North·Feature

N.W.T. 'bush kids' thrive at Sweetgrass Station in Wood Buffalo National Park

In Fort Smith, N.W.T., Paul William Kaeser High School students honour Indigenous history with a physically and mentally demanding fall camp — Sweetgrass Station.

Every year, students from Fort Smith take part in a unique fall camp

Every year, 50 to 60 students from Paul William Kaeser (PWK) High School in Fort Smith, N.W.T., take turns descending on Sweetgrass Station in Wood Buffalo National Park for their fall culture camp.

First, Grade 7 students hike in and out. Then the Grade 8s.

Jacob Steed (left), Hunter Villeneuve and Neva Olvera are among 23 Grade 8 students who travelled by bus, boat and foot to reach the historic camp deep within Wood Buffalo National Park.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

The camp's savanna-like field is surrounded by a thick boreal forest.

It was was once home to an ill-fated bison ranch. Now it's a remote backcountry camp in Canada's largest national park.

Andrew Walsh takes a well deserved break near the end of the 14 kilometre hike.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Indigenous and non-Indigenous students learn land-based skills from elders, teachers and Parks Canada staff.

They also learn about respect, relationships and responsibility. Garret Minute (left) and Bree Packulak chat during the final stretch of the hike. 

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Teachers Marnie Villeneuve (standing, right) and Erin MacDonald (left, pink shirt) both graduated from PWK.

Both now teach at the school. MacDonald says the camp incorporates Dene laws and sharing circles. Villeneuve says the hike into Sweetgrass is a challenge but they've "never had anybody quit." 

"We don't quit! We are bush kids. We don't quit," said Villeneuve.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Erin MacDonald reviews the rules for scavenger hunt as students listen.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Landon Jewell grabs a plate of ham, scallop potatoes and bannock. Later, a tray of buffalo meat, shot outside the park, was served.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Christian Gordon (left) hurls a ball to classmates. The bunkhouse in the background was once a warehouse for the bison ranch.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Marnie Villeneuve washes dishes with the students.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Elder Eileen Beaver (right) sharing a quiet moment with Marnie Villeneuve by the campfire.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Samuel Kodakin-Scott (bottom right) and classmates work on their paddling skills.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Landon Matthews (left) and Samuel Kodakin-Scott prepare to make a splash after their canoe lessons.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Josh Kikoak-Chabun discovered a family connection to Sweetgrass while he was there.

His grandfather and great grandfather helped build and maintain the bison ranch.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Jed Mitchell reads by headlamp. Books and card games are allowed at camp but no phones, iPads or computerized devices.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Landon Matthews (left) gives Parks Canada superintendent Jonah Mitchell a hand with a bucket of grey water.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Students Sierra Cheezie (left), Neva Olera (centre) and Jaden Benwell observe a passing bison.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

According to Parks Canada, Wood Buffalo National Park is home to one of the last remaining, free-roaming wood bison herds in the world. The massive animals often travel in small herds  or — as in this case — alone.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Sierra Cheezie (right) roasts bannock with fellow students.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Elder Henry Beaver cooks sausages over an open fire for breakfast.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Observing a wolf from a safe distance.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

The Grade 8s of PWK high school, along with teachers, elders and parks staff.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Elders Henry and Eileen Beaver have been working at the camp since 2010.

(Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

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