DECATUR, Ill. -- A week in the Alaska wilderness, getting around by kayak and roughing it, led South Shores School teacher Teri Moore to keep a list of "28 Things I've Never Done Before."
"We had never kayaked in our lives," said fellow teacher Kristi Mullinix, who applied for a grant from Archer Daniels Midland Co. that helped pay for the trip. "Teri had always camped in places where you can walk to the bathroom."
Mullinix saw a grant application for teachers to "think outside the box" and ask for assistance doing something they had always wanted to share with students but never thought they'd be able to.
She Googled such terms as "teacher seminars in Alaska" and found a company that led expeditions for teachers. She didn't want to go alone, so she asked Moore to accompany her. Moore agreed, without realizing quite how primitive the experience would be.
"She'd say, 'We're going to need this,' and I'd say, 'What for?' and she'd say, 'We're going to be camping,' and I said, 'We're going to what?'" Moore said with a laugh.
The idea of the trip was to give teachers a firsthand experience with brown bears, which are abundant in Alaska, and provide material for lessons for their students. Both teachers plan units on bears and Alaska next quarter and brought back plenty of photos to show the students.
"It was kind of like 'Survivor,'" Mullinix said. "They dropped us off on this island with all our gear and said, 'We'll see you in a week.' And the next six days, we saw one boat, and other than that, we did not see anybody."
For the bears, a couple of the guides carried guns, but one carried bear spray. He told the group of teachers that you spray the bear for three seconds and then run right or left, but not straight, because that's the direction the bear will charge.
During one stop at a shelter, they heard bears nearby and had to leave the shelter because the bears were coming that way, and a few minutes later, a bear walked right past the open side of the shelter where they'd been sitting.
The group had to take everything they might need with them and bring every speck of it back out, not leaving so much as a cracker crumb behind, because bears might learn to associate food with humans.
Bears depend on the annual salmon run to fatten up for their winter hibernation, Mullinix said. Their guides told them that bears pack on around 400 pounds in the summer. That's also when the bears mate, and the cubs are born in the spring.
One of the things they learned is that bears are not loyal to a mate. They're more like strangers in the night, while eagles mate for life.
"If the male eagle dies first, the female never mates again," Mullinix said. "If the female dies first, the male gets another mate. Doesn't life imitate nature? Get somebody to take care of that nest."
Eagles were everywhere, Mullinix said, and they left feathers behind, which one of the Alaskan teachers suggested they should take home as a souvenir. Moore and Mullinix declined. It's illegal to possess an eagle feather without specific permission, proof of American Indian heritage and registration in a recognized tribe.
"I told them I'd hate to have to call my principal and ask her to find a way to get me home because I was being detained for trying to smuggle an eagle feather," Moore said.
Though Mullinix and Moore went to Alaska to study bears, they learned plenty of other things, too.
"A certain time of year, (eagles) go to where the salmon are running," Moore said. "(The Alaskans) told us you might see 5,000 eagles. They just line the trees, and you can't even see the trees. You just see eagles all around the shore. They come to this area to eat the fish. They don't let (visitors) come as much during that time because they want (wildlife) to be doing what they're normally doing."
Both women learned a lesson about keeping their eyes open so they don't miss a thing.
"You know how when you're hiking, you're always looking down, because you're watching where you step?" Mullinix said. "When you're kayaking, because it's that same motion, you can look at everything. One day, there were whales, and here you are kayaking, but you can see and hear the whales."