Homer kids discover nature, themselves on grand adventure

Few Homer and Anchor Point youth have been charged by a brown bear, but that’s something 12 middle and high school Girl Scouts recently experienced as they ventured across Cook Inlet to explore and understand Alaska wilderness. Despite the shock and eye-opening experience, however, the young women seem excited to continue learning about environmental issues and preparing for their next outdoor adventure. 

Poppy Benson, one of the trip organizers, said the purpose of the trip was to allow them a chance to see the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Clark National Park and for career awareness by inspiring examples of women rangers and biologists.

A Connecting People with Nature Grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as well as support from the National Park Service, made the trip possible. The grant paid for Homer Ocean Charter’s M/V Bay Explorer to take them across Cook Inlet on June 11-14. The GPS and camera equipment were donated by the refuge for use during the trip.

Benson, a Girl Scout leader and public programs supervisor for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge said, “We wanted to get kids out in nature at Chinitna Bay, at the base of Mt. Iliamna, and get them thinking about jobs in the wilderness.”

Summer McGuire, who will be in the seventh grade when school begins in the fall, said she was nervous about going across the inlet, but excited about having the experience.

“I’m really envious of people who get to spend their time out in the wild. I’m interested in being a biologist and getting to understand the gorgeous beautiful creatures in Alaska,”  said McGuire.

The morning the trip began, Samantha Martin, a middle school student, said, “I’m excited to go out and explore the whole area, and hopefully not be eaten by a bear.”

Colleen McDougal, who will be in 10th grade in the fall, said, “We visited Bear Camp and met guides and rangers who talked about the work they do. It was interesting to hear stories from a Big Bend National Park guide about the different animals there versus Alaska.”

In Chinitna Bay, the girls viewed dozens of bears and their behavior patterns. Benson said it was the mating season and one of the rare sights for the young girls was to see the large males chase off other bears. 

At one point, the girls thought a brown bear was charging them. The girls followed the wilderness way, and did not panic. The girls stood behind two adults who waved their arms and used their voices saying, “Hey, bear” to let the bear know the group was in the area. The bear came within 50 feet of the group before turning and running parallel to the group down the beach. It turned out the the bear was actually running away from another bear, but they didn’t know that at the time, said Benson.

Some of the girls, after taking a safety class at Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center to prepare them for bear encounters, were not afraid at all.

“I probably felt more comfortable than I should have,” said McDougal.

With a low tide, both humans and bears went clamming. For some of the girls, it was exciting to dig clams for the first-time and taste the cooked clams that are part of the bears’ diet. 

Learning about bears was not their only opportunity to understand more about the environment. Before the trip, the girls were trained on GPS use, bear safety and seabird identification. They took their new skills and collected photographs with GPS coordinates through a digiscope to use on a citizen science project. The project relies on repeated photography to track climate change by observing the changes in tree lines, drying of ponds and changing habitats. The girls collected some of the first photographs of the area. 

Although the girls already knew about climate change, by using the photographic records, they could see how much the glaciers of the area have retreated.

“It was shocking to see how much smaller the glaciers are getting. We all knew they were shrinking, but didn’t know by how much,” said Emily Coble, who is going into the ninth grade. “I think it’s good
that people are trying to stop climate change.”

Juliette Gordon Low began the first Girl Scout Troop in Georgia in 1912. It has now grown to more than 3.2 million scouts, both girl and adult members. The Homer and Anchor Point scouts will now move up the ranks from scout to ranger, by learning more about the environment in which they live in. They were able to survey birds on Gull Island and collect bird data and observations on 60 Foot Rock.  

Beyond the hands-on experience, Benson said one of the main goals was to show the scouts the many exciting career opportunities available to them close to home.

“We need to develop a new generation of conservationist,” said Benson. “I think we really succeeded in that. Next year I hope we have enough funding available to do something similar with the Boy Scouts.”

Samantha Martin uses digital cameras and digi-scoping equipment provided by Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge to document bear viewing in Chinitna Bay. -Photo provided

Samantha Martin uses digital cameras and digi-scoping equipment provided by Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge to document bear viewing in Chinitna Bay. -Photo provided