A Rare Opportunity to Learn and Research in Alaska’s Wild Wrangell Mountains
McCarthy, Alaska is a place unlike any other. Positioned within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the tiny inholding has no running water or electricity, just a handful of businesses and a few residents who stay put during the harsh winter months. But what the town lacks in amenities, it makes up for in stunning scenery. Home to massive snowy peaks, a diverse array of wildlife, and endless reminders of the effects of climate change, the Wrangell Mountains are a sight to behold. It’s a volatile place, an environment of extremes as vast as it is beautiful, and, for 7 weeks each summer, an Evergreen classroom.
In August, students and faculty returned from the second-ever Alaska Wrangell Mountains Summer Field Studies Program, a one-of-a-kind expedition into the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. A collaboration between Evergreen and the McCarthy-based Wrangell Mountain Center, the program sent students from Evergreen and other institutions to McCarthy where they spent weeks learning about the changing environment while studying hydrology, geology, social sciences, and more.
Geology professor Ken Tabbutt, the program’s lead faculty member, was one of four faculty involved in this year’s expedition. Joining him were ecologist Peter Impara, forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni, and social science faculty Shawn Hazboun. After seeing the impact the class had on students this summer, Tabbutt says he can’t wait to return.
“Based on the experience students had, it will be transformative,” said Tabbutt. “In every case the students walked away from the program with a fundamental change in the way they viewed themselves and how they interacted with others.”
Tabbutt attributed this transformative effect to how the program continually pushed students out of their comfort zone. “In some aspect everyone is outside of their comfort zone, and they have to adapt to that, including the teachers,” he laughed.
Throughout the program, students were challenged not only by the curriculum, but also by the landscape around them. Even getting to McCarthy was difficult, as they had to complete an eight hour drive from Anchorage, Alaska, the final 16 miles of which were on gravel road. After that, the only way into McCarthy was a long footbridge overlooking the Kennicott River.
Student Hana Rothner ’20 said what she saw in the nearby mountains was breathtaking.
“It might be the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” she said. “It looked as if I was inside a painting.”
Not a Walk in the Park
Students spent their first week in McCarthy learning in a classroom setting, using the town’s old hardware store as their headquarters. The following week they learned skills in backcountry navigation, which prepared them for a three-week expedition into the wilderness where they worked in small groups to collect data for research projects. Then they returned to McCarthy to present their findings in front of local residents and Wrangell Mountain Center staff.
While the landscape of the Wrangell Mountains makes them an ideal location for an environmental studies class, it also represents a significant challenge to anyone hoping to move about in the area. With few trails to rely on, traversing the mountains requires hours of travel, considerable bushwhacking, and the persistence to navigate over immense glaciers.
“It’s sort of a humbling experience,” said Tabbutt. “You don’t get very far. You might be used to hiking 15 miles in a day but if you go two miles up there that’s pretty good.”
For students with little hiking experience, adjusting to the physical demands of the Wrangell Mountains can be one of the most challenging aspects of the program. That was the case for Felicity Bidwell ’22, a psychology student who had never backpacked before. Though it took some getting used to, Bidwell said she came to find the hikes rather meditative, appreciating how she became immersed in the landscape.
Having grown up in in Anchorage, Bidwell was no stranger to the effects of climate change when she entered the program, but said that seeing it on display in the Wrangell Mountains was still eye-opening.
“I knew climate change had been affecting Alaska more than other states, but I didn’t know the extreme of it,” explained Bidwell.
Between glacial retreat, record temperatures, and the drying of streams and springs, the Wrangell Mountains offer constant reminders of the phenomena associated with a warming planet.
Now that Bidwell has seen and studied the landscape of the Wrangell Mountains up close, she has gained a new perspective on her home state.
“It’s really cool to be able to look at the landscape and have knowledge about how different things were formed. Now I can walk around and see where I was born and raised in a completely different way,” said Bidwell.
Evergreen’s Interdisciplinary Approach on Display
Ken Tabbutt was serving as the interim provost at Evergreen when the Wrangell Mountain Center first approached the college about working together to create a field studies class. Under his leadership Evergreen agreed to the collaboration, and a partnership was born: the college would provide the faculty and curriculum and the mountain center would provide logistical support.
“Their approach, which was interdisciplinary and field-based, was consistent with what Evergreen does, so it seemed like a natural partnership,” said Tabbutt.
While Evergreen’s focus on interdisciplinary learning is nothing new for staff of the Wrangell Mountain Center, for students from other colleges it is a significant shift.
Elvia Cruz-Garcia, a student from University of California Santa Barbara, was one of four non-Evergreen students enrolled this year. She said the interdisciplinary aspect of the class inspired her to enroll.
“I was able to learn from a geologist, an ecologist, and a sociologist,” said Cruz-Garcia. “When I saw that I was really excited.”
Tabbutt, who anticipated the interdisciplinary nature of the program would be new to non-Evergreen students, was pleased with how they embraced it. “Once they saw how topics connect, especially up there, and how we brought different perspectives to the landscape, I think they really enjoyed the interdisciplinary piece,” he said.
The Wrangell Field Studies program will return next summer, when Tabbutt and his colleagues will once again lead students into the Alaskan wilderness for the educational experience of a lifetime. More info about the program, including testimonials from past students, can be found at wrangells.org/fieldstudies.