Su Valley students prepare for a trip to the Sonoran Desert

(l to r) Brandon Bettes, Sophie Hainline, Thomas McDonald, Kayla Colley, and Sherry Thorn are all headed to the Sonoran Desert this month. Photo courtesy of Sophie Hainline

Five local students are headed to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert to explore a landscape and climate very different from the one they call home in the Northern Susitna Valley.

Spring break trips to warmer climates aren’t unusual for many Alaskans, but five Su Valley students are about to venture out on a trip that is designed to be both fun and educational. Sophie Hainline came to Talkeetna with AmeriCorps, and says taking students to the Sonoran Desert is something that Northern Susitna Institute has wanted to do for a while. She says the group has spent the last few months learning about the desert and what they can expect there.

“They’ve done individual projects, but we’ve also had a lot of community presenters come in an work with the kids on medicinal salve making, animal tracking, knot typing, map and compass skills, gear preparation, and we also made a video. [We’re] just trying to get everyone geared up for the trip.”

Each student’s individual project looked not only at the Sonoran Desert, but also closer to home. Junior Angel Amaya chose medicinal plants, which include things like aloe vera in the desert and fireweed in the Susitna Valley. He is looking forward to seeing the desert for the first time.

“I’m mostly excited to experience the desert, because I’ve never been there…and just being with

Thomas McDonald, Brandon Bettes, and Kayla Colley work on preparations for their trip to the Sonoran Desert. Photo courtesy of Sophie Hainline

everyone, because…we all know each other somehow.”

Freshman Thomas McDonald is also excited about exploring the new landscape. In fact, he says he would be happy if the whole trip were nothing but trekking through the desert.

“I want to do a lot of hiking. I want the whole trip to be one big hiking trip….Just exploring a new type of terrain and biome that I’ve never seen before.”

Senior Brandon Bettes’ project ahead of the trip deals directly with part of the preparation for hiking in the desert. He focused on clothing and layering in a desert climate as opposed to the subarctic.

“You kind of want to have light clothing, but you still want to have layers, because it does still get cold, or it will start raining, so you need something to keep it off. It still rains in a desert.”

Also, Brandon says the temperature can swing dramatically, from near freezing at night to more than ninety degrees during the day.

High temperatures and physical exertion mean drinking a lot of water and getting proper nutrition is important. Junior Kayla Colley focused her individual project on what it takes for the human body to keep going in the desert, and how much of a margin for caution is necessary.

“We have to carry all our stuff, but there’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong, like emergencies, so you want to make sure you have a little above, but not too much where you’re hauling around all this food.”


The educational portion of the trip doesn’t stop when they step off the plane. The students will take additional information they gather from exploring the wilderness, visiting museums, and speaking with local experts, and bring it back home to the Susitna Valley.


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