joy. 

So, how did we get here?

Several years ago, Rab Cummings and I made major life pivots and founded Peak Academy, a small, non-profit Project-Based Learning school in Bozeman, MT. Using the National Geographic Learning Framework and the Explorer’s Mindset we teach our students to be global citizens and 21st century problem solvers. When we began planning a major capstone project on climate change in Alaska, traveling with Lindblad Expditions-National Geographic was the only choice. 

After extensive planning and fundraising, 24 of our students, as well as an additional 20 students from The Bozeman Field School, spent a week in Alaska during May of 2022. Here are some of the highlights from our unforgettable field experience!

First Encounter with Whales in the Wild

We were drinking our first cup of coffee when we heard the voice of the expedition leader announcing “whales sighted!” Moments later everyone was on deck. Students who have spent their entire lives in southeast Montana were suddenly face-to-face with humpback whales, marine mammals they had only read about in books. Suddenly it was all real. All the planning, all the lessons, all the hard work it took to get here. I was as thrilled as the students. 

Watching whales was just the start however. As the sun rose over Admiralty Island, the staff guided students through the population of humpbacks that summer in Southeast Alaska. We learned about their migration patterns, feeding preferences, behaviors, vocalizations, and more. As we pulled away from this first encounter every student on board was hooked and this was just the beginning.

Journals: A Classic Expedition Tool

Jad Davenport, National Geographic writer and photographer, worked with faculty and the students to stretch their journaling skills and to document all of their senses as they moved through the day. Students had daily journal prompts as well as daily work in their National Geographic Global Explorers Field Notebooks. 

The Explorer’s Mindset challenges us to stay in tune with our surroundings and document our experiences. Journals came out on the beach, on hikes, on deck, on the Bridge, and in cabins in the evening.

Kayaking and Hiking in Hanus Bay

As school administrators how could we not be worried about kayaking in Alaska? We imagined all kinds of ways this experience could go sideways but it’s strange how, once we were in our kayaks, we knew that everything would be fine. More than fine actually.

Paddling with several students, we quietly worked our way around a tidal inlet at the mouth of the Eva River. Eagles flew overhead and harbor seals glided beneath our boats as we watched in silent wonder. Worries slipped from my mind and were replaced with feelings of connection to this place and to the people we were sharing this experience with. 

Hikes ashore challenged us to understand the quiet power of the immense rainforest that surrounded us. “The key to understanding rainforest ecosystems is to break them down into smaller parts and then to find the connections between those parts,” explained naturalist and certified photo instructor Sharon Grainger.

Grainger has been guiding people through the Tongass for over 30 years and her enthusiasm is infectious. Crawling through the lichens and mosses of the forest floor we eventually found ourselves at eye level with a liverwort. “It’s the small things that make the big things possible here. Everything is connected, everything is alive,” explained Grainger. All we could hear was students breathing, pencils scratching in journals, and the soft rustle of the nearby river.  The students were completely focused and in the moment. This is what expedition education is all about.

Killer Whales and Citizen Science

PP Sideview of Orcas.jpg
A spectacular encounter with transient killer whales. 

As we finished dinner, the call came that killer whales had been spotted. Little did we know that we would be treated to an encounter both exquisite and meaningful.

The engines were in neutral as the pod of killer whales swam beside the National Geographic Sea Lion. We floated on the glassy surface of Chatham Strait as whales surfaced around us, and quietly passed under the ship. We could hear their vocalizations from where we stood on the bow.

Whale researcher and Lindblad Expeditions naturalist, Adam Ü. identified these whales as a known pod of transient killer whales that range widely throughout the Inside Passage. These whales had not been documented in over 10 years. Seeing them together was both extraordinary and a significant contribution to citizen science.

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Pod of killer whales in Chatham Strait.

We stayed on deck watching whales until it was too dark to see and then headed back to our cabins to reflect on an extraordinary day.

The Shape of the Land: Glaciers from the Air

As the DeHaviland Beaver lifted off the runway we watched the small town of Haines fade into the distance as the full grandeur of Southeast Alaska unfolded beneath me. The waters of the Chilkoot Inlet quickly transitioned to braided streams, and then into glaciers as we climbed above the Juneau Icefield. Students chattered nonstop over the headsets, mouths agape at the scenery below as they reviewed their knowledge of glacial landscapes: crevasse, lateral moraine, firn line, nunatak. The geography lessons of the past year went from theory to reality with each passing mile. 

With over 30 years of Alaska flying experience, Paul Swanstrom, our pilot and guide,  deftly flew the little plane as he told stories of receding ice, visible air pollution, and visitors who still won’t accept the reality of climate change even though they can see it right out the window of the plane. Students grilled him with questions and he rattled off facts, figures, and anecdotes that told the story of a rapidly changing landscape. Students took in the beauty of the scene while mentally cataloging Paul’s information for later entry in their journals. 

Bringing it All Back Home

Back home in Bozeman students followed up on their experience with final reports, art projects, and contributions to an Alaska exhibit at the
Montana Science Center.  

Peak Students in the Classroom.jpeg

All of our hopes for this expedition were fulfilled. We sailed remote wilderness waterways, walked ancient rainforests, paddled off of coastal islands, and touched active glaciers. Students explored, documented, and reported, but more importantly they became true expeditionary learners. Our lives will never be the same.

We are grateful to everyone at Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic for exceeding every expectation we had on this expedition. We are already making plans for our next expedition!