On the gray morning of April 17, Sitka High School Field Science students donned in raingear and representatives from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service, Sitka Conservation Society, and Sitka Sound Science Center/SNHP all boarded an Allen Marine boat and headed towards Kruzof Island. During the classes leading up to this field trip, scientists and experts from each of these partner organizations gave introductory lessons to the students that ranged in theme from the environmental history of wetlands, to wetland soils and pit digging protocols, to plant identification and practical Tlingit uses of certain species, to wildlife identification and field techniques, to effective environmental outreach. When we all stepped off the boat, we walked the trail to our study site at Dry Pass, where the freshwater stream widens and spills out into a flat tidal marsh. Just on the other side of the trail in the opposite direction from the shore is a beautiful muskeg.
The structure of the field trip was for the students to split into three groups and spend time rotating between three stations to learn about a different aspect of wetland ecology: soils, plants, and wildlife. In the plants group, we set a transect to get a sense of the diversity and abundance of plant species along the saltwater to freshwater gradient and were chased by the incoming tide. Meanwhile, students in the soil group were digging a pit nearby the plants transect to see how the quality and characteristics of the soil may relate to the kinds of plants that could thrive in that environment. The wildlife group checked live mammal traps set the day prior and worked with minnow traps to discover which faunal species utilize this environment. Later, everyone took a break to explore the area upstream, and after lunch the soil and plant stations moved to the muskeg to compare the differences between the two habitat types. By analyzing each of these ecological characteristics, the students not only had the opportunity to learn and apply specific field techniques and methodologies, but also to weave that information together to see the big picture of how the elements within a wetland work together to form a unique, interconnected, and intricately balanced ecosystem.
Everyone involved, both the students and the professionals, were excited by the opportunity to spend a day in the field, a welcome departure from the classroom or office. This unit on wetlands is a spectacular example of the experiential learning opportunities that are possible by drawing on the resources available in Sitka, including both the community partners willing to share their time and knowledge and the natural ecosystems of Southeast Alaska. All of this was possible thanks to Stacy Golden, the Sitka High School Field Science teacher, who spearheaded and organized the whole endeavor. The students will follow up this field trip by completing an independent project using the skills they learned about outreach to create a media or communications output that can be used by one of the participating organizations. We were thrilled to participate in this collaborative approach to place-based environmental education, and we hope that the will take away lessons about the value of wetland ecosystems and memories from this exciting field trip.