Grassy plains become outdoor classroom for Fort Smith students

Click on the slideshow above to view captions.Photos: Hilary Turko.

Youth from Fort Smith took the trip of a lifetime as they trekked out to the plains of Sweetgrass Landing for several days of learning on the land.

From Sept. 11 to 18, Grade 7 and 8 students from Paul William Kaeser (PWK) high school took turns spending four days out of range, leaving their cellphones and video games behind for some classic outdoor experiences.

“It’s something so different; you’re out in the middle of nowhere, (and) there’s a lot of kids who maybe never take part in something like this,” said Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) visitor experience manager Richard Zaidan. “It’s quite a journey out there. You’re in the wilderness and there’s no electricity, no running water and you’re out there for four days, learning about the land, getting educated and bonding with the other kids.”

The expedition marked the fourth year of the school’s partnership with Parks Canada, which coordinates activities at the camp. Teachers, volunteers and parents donated their time to help the program run smoothly.

The groups started out their trip with a lengthy trek to the site. After an hour and a half drive into the park and a cool boat ride of the same length, the kids and their guides took an almost four-hour hike to their site at the landing.

Volunteers and teachers set out to instill values in their students about connecting with and surviving on the land, appreciating local Aboriginal culture and cultivating environmental stewardship habits using fun activities throughout their stay.

Parks Canada staff introduced a new GPS poker game this year, asking youth to use coordinates to find playing cards hidden throughout the camp – the person who found the best poker hand won a prize.

Local elders Eileen and Henry Beaver led cultural activities for the youth.

“They come every year and they’re fantastic,” Zaidan said. “Henry will actually take kids and he’ll do some moose calling with them and try to call a moose in. They’ll go out to Sweetgrass Creek and they’ll go in smaller groups and paddle around and see the area.”

The kids had some time to navigate the largest native grasslands in North America while capturing the natural landscape as they competed in the annual Roberta Bondar photography challenge. They also examined pictures from the past, comparing the site to what it looked like in its heyday.

“There’s lots of history in the area. It used to be a bustling little community there,” Zaidan said. “That place existed because they used to round up the bison and give them inoculations. There used to be a sawmill, they used to harvest trees in the park. People use to live out there, there were buildings and there was a landing strip.

“Now there’s nothing left of the landing expect for a few picnic tables, an outhouse and a storage shed. Everything else is grown up in trees and there’s very little evidence of what took place there,” he said.

While the weather was a little colder than the group had hoped, new heating, insulation and 30 brand new cots at the Sweetgrass cabins kept the kids cozy when they weren’t out doing activities.

“They just enjoyed being out in the bush, out of the classroom, being with the other kids and laughing,” Zaidan said. “It was just a joy for them to spend time with their friends.”

According to Zaidan, WBNP staff are in the process of creating a program where visitors will also be able to rent the cabins at Sweetgrass, gaining the opportunity to experience the wonders of the landing, just like the students.


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