By Carey Restino
Very few middle school students from Homer have had a chance to go across Cook Inlet and explore. Even fewer have experienced having a brown bear run full speed right at them. But a group of 12 middle and high school Girl Scouts recently experienced all that and much, much more. And despite a hair-raising experience for the young women, everyone seems more than willing to repeat the experience.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Emilia Halstead, who is going into the seventh grade next year. “I would definitely do it again. I think everybody would want to do it again if you went over there.”
Poppy Benson, one of the trip organizers and a Girl Scout leader, said the goal of the trip was two-fold — to expose young women to inspiring examples of women rangers and biologists and also to allow them a chance to see the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Clark National Park, areas few from the Kenai Peninsula get to see.
“We wanted to give Homer and Anchor Point girls a chance to experience their public lands,” said Benson, who is also a public programs supervisor for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
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 Girl Scouts were able to survey seabirds on 60 Foot Rock and Gull Island, travel across to Chinitna Bay and observe dozens of bears and have other great outdoor experiences, like clamming and visiting BearCamp to meet guide Caprice Stoner and hear about the work she does.
Miranda Martin, a middle-school student who went on the trip, said she was already interested in marine biology before she went on the trip. The experience inspired her to consider work as a guide as well, she said.
“I learned you don’t have to always be afraid of bears,” Martin said. “I was just amazed. It was just beautiful there.”
All of the girls spent time training in advance for their trip, learning how to use a GPS, digital photography and bear safety. That training came in handy.
Martin, Benson and Halstead said one of the most memorable parts of the trip was when a bear appeared to be running straight at them. The girls did exactly as they were supposed to, Benson said, standing behind two adults and not running away from the bear. The adults stood their ground, waved their arms and told the bears they were human by saying, “Hey, bear.” It came within 50 feet of the group before turning and running parallel to the group down the beach.
It turned out the other group could see the bear was actually running away from another bear, Benson said, but they didn’t know that at the time.
“I thought I was getting charged,” said Halstead. “I’d never been in that position and it was pretty scary. I thought it was hungry or something. It was pretty terrifying.”
Both girls, however, said they recovered from the experience and enjoyed the bear-watching portion of the trip.
“It’s not every day you get to see bears like that,” Halstead said. “There were dozens of them, grazing and minding their own business. It was amazing to sit there and watch them. I could have watched them all day.”
Benson said the girls were able to experience a lot during their trip, going to a rarely visited island to collect bird data and observations and learning about taking digital photos through a digiscope. They also “became bonded” with their binoculars, she said. The equipment was all donated for use by the refuge for use during the trip.
But beyond all the hands-on experience, Benson said one of the main goals was to show the Girl Scouts the many exciting career opportunities available to them close to home.
“I think we really succeeded in that,” Benson said.
Martin agreed, saying she was pretty sure everyone in her group enjoyed the experience.
“I would love to go there again,” she said. “And next time for longer.”
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