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Story Last modified at 9:35 p.m. on Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Alaska tough
Wilderness class teaches real-world skills to middle-schoolers

Alaska Star


Mirror Lake Middle School student Vang Kuh peeks back at the entrance while hollowing out a quinzee, or snow cave, on Feb. 14, during Mike Hansen's wilderness studies and safety class, which is learning about winter survival techniques.

If you got caught outdoors in Alaska's unforgiving winter climate, would you have the skills to survive the night?

The students in Mike Hansen's wilderness studies and safety class would.

"If they had to spend an overnight, this would be a way of surviving," Hansen said, pointing to a large, white mound of snow piled on the frozen lawn outside his classroom.

Hansen's class is currently learning about the quinzee, an ancient form of snow shelter that has been used by Native people for thousands of years.

"Probably as long as there's been people in Alaska I imagine they've used something like this," Hansen said.

He explained that the shelter is basically a big pile of snow with a hollowed-out inside. This year, his class is building two structures and piled the snow (which stands about six feet high) during one frenzied class period last week.

"We got these built in record time," he said.

The snow was allowed to set before students began the painstaking process of creating a livable space inside. First, footlong sticks had to be cut and jammed into the structure's walls. Seventh-grader Jack Wells explained that the sticks are needed to help the diggers know when they're getting too close to the outside.

"If you hit it, it gives you enough space so it doesn't collapse," Wells said.

Wells said he believes he could make it through the night in a qunizee.

"Depending on the size it would probably be doable," he said.

Hansen's semester-long elective course isn't just about building snow forts. The class covers a wide range of wilderness issues, from firearms safety and ethical hunting practices to snowmachine safety and basic survival skills. They are real-world lessons that Alaska kids are more likely to encounter.

Wells said he thinks the class is giving his fellow students and him a strong background in how to keep themselves safe in Alaska's often-treacherous outdoors.

"We learn just how to survive and how to do stuff right so if you do something wrong you don't kill yourself," he said.

Many students in Hansen's class said they already participate in wilderness activities, and took the class to learn more about their developing passion.

"I just love spending time outdoors," said eighth-grader Gus Frankl after eagerly taking his turn at hollowing out the quninzee with a clam shovel.


A student cuts a piece of wood to aid in the building of the quinzee outside the school.

Hansen said he's proud that his hands-on class is a favorite among students at the school.

"I often get reports from parents that they're always hearing about what happens in wilderness studies," he said.

Though most students said they enjoy learning about wilderness survival, many admitted that the amount of time spent outside the classroom was a big reason for taking the course.

"I like that I get to get out of class," said seventh-grader Sienna Hannah.

One lucky kid will get to get an entire period outside of class in the near future. Hansen said that once the quinzees are complete, a student will get to test its insulating abilities in a real-life test.

"The objective is in a week from now, somebody's going to go outside with a candle lantern and a piece of bedding and they'll spend the period out there and they're going to see if they can survive that period," he said.

Hansen won't have any problem finding a willing candidate. When he mentioned the plan to send a volunteer out into the cold, every hand in the room shot up. For him, getting his students that fired up about wilderness safety is what the job is all about.

"It's really given me a second lease on education," he said.

If all his students emerge from the course with a better appreciation of nature and how to stay alive in the elements, he feels like he's done his job.

"Every one of these kids will be an ambassador for wilderness safety," he said.

Contact Matt Tunseth at or 694-2727 Ext. 215.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, February 16, 2011.