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A First-Grade Teacher Makes the Arctic Her Classroom

Five epic ski expeditions to educate a new generation of activists

PHOTO: Gabe Rogel

There’s a kid sitting in a classroom somewhere in America. She’s peering out the window, hypnotized by flakes falling outside. A teacher stands at the front of the room. The student’s mind is elsewhere. Maybe she’s making connections between this winter’s prodigious snowfall and the water cycle or climate change trends or public policy. Maybe she’s not. But she’s captivated, and that means there’s an opportunity for education, for a good teacher to spark understanding.

That good teacher is Michaela Precourt. An educator at the Waldorf School of Bend, Oregon, Precourt is also the leader of Down to Earth, a series of five arctic ski expeditions that she hopes will light the minds of the next generation of environmental advocates. All the voyages will be human-powered, with the help of skis and sea kayaks and sailboats, and fueled by a 100-mile diet. Precourt, 27,  holds advanced degrees in adventure and elementary education as well as snow science, and has worked as a Wild Alpine backcountry guide in Alaska. This April, she’ll embark on Down to Earth’s first “story” in Iceland, along with pro skier Lexi DuPont and Jackson Hole-based skier Taylor Bones.

During five expeditions over the coming five years, Precourt and crew will correspond with participating schools, where classes will follow along via GPS coordinates, pictures, and trip reports. Students who tune in will learn about geology and wildlife biology, gain insight into living sustainably and close to nature, and witness real-time changes in the planet’s coldest climes. For Down to Earth’s inaugural 12-day expedition, the trio will broadcast live from a home base in Ísafjörður, a northwestern town that offers easy access to big ski lines from their back door and, across the Ísafjarðardjúp fjord, in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Later, Precourt and fellow staff in Bend will work to convert her experiences into formal curriculum that could supplement lesson plans at independent and state institutions.

“We’re trying to establish this connection back to earth,” Precourt said, explaining how her odyssey was dubbed Down to Earth. “We’re not just skiing a run, we’re then going home and talking to students and the local community about the land, people, and how the environment is being affected by climate change. We’re starting conversations with local farmers about the food that just got us to the top of the hill, and how to source local at home, too. It becomes a totally multi-faceted trip, all around the love of snow. And then, how do we protect and appreciate that?”

Dupont, who recently visited the Standing Rock Sioux reservation as a protester, sees this trip as her next step in becoming an activist-minded athlete. “I needed to make some changes within my career, and to use my voice in a positive way,” she said. “Iceland seems like the time and place to do that.” In particular, she’s inspired by Precourt’s commitment to human-powered travel and a locally sourced diet.

I hope this shows that you can still have adventures and be down to earth. Doing it human-powered, it’s just you and your body, and that creates such a strong connection with your environment,” she said. “And if what you’re putting in your body is from that local environment… that is as primal as it gets. Sourcing the food is taking us deeper into the culture, instead of showing up with bags of energy bars. It’s not convenient—it’s definitely inconvenient—but that’s part of the magic. That’s the connection that a lot of people are looking for.”

The full five-year mission (which will include voyages to Greenland, Norway, and Baffin Island) will outlast the administration of a climate change-denying president who, as Precourt said, is “the person who I never wanted to become president.” She has been dreaming of this trip for years, but the results of the election last fall pushed her to action.

“It was, like, holy cow, more people, generationally, need to see that the climate is changing, and that we have an impact on that,” she said. She anticipates that her students will see “complete differences” in the climate over the course of five years, which, she said, “is terrifying.” Though she thinks it will be hard for her students to watch, she hopes it will fuel them. “That little kid watching could grow up to want to be an environmentalist. Or he could want to be a ballerina. But he’s conscious,” Precourt said. “That’s the key, that’s why snow is such a cool combiner. I’m a first-grade teacher, but I love skiing. Snow is this magical link. It’s so beautiful because it’s so simple.”

“These students will want to become part of saving their planet,” she continued. “Down to Earth is about how do we find that connection back to earth, to instill that sense of hope, in our communities and school system and our kiddos? It comes down to the earth on which we walk, the place we push ourselves skiing.”

Educators interested in enrolling or participating in the program can visit Down to Earth online.