It was summer in the North and that meant plenty of daylight, plenty to film and plenty of bugs flocking in front of the lens.  Mosquitoes were out en masse, dive bombing our shotgun mics and adding their annoying buzz to our soundtracks.

We were teaching a digital storytelling workshop in Naknek, Alaska to a small group of local youth. The instructors, Elizabeth Rogers, Lisa Holzapfel and myself were teaching the basics of film production. In early spring we had covered taking an idea and developing it through the storyboard process. The students had learned the importance of framing, camera stability and sound. Now it was time to start shooting footage.

As teachers, we had been inspired by Richard Louv.  In particular, from his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,  where he outlines that "an environment-based education movement--at all levels of education--will help students realize that school isn't supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world."  We decided to test his theory out in the wider world he speaks. Our classroom? The near 4 million acres that make up Katmai National Park and Preserve.

The fledgling filmmakers called themselves "The New Explorers” and though they lived on the doorstep of Katmai National Park, few had ever travelled there. With assistance from the NPS,  then Katmai Park Superintendent, Ralph Moore, Rivers, Trails & Conservation Program Director, Lisa Holzapfel, a handful of dedicated Park Rangers and some supporting parents we were off. 

We started our journey from King Salmon crossing Naknek Lake via boat and landed several hours later on the shores of Brooks Camp. After watching a mandatory NPS Bear Safety Video, the New Explorers were ready to call “action”.

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The students were quick learners, with shot lists in hand, they took turns composing, shooting and accomplishing their storyboards. For the instructors it was an opportunity to see the park in a new way – through the eyes of the New Explorers. For the students, we hoped the trip would make a lasting impression on them about the value of wilderness and the importance of preserving it for future generations. From the looks on their faces each night and the excitement as they shared their experiences from each day, it was definitely working.

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The Katmai Rangers made a point of spending time with us, each Ranger enriching the students experience as they shared their knowledge of the National Park and Preserve with us. Katmai, famous for its large brown bear population also has a rich cultural history as evidenced by the parks numerous archeological sites and the remnants left behind by the people who have lived there for the past 9,000 years.

 “Each generation can learn from the remnants, the buildings, and the objects of the past; these are the landmarks that link us over time and space and give meaning and orientation to our lives." 

 Courtesy of Katmai National Park & Preserve publication

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The highlight of the week was a late evening trek into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The valley, earned its name in the great Katmai Nova Rupta of 1912, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century and one of the five largest in recorded history. It actually lowered the earth’s temperature that year by 2 degrees Fahrenheit. The eruption dumped as much as 700 ft. of ash on the Ukak River valley and sent Kodiak Island into darkness for 3 days.  The buried water was superheated and worked its way up through the ash to the surface. The escaping steam formed “smoking” fumaroles and the “Valley of 10,000 Smokes” was born.

Park Ranger and Naturalist, William Edwards, led our group that summer night bringing the landscape into focus as we hiked towards the falls.  He unwound the mystery of the fragile pro-biotic soil that surrounded us, slowly evolving following the 1912 eruption. After descending 800 vertical feet on the trail of "10,000 steps" as one of the students quickly tagged it, we had reached a waterfall that left us mesmerized. 

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We stood spellbound watching the river blast from its rock confines and spill out across the valley floor. Photos and film couldn't come close to capturing the magnitude of this place. Ninety-five years had past since Nova Rupta and above us the scalloped sandstone columns still bore the scars. Volcanologists Judy Fierstein and Wes Hildreth recently wrote,

“The Novarupta-Katmai eruption remains one of the most provocative historic eruptions for many volcanologists.”

Provactive it was, the volcano has yet to reveal all of its secrets, secrets that our young filmmakers were enthralled with discovering. They ran from the falls to the rocks, to ridges with questions, theories, and comments enough to fill the canyon stretched in front of us.

An hour later Ranger Edwards pulled us away. He knew the ascent up those 10,000 steps would take time and darkness would come, even to Katmai this summer night. Hours later, back inside the pitch dark visitor center, a 3D map of the valley floor lay spread in front of us. With flashlight in hand, Ranger Bill scanned the diorama of peaks and recounted the story of the Nova Rupta eruption.  The students asked question after question, putting the pieces together and beginning to realize the magnitude of this earth event. Light flashed across their faces, revealing  their engagement with this newly discovered wilderness. Still more hours later we tramped across the bridge near Brooks Camp, ecstatic and exhausted, weary but inspired by the events of that night. 

The next day, shot lists now complete or nearly so, we made our way back to the village of Naknek and the post phase lay ahead. But that could wait until fall, when school was back in session, when classrooms filled with students and daylight back to a mere 12 hours. There would be plenty of time then to shape our Katmai experiences into 8 short student films. The New Explorers had indeed lived up to their name and for those of us who taught them, we all felt privileged to have taken a few steps of their journey with them. All of them talked of their gratitude for the experience and their eagerness to share Katmai with family and friends. We had challenged and charged them. Perhaps Richard Louv recapped it best when he said: "passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature".