For 17 days in July, 12 Upper School students experienced the wild beauty of Alaska while backpacking in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest national park in the United States. While there were many moments that were “so cool,” students were assigned to contribute a reflection piece of their choosing in an attempt to expand on the awe of the physical landscape that they immersed themselves in for 17 days. The following is their effort to try to capture and hold onto the experiences and lessons learned during their adventure in Alaska.
“I learned a lot from being around experienced people my age. Most if not all of these people see the Outdoor Program as a way of life, and they express some of their greatest strengths through it. Previous knowledge of a snow-traversal buddy system, or experience with rock climbing can be used as base skills if you want to ice climb. Sharing a passion with someone makes your learning process much more efficient and enjoyable.
It was this exciting learning environment that helped me love where I was and what I was doing. Being out in the middle of nowhere helped me zoom out and, in a way, meditate. This meditative state further allowed me to love where I was and what incredible journeys I had at my fingertips.”
Julian, Class of 2021
The Alaska trip was an experience that I will never forget. Every morning during our backpacking portion I would wake up and be filled by the rich landscape: Mountain peaks of unfathomable proportions, glacier ice sprawling as far as the eye could see, a frozen breeze that reminded me just how distant we were from civilization. The fact that every student, guide, and teacher shared this same appreciation and humility was magical.
My favorite experience from Alaska was walking across the vast glaciers. Every time you looked down I would see amazingly clear and clean ice often nuanced with ethereal tints of blue. It was unbelievable to think that directly under my feet was 3,000 feet of pure ice. The glacier has a certain mystery about it because it is so unpredictable and labile. You could be walking along and then suddenly happen upon a ten-foot-wide moulin swallowing thousands of gallons of water every minute. Another beautiful feature that we got to experience was the glacier pools. They were the deepest blue hue that I had ever seen while concurrently being the clearest and most pristine water that I had ever seen. Swimming in a glacier pool was incredibly cold but also an incredible experience. I will never forget our trip to Alaska in its beauty and in the ways that it changed me and challenged me.
Kasper, Class of 2022
I’ll never forget looking down at my feet the first time we stepped on the glacier. While the ground was speckled with pebbles and rocks, instead of seeing the dirt underneath them that I’d come to expect, I saw ice that was so clear it seemed more like the absence of ground. Looking down, there was only that small layer of pebbles between my feet and then what appeared to be nothingness. Like I was standing on the sky.
And the trip continued like that: we would do things I’ve been doing forever in a place that made them seem completely new. We were hiking on the surface of a glacier that was thousands of feet deep, and the surface kept changing. Sometimes, the ice was brilliant blue and slightly melted into what looked like crystals, making it seem like a diamond lake. Or, the glacier would turn rocky as we crossed through moraines, where streams would carve clear paths through the rocks. Always surrounding us, there were beautiful mountains, some covered in majestic ice-fall.
We went through the routine of tying a double-eight knot but got on a wall of ice rather than rock, or rappelled down a moulin, unable to see the bottom when we looked down. Instead of jumping into one of our Utah lakes, we’d be jumping into freezing, ancient, 3,000 feet deep water holes so clear they looked bright blue. Instead of kayaking through a river, we’d be kayaking through icebergs–surrounded by lush, green mountains and beautiful white glaciers.
When we kayaked, mountain goats dotted the land around us. Bald eagles, which I’ve seen maybe once before, became as common as magpies in Utah. Otters could be spotted floating in the ocean as we kayaked past, their brown fur fluffy even when it was wet. The sea lions became our companions as they followed us around through the ocean.
The trip wouldn’t have been the same without our amazing group. As a theme, we seemed to form many circles, whether we were sitting on our bear canisters as our guides Elle and Ryan made some impressive meals, or trying in vain to complete a full hack in our hacky-sack circle, or stretching out with fun story-time yoga. Everyone was upbeat and fun to be with, as well as constantly hungry. The amount of food we ate was insane.
All of those elements combined made the trip unforgettable. I’m so grateful I got to be a part of it and I can’t think of a better way to end my time at Waterford.
Jacqueline, Class of 2019
Alaska was for sure the most experiencing experience I have ever experienced and there are few things I can say to explain it more than that. It all really started when I woke up the first night after the day we flew in the 2 person bush plane and almost hit a black bear on takeoff on route to Wrangell St Elias National park. I got out of the tent and was just struck with a sense of awe as I looked around for the first time at the unstopping landscape, completely unlike anything I have ever seen. The most camping I have ever done before this was driving to a campsite with me and my dad and roasting smores and hot dogs until we had to go to bed. So for me to go from something like that to something like this was truly amazing.
Hiking over the glaciers while getting to know both our guides (larry and Ryan!!!!) and the rest of our group was one of the coolest parts because while I may know some of these people. I got to know them a lot better when we all had to wear the same 2 sweaty dirty pairs of clothes as we hiked for days across the wilderness. We all shared the same experiences and relied on each other for even the small things like helping to attach our water bottles to our near 50-pound backpacks. We even got close enough to make almost everyone in the group sick to what was most likely the same short-lasting bug. To be able to do something like that with such an amazing group of friends is one of the most amazing things about that trip and I have no doubt when I look back on this trip that is what I will remember first.
One moment I won’t soon forget from our backpacking is when we were stuck trying to find our way past these series of crevasses and we had fletcher leading the pack for this leg. He managed to get down a part of the glacier as if it was big Emma at snowbird however for the rest of the group we needed to stake in a climbing rope and use ice tools to chip in footholes to get down a fun process that took upwards of an hour with Kasper napping in the back of the line. Or when we were ice climbing and Travis wanted to try the hardest wall with only one crampon (The other one snapped like a twig) and of course, I got to belay him. For the first 5 minutes, he climbed normally and made about 10 feet however then he got stuck (because he was trying the hardest wall with one crampon!) so I ended up basically pulling him up this behemoth of a wall for longer than I ever expected, wanted, or dare I say deserved. A wall that was only fully climbed by both Fletcher and Mr. Watkins in the end. Or possibly when we were at the end of our kayaking experience and Fletcher and Kasper’s rain jackets were totally soaked so they ended up wearing 2 trashbags with arm holes in it down to dinner and honestly it was hilarious walking down with them in my nice cozy dry raincoat.
On my way out of the house I just randomly decided to grab my watch. Which turned out to be one of the best decisions I made on the trip, because It was always sunny there! It was impossible to tell if it was 2 am or pm or if we had been hiking for 2 hours or 6 hours. However, a bad decision I made was underestimating the raw power of the Alaskan sun. I reapplied two or three times a day thinking that I was all fine. However, in the last day or so before the big hike out Kasper said: “Cooper you look a little sunburned” that turned out to be a big understatement because once I got to look and my face in the potato I saw my face and it was firetruck red everywhere except where my glasses were. It was only after I saw it that I began to feel it burn. Speaking of complaining, we complained a lot the food, my feet, its cold, I forgot my rain jacket but in the end, we backpacked through Alaska together and came out the other side glad for every part of it and that’s something I don’t think anyone will forget.
Cooper, Class of 2020
Alaska. Where to even begin. How majestic. How beautiful. How …. cool. I was seriously taken away by this place. It seemed like everywhere we went, it just kept getting better and better. From the mountains of McCarthy to the gut wrenching moulins of the glaciers to the sea lions of Valdez, Alaska is magic. I feel so lucky to have had this incredible experience, and to have shared it with some of the most incredible people I have ever met.
Our first night in Anchorage, we stayed at probably the sketchiest hotel I have ever encountered. I won’t go into too much detail, but Jaqueline and I’s bed had miscellanies stains everywhere, and Sarah and Mia saw more than a few potential bed bugs. Luckily, our shuttle came pretty early to pick us up, as we had an eleven hour road trip to McCarthy. Once we got to McCarthy, however, I knew that this was going to be one of those life-changing kind of experiences. The first actual night (Anchorage doesn’t count) we ate the first of many, many meals at The Potato, and slept in the Nilsson’s cabin. It’s this super cool wooden thing, with one room that Watkins got. The rest of us slept on the floor, in sleeping bags, which was surprisingly pretty comfortable. The next day we met up with SEAG (St. Elias Alpine Guides), and our guides Ryan and Elle, to begin our backpacking journey. We collected snacks, which no one ended up getting enough of, and then took a tiny remote plane out to the glacier. We then did a “day hike” (my definition of a day hike soooo didn’t fit with Elle and Ryan’s definition of a day hike) which took us up to a view point where you could see the lake that causes an event called the Yokaloupe, which is a yearly phenom that the people in McCarthy love, as it cause the glaciers around Mount Blackburn to movie eight feet, rather than their usual three inch daily crawl.
The next seven days were a blur of hiking and ice climbing and tent setting and sickness. We did things like come up over Pack Saddle, a campsite where the ice was crystal blue, the type of unforgettable blue that dreams are made of. There, we celebrated the Fourth of July by cooking Thanksgiving, and, luckily, Niklas brought his American flag, so we could feel extra patriotic. After four days of backpacking, we settled at a campsite at the base of Danaho. Unfortunately, a good number of us got sick at this campsite (including me, that was the worst!!), preventing us from hiking up Danaho. Luckily, relatively close to camp, there was some killer ice climbing. Ice climbing is something I would have never done on my own, but I fell in love with it. Using ice as a medium for climbing, rather than rock, was amazing beyond words. We were even able to be lowered into a moulin, and then climb out of it. A moulin is this glacial shaft that water runs into. It’s thousands of feet deep, and it is a death hole – if you fall in, your never coming back out. It was definitely pretty intimidating, but also incredible.
The last day of backpacking, Fletcher got really sick, and had to stay behind with Ryan, who also got the bug. The rest of us hiked out with Larry (Elle) as our fearless leader. We had yet another meal at the Potato, and then went to a swimming hole to do laundry and wash off. The only soap or shampoo any of us had was 18-in-1 Dr. Bromers, which doesn’t actually do anything for your hair, expect make it crustier, which led to all of us complaining about how crunchy our hair was. We spent the next two nights back in the Nilsson’s cabin. On our rest day, we went into the mill at Kennecott, with Larry, again, as our fearless leader. She explained the complications of copper mining, and the hard work that the miners had to put in. I think we ate at the Potato again. That night, we said goodbye to Larry and Ryan, which made us all pretty sad. We loved them.
The next morning, we started our journey to Valdez. The drive over there was pretty spectacular, with glacial capped mountains, and misty covered lakes. We reeked havoc in a Savers, and then spent the night in campsite. Although it was buggy, it had showers, which we all took advantage of. That night, Nik and Yianni got pretty frustrated with Jacqueline and I’s late night tent talks, and Niklas very nearly threw both of my chacos into the forest. Luckily, both of my chacos survived that experience. Then, we met up with our Pangea guides, Nick and Sharon, who lead us through the sea kayaking portion of the trip. That morning, we ate at the Potato yet again, and took a boat out, going into probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
Our sea kayaking adventures took us through Prince William Sound, which was filled with little otter mamas clinging to their little otter babies, sea lions that were almost too excited to play with us, and waterfalls that would ricochet into the ocean bellow. Jacqueline and I decided that this was the place where trolls lived, and that if dragons were to exist, they would be lurking behind the great islands of this body of water. The mist would settle in just right around our boats, making us feel as if we were in some middle earth, like Bobo Baggins was about to say hi to us. There’s a reason why they named this place Prince William Sound; it is fit for the Princes. We only spent three days on the sea kayaking leg, but it was perfect. We ate like kings – Nick and Sharon really knew how to cook! The only downside to this magic was that everything got soaking wet. Prince William Sound is a northern temperate rain forest, making the air incredibly moist, and therefore once one of your items got wet, they stayed wet. Fletcher’s book even molded, and all of my things permanently smell.
I am so, so grateful to have had this experience. Being outside, in that place, with those people, changed me in a way that I didn’t think was possible. I am so lucky to go to a school like Waterford where I am able to have experiences like this one. Thank you to my parents that made this possible for me, thank you to Watkins who put together this incredible trip, thank you to my new friends whose stoke level and positivity kept me going, and, last but not least, thank you Alaska. You are imprinted on my soul, and I will never forgot you.
Ulla, Class of 2021
My time in Alaska was a personally life changing experience that further reinforced my love for the outdoors and my desire to pursue outdoor guiding certifications and experiences. Our student group was out in the remote stretches of Alaska for 18 days, however, at times it seemed like we had only been gone for a few hours. Many times when you are away from home, time can drag on and you can’t wait until the day that you get to go home. But for me, it could not have been more different. I wanted to be present and take advantage of every second of every day because being in the remote stretches of Alaska challenged me, inspired me, and changed me. When we were on the plane en route to Alaska, I was giddy with excitement. I could not wait for our excursion to begin. I have previously visited McCarthy, Alaska, but I was now about to experience it in an entirely different way. My family has a cabin in McCarthy, and we try and visit there every summer, but this trip was an exceptional adventure.
We started off with an eight day backpacking portion which blew my mind. We crossed glaciers, mountains, and valleys, and all the while balancing our steps while carrying fifty pound packs and frequently stopping to change out our crampons to maneuver over the glacial moraine. My surroundings were indescribable, massive peaks, cerulean blue glacial streams, and 20 hours of brilliant sunny skies. This trip will stay with me for the rest of my life because it validated the foundation of who I want to be and in part, what I want to do in life. It has always been my dream to live in McCarthy during the summers, and now after experiencing and exploring the outdoors in this way, by spending time hiking, climbing, and talking with our glacier guides, I can see myself growing into this role. I realize that my dream to professionally explore and guide in the outdoors is attainable, and I will work towards this goal over the next couple of years. These outdoor trips not only give you an amazing once in a lifetime experience for a few weeks, but also leaves you with a unique connection to your teammates, new skills and passions for you to pursue for the rest of your life, and a recognition that you can persevere beyond previous limits.
Niklas, Class of 2020
Waking up in the middle of the night to stare at the cascading ice falls around you. Paddling right past a mama otter and her pup. Tasting burnt grits in every meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I can’t describe my time in Alaska by talking about what we did because we did so much, and I can’t describe Alaska by saying how I felt when I was there because it was so unique. Instead, I’ll give a small impression of my time by talking about the first night.
I did not realize that it was light all day in Alaska until we arrived. On the taxi ride over to the hotel, I couldn’t process how everyone seemed so tired and drowsy in, what seemed like, the middle of the day. Something felt off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. At the hotel, this odd feeling got worse and worse. People walking around in their pajamas on the street, a car with a plastic trike smashed in the back window, and a crackhead that poked his head out whenever you walked by his door. All of this would have been scary if it was dark out, but it was bright as day.
It may seem that going to Alaska and ice climbing, sea kayaking, backpacking, and more would be daunting or even scary. Certainly, all of those activities are quite dangerous. It would have been scary to do them on my own, but, like the hotel on the first night, I wasn’t alone and it wasn’t scary. On Outdoors trips, Watkins likes to mention how you will never be with the same group of people in the same place again. It was this unique group of people that turned something scary into something meaningful and wonderful for everyone on the trip.
Ben, Class of 2019
For me, the word glacier has always meant something barren and white, dangerous and cold. But from that first moment that my feet hit the ground, jumping out of the airplane, I could tell that that wasn’t all the glacier would be. Instead, it was a beautiful, welcoming thing, that would give us countless little gifts along the way.
The first of these came that same afternoon, when we climbed up the lush hillside to get a view of the glacier. We stood on that ridge, swatting bugs and looking down at a lake, far below, that a few days later would empty in the jokulhlaup (an icelandic term literally meaning “glacier run”) which we could hear right beneath our feet as thousands of gallons of water raced through the ice. But as gorgeous as the view was, I couldn’t help but notice my immediate surroundings: laughing friends wearing bug nets, sitting amongst dense wildflowers. On the way down, we couldn’t help but run, giving in to gravity, but trampling a few of these flowers as we went. I stopped a few times, spotting a plant neatly snapped off at the stem, the flowers still intact. I picked it up, holding the stem next to my hiking poles, and hurried to slide down the patch of snow that led us back to the foss. Those flowers, pressed in the pages of Slaughterhouse Five, traveled with me for the rest of the trip.
The next little gift that the glacier gave me was a day or two later, crossing through a glacial stream. I was walking in line, following Elle as she circumvented a crevasse, but my mind was elsewhere. Where a crevasse has been pulled apart and then pushed back together, the density of the ice changes, creating the most brilliant blue imaginable. I went out of my way to walk across this, looking down at the other world that looked as if it was right beneath my feet. It felt as if you shouldn’t be able to walk there, like you would fall right through into the heavens, and yet the ice held, making a slight crunching sound as I stepped on it with my crampons. I wasn’t particularly paying attention to where I was going in that moment, not even really to where I was, but was just completely absorbed by that one color. But as I walked, there was suddenly a new color that was equally as mesmerizing: the bright green of a rock. I stopped confused and plucked it out of the water, holding it in my hand to see if once it dried, it would keep that same vibrant green. It did, and when we next stopped I showed it to Elle, who smiled and said that I had found a piece of copper, which was exactly what had been mined in the Kennecot mines years before. This little chunk of green, with all of the history attached, went into the belt pocket of my backpack, and we continued on our journey.
The last gift that the glacier gave me was not so concrete, but I feel like it also needs to be included. The flowers showed me the lushness of the region, and carry with them memories of running up and down that hillside with the group. The chunk of copper reminds me of the beautiful colors of the glacier, which really is so much more than a barren expanse of white. But the final thing that the glacier gave us was just the place itself. From ice climbing, to sitting on the moraine in a circle eating dinner, our group was always basking in the beauty of the glacier, which provided both a playground and a backdrop for us to joke around and enjoy nature. It is the glacier itself that is really a gift, and it scares me a little to know that it is going away. I now feel the need to somehow say thank you to the place, and try my hardest to make sure it stays around for many others to be given these things as well.
Mia, Class of 2019