Last August, as this area slowly emerged from COVID, Nate Pawelek had an idea.
The Westport United Church youth leader saw how deeply isolation, loneliness and hopelessness had affected teenagers. He wanted to ignite and inspire the church’s high school group.
How about a trip to Alaska?
Church leaders were skeptical, but supportive. Rev John Morehouse warned against going just to sightsee. He wanted a learning component too.
Because climate change is a significant Unitarian Universalist concern — a key principle is respecting the interdependent web of all existence — Pawelek decided to focus on the environment.
Working closely with intern minister Kim Warman and many parents, he designed an extensive environmental curriculum.
In September, a dozen teens began investigating their own church campus, guided by an arborist from the congregation.
They learned how human behavior impacts the earth in unseen ways. The group discovered an oak tree with a motion-detection camera bound to its trunk by a steel cord. As the tree grew it became embedded, constricting water and nutrients from roots to leaves. The group cut the cord, saving the tree.
At Sunday morning meetings, guest speakers shared their work. Pippa Bell Ader described food waste. Noting that food-insecure people do not have the luxury of throwing away perfectly good food, she urged composting and donating unused food.
Misha Golfman, founder of the New Hampshire wilderness expedition school Kroka, told the teens to avoid quinoa. A staple for Ecuadoreans and other South Americans, much of it is now diverted to the US.
Golfman and Kroka created a New Hampshire program in February. It was “mini-basic training” to prepare for Alaska. The group learned to live outside in the cold, build fires without matches, cook in the snow and dehydrate food, without running water and electricity. Several group members participated in a polar plunge in a frozen pond on the final day.
In February the youth group began studying environmental justice. They noticed a pattern of higher impact from climate change on low-income communities, people of color, and indigenous groups. Topics included the Flint water crisis, and the Eklutna Dam in Anchorage (it decimated the salmon population eliminating a crucial food source for the Dena’ina community).
At the same time, the teens raised money for their trip. They did odd jobs, collected and redeemed thousands of bottles and cans, raked lawns, sold holiday wreaths, sponsored a raffle to win a cord of wood, and performed a benefit concert.
Soon, they had $17,000.
The 11 youth group members and 5 chaperones headed west during the schools’ spring break. Instantly, they were awed by the rugged landscape.
Alaska “reminds us that nature has the power to restore us in times of despair and despondency,” Pawelek says. “This is what I envisioned. It was a gift of hope for the youth.”
Living in Alaska for a week — largely off the grid — “increased their awareness of the innumerable ways human activity, even in our own homes, affects the health and sustainability of the Earth,” he adds.
The group traveled with a suitcase full of dehydrated food, and 16 camping bowls, mugs and spoons to eat with.
Each teenager brought just 2 changes of clothes and no amenities — except for phones (useful primarily as cameras, due to limited cell service).
They generated little trash, refilled their water bottles every chance they had, and — after spending 3 hours making tasty pancakes with rehydrated blueberries — relished the meal.
In Alaska the group worked with the organic gardening group Yarducopia, and canvassed neighborhoods to invite people to join. They met with representatives from Trout Unlimited and the Alaska Conservation Fund, who took them to the Eklutna River (and dam).
In Seward, a park ranger showed them the evidence of flooding and beach erosion from melting ice caps and glaciers. In Homer they surveyed tide pools and studied plankton under microscopes, to learn the effect of warming oceans.
They also attended a Unitarian Easter service; helped build a retaining wall to prevent erosion, and had dinner with leaders of the Qutekcak native tribe.
Beautiful weather enabled clear views of the stunning Chugach Mountains and the Alaska Range, including 20,000-foot tall Denali.
They played — sledding down a 100-foot embankment like penguins — and though there was still a lot of work to do setting up camp, the impulsive playtime honored their souls.
Pawelek knows the argument that an environmental journey like this is unwise, due to carbon emissions. “We believe the benefits of our awareness offsets the emissions,” he says.
Back in Connecticut, they’re showing off their photos. They’re telling family and friends about the sights they saw, the lessons they learned — and thinking hard about what the future holds.
(Youth group member Zach Pawelek created the video below.)