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Kroka students return from a semester in the wilderness to a different world

  • Kroka Expeditions students portage their canoe along Route 123 in East Alstead on Friday afternoon not far from Lake Warren, where they camped on an island for the night before returning to the Marlow school on Saturday, wrapping up their months-long adventure. Michael Moore—Keene Sentinel

  • With a supply of firewood for the night’s campsite, Kroka Expedition students put their canoes into Lake Warren on Friday afternoon. They spent the last night of their months-long adventure camped on an island on the lake before portaging the boats to the Marlow school on Saturday. Michael Moore—Keene Sentinel

Keene Sentinel
Published: 6/1/2020 6:06:04 PM

When the students enrolled in the spring semester at Kroka Expeditions first learned about how the COVID-19 pandemic had changed life back home, it was the day after April Fool’s Day, so they weren’t sure whether it was a joke.

The 13 students had been in the wilderness for about two months while enrolled in the program, which takes young adults from across the country into the wild to teach outdoor skills. Those skills are integrated with academics, but with no access to cell phones and no way to stay up-to-date on current events. They’d been skiing in northern Quebec when they returned to their cabin and received the news of the outbreak, and the effects it’s had, from their instructors.

“It was such a weird thing for my brain to comprehend,” said 19-year-old Calla Jones of Massachusetts. “It’s the kind of thing you’d imagine in your wildest dreams. You go up into the woods and come home and everything in the world is different.”

Kroka Expeditions aims to teach students both practical outdoor skills and a curriculum that incorporates the experiences they have during their journey, which can also earn them college credit. The expeditions also typically include a community service element, which was skipped this year due to concerns about the virus.

The students returned to the Kroka campus in Marlow on Saturday, where they’ll remain for the next two weeks before heading home. Jones and another of the students on the expedition, 18-year-old Sydney Harris of California, said the news still hasn’t entirely sunk in, as both consider what it will be like to return home in a world scarred by COVID-19.

Harris said she’d hardly been aware of the virus before beginning the expedition, which wasn’t reported in the U.S. until after the Kroka semester had begun. She recalled seeing news stories about the novel coronavirus early on, but didn’t dwell on it, assuming it would be just like other outbreaks she remembered, like the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.

“I remember in the past, there were things like swine flu, little things that pop up and people hear about, but don’t really become anything, so I didn’t think much of it,” Harris said. “It was pretty shocking to hear that it had just kind of taken over in such a short amount of time.”

The students got their start in February, traveling a route that spanned from Vermont to Quebec and back down to the St. Lawrence River, which they traveled via canoe until they reached the Hudson River. They would have finished the trip in New York City, but because of the virus, the final leg of the expedition was rerouted to Maine, and the students eventually concluded their trip with a canoe ride down the Connecticut River.

Having begun the expedition several weeks before the shutdowns began, Kroka Expeditions had to decide what to do with their program once other schools began closing their buildings. They could either allow the students to finish the semester, or send them home.

Program Director Ezra Fradkin said the school didn’t want to deny the students an opportunity to complete the final legs of the expedition, and developed the alternate route that would bypass large communities and prevent the students from risking contact with anyone who may have contracted the illness.

“Given the current events, and also knowing our students, it was so hard for us to imagine sending them home from this journey to return to distance learning and isolation in their homes, and scattering this group of students that had formed such a tight-knit community,” he said.

The students had already crossed the border into Canada before travel restrictions had been put in place and got the news before returning to the U.S. However, according to Fradkin, the group had been in “perfect quarantine,” living off the land for weeks and rarely coming into contact with anyone else, so getting them back to the States wasn’t too difficult.

Since they’ve been back at the school’s Marlow facility, students have been working on group projects, construction projects and finishing up any academic work that remains, Fradkin said.

Jones noted that the group has been unable to participate in the community outreach that would normally make up a significant portion of their studies for the last couple weeks of the semester. She said it’s hard to get used to the idea that people are expected to keep their distance from one another after spending the past five months in a program that aims to bring people together.

“It’s really weird to think everyone else has been doing this for months,” she said. “And for us, we don’t understand having to do any of it.”

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or

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