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The bus on which Grade 12 students from an Edmonton school were trying to make Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver island. Instead, they spent some time getting to know the wilderness.
The bus on which Grade 12 students from an Edmonton school were trying to make Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver island. Instead, they spent some time getting to know the wilderness.

School trip becomes survival course for stranded Alberta students Add to ...

It began as a bookish getaway for the Grade 12 students of an Edmonton private school - they were set to kick off their final year by flying to a remote research centre on Vancouver Island for a series of marine biology classes.

But after dense fog scrapped their float-plane trip Sunday, teachers changed plans and hired a bus to reach their destination. What followed was a day-long, back-country sojourn that left the group stranded along a collapsed logging road, without cellphone service and unreachable. Instead of marine biology, they got a crash course in Canadian wilderness.

When they hadn't arrived at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Monday morning, parents and school administrator Peter Mitchell began to panic in Edmonton, 1,000 kilometres away. RCMP were called to search for the missing bus.

For the co-ed class of 10 students, however, the stranding was a welcome adventure. They chopped down trees, rebuilt a road, washed and brushed their teeth in a local stream. (So, too, did they brave a drink of the water, after its "grossness" level was deemed acceptable.) After 14 hours, their bus driver had found help, ending the impromptu lesson.

Wednesday, they'll return to Edmonton, having skipped marine biology altogether for the unplanned, "exciting" retreat.

"It's definitely a little bit different, going from grinding out the books to going to a stream for water and looking for berries, and all that stuff," said student Brandon James, 17, laughing. "It was different, but I think it really brought us together."

The ordeal began when veteran bus driver Brendan McCullough, 52, found his preferred route to Bamfield closed. He and the teachers decided to follow an alternate route suggested by their satellite navigation system.

"That road would have gotten us there," Mr. McCullough said Tuesday, "except it was deteriorating seriously."

The ensuing hours went slowly. Much of the road was washed out from recent heavy rain, or covered in fallen debris. Students "mined," or gathered, rocks to build up the road where it had washed out, the driver said. They helped cut down a tree. The got out and held back other leaning trees while the bus squeaked by.

"After we had to chop down one tree, hold up other trees and make a bridge out of rocks, we started thinking this might not be the right road," Mr. James said.

By 2:30 a.m. Monday morning, the bus slowed near a sagging culvert, which then collapsed and stranded the group. Mr. McCullough gave in - they'd have to wait until dawn to start again.

When daylight broke, Mr. McCullough dragged his own bike from the belly of the bus (he'd used it to ride to work the day before) and set off looking for help. He heard construction sounds, but couldn't find their source. He doubled back, passing the bus, and continued in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the headmaster of the academy, called Tempo School and located in a tony part of southwest Edmonton, was already worried. Mr. Mitchell called Bamfield and discovered his students and teachers were missing. He then contacted RCMP while trying to calm parents.

"Those were difficult calls to make," he said.

But the kids were sleeping, talking or exploring - frustrated, but not worried, they say. Most had never been camping. They tried building a fire with wet wood, but failed. When water ran low, they braved a nearby stream that teachers, too, were skeptical of.

"It was fast-running water. It was limited to what sort of grossness could be in there," teacher Cathryn van Kessel explained. "We're all fine today, so the water was okay."

Five hours later, after an estimated 40-kilometre ride, Mr. McCulloch found the source of the sound - a logging road crew. They came back, dragged the bus out, fixed the culvert, and sent word to Edmonton by dinner time that the kids were all right.

"It's been exciting," Mr. James said. "It wasn't too bad. I don't think anybody got really worried."

On Tuesday, the students were faced with a decision - try for Bamfield again, head to Edmonton immediately, or re-plan their trip in the island's more accessible south. The kids voted for the latter, with a caveat that they'd fly back Wednesday night, a day early, "out of respect for the parents.". Their airline waived the rebooking fee.

"Of course they're a little disappointed of not going to Bamfield," Ms. van Kessel admitted, but the overarching goal of the getaway was achieved.

"Really, the whole point of the trip was to relax us from school and ease us back into Grade 12 and make everyone more comfortable with people in the class," said Mr. James, one of the students. "It's been exciting."

Mr. McCullough, the driver, added: "It was an experience they'll never forget."

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