Practicing fire-starting skills

From left to right, Schoenbar Middle School eighth-graders Casey Styles, Gavin Hall and John Thomas practice fire-starting skills near Schoenbar Middle School with science teacher Frankie Urquhart. Photo courtesy of Frankie Urquhart

The annual camping trip for seventh-graders and survival trip for eighth-graders has been a Schoenbar Middle School tradition since 1972.

The list of what not to bring on the trips is short — no electronics, no diving equipment, no weapons or fireworks, and no siblings or pets.

Those things won't help the students as they put what they've learned in school to the test during a two-day outdoor experience with their classmates.

SMS science teacher Frankie Urquhart told the Daily News that the trips are often talked about for years afterward.

"It's kind of like a rite of passage," Urquhart explained. "A lot of our population ... if you talk to somebody who grew up in Ketchikan, it will come back around to, 'Hey, who'd you you go on the eighth-grade camping trip with?' It's one of those things that – no matter who you are — it's like this club that you belong to, and you have a kinship with this person. It's kind of a big deal."

Students often arrive at Schoenbar having heard stories about the trips from their parents — so when the time for their own trip comes, the new class members are looking forward to their own chance to make memories with their classmates.

"It's a really great bonding thing," Urquhart noted.

For seventh-graders, the trip is set for May 19 through May 21, and brings a chance for camping and learning outdoor skills. The eighth-grade students will set out from May 26 to May 28.

Both trips requires a permission slip signed by a guardian. The students are separated into multiple groups of boys and girls, and are accompanied by assigned teachers and parent chaperones.

"The parents are just another set of eyes, and looking to make sure that their kids are safe," Urquhart said.

The parents are not allowed to intervene in their kids' assignments or activities while on the trip, as grades will be given as students put to use the skills they learned in school, like identifying safe foods to eat, building fires and constructing their own shelters.

The trips are different — the seventh-grade camping excursion is a chance for hands-on learning to build experience in the outdoors.

"The seventh-grade camping trip is for us to really get the kids some skills, like for kids that maybe have never been out in the woods camping," Urquhart explained. "So, learning how to build fires, 'leave no trace camping,' how to dress properly and appropriately, and what kinds of foods you can prepare."

For the seventh-grade trip, students are required to bring a sleeping bag, a tent, framed backpack, two containers of water, eating and cooking utensils, rubber boots, raingear, warm layers of clothing, extra socks, gloves, a hat and a sack lunch.

It is recommended — but not required by the school — that seventh-graders bring matches, rope, pocket knife, toilet paper, garbage bags, a toothbrush, insect repellent, hand sanitizer, and a ground cloth, according to a packing list circulated to students.

And a year after the seventh-grade trip, it's time for the eighth-graders to use the skills they learned on the camping trip to survive without many of the items they had the year prior, such as tents or pre-packed food.

"It's a more advanced outdoor experience," Urquhart said.

"And hopefully, they're comfortable in the woods after that trip, and then for eighth-grade, that's going to prepare them for when we go into a separate island and they have to eat off the beach, and they get their survival cans, and they have to use whatever is in the survival cans to get their food," Urquhart explained.

The packing list for eighth-graders includes a sleeping bag, visqueen material, two water containers, a life jacket, rubber boots, raingear, warm layers, extra socks, a hat and gloves, hand sanitizers.

Items not allowed on either trip includes cell phones, radios, CD players, or any electronics, along with weapons of any kind.

The trips are both prefaced by weeks-long curriculum about survival skills.

"Building fires is a really fun activity for the kids," Urquhart said.

Learning outdoor skills helps to build confidence, which Urquhart said is fun to watch the students develop over the weeks leading up to the excursions.

"It's definitely one of those courses that almost all of them, they enjoy, and almost all of them could be really good at," Urquhart said. "Because it's building your skills and it's fun and it's relevant."