The night before the glacier trip, Feven Negussie couldn’t sleep.
The next day, she was heading out to Riggs Glacier with five classmates and two instructors from the Tidelines Institute.
The school in southeast Alaska teaches leadership education to high school and college-age students.
To get to the glacier, they would kayak for two weeks up Glacier Bay—a finger of icy water littered with glaciers and wildlife—camping on beaches along the way.
Feven had never camped. Born in a rural village in Eritrea, a nation on the horn of Africa, her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 10. She spent high school and college in and around New York City, and considered herself a “city person.”
Now, one week after landing in Alaska, Feven, 23, not only would be living in the wilderness for two weeks, but she wouldn’t be able to call her parents or friends when she was feeling anxious.
“It was my first time being surrounded by an all-white community,” Feven says. “I’m coming from the inner city to a rural town in Alaska, with people who don’t look like me, think like me, believe like me. I thought, ‘Who am I going to rely on out in the middle of nowhere?’”
The first day, the group paddled for a few hours, found a nice beach, set up camp and cooked dinner. They squeezed in a lecture and readings for their environmental policy class before bed.
That continued for the next 11 days straight, rain or shine, calm seas or not.
Sometimes Feven was so tired and cold she broke down and cried. But she also saw humpback whales breaching, orcas and sea otters playing by her kayak, and waterfalls tumbling from the surrounding mountains.
That’s the point of Tidelines Institute, says Laura Marcus, who runs the school with her husband, Zach Brown.
The school has two main campuses: one in Gustavus, a small town on the edge of Glacier Bay, where Feven is doing a six-month term, and the other at an island 26 miles away.
Both are set up as living homesteads, where students study, farm, cook and live in one of the wildest areas on earth.
“Students are getting their hands dirty in the garden, cooking meals, foraging for wild food, doing construction projects,” Laura says. “Basically, all parts of the student are engaged in the project.”
It is not the easiest way to learn.
Like Feven, students run into challenges and need a lot of support—but it is the first step toward the larger goal of Tidelines: to equip young people with the confidence and leadership skills they need to be good stewards of the world.
Building a School in the Alaska Bush
In a way, Tidelines is a love story between people and place.
Zach grew up in Gustavus. His parents worked for Glacier Bay National Park, so he had mossy forests and shimmering fjords in his backyard.
He left Alaska for college, but returned to his roots during grad school to study how receding sea ice was affecting polar ecosystems.
“It was very clear to me after a few years passed that this scientific work is not where it’s at anymore,” Zach says. “We’ve known the science on climate for my entire life. What good was I doing by adding more papers to the stack?”
He wanted to do something more impactful.
On a trip back to Gustavus in 2010, he ran into a real estate agent on the trail who was selling a homestead on a remote island nearby.
When Zach returned to his graduate studies in California, he was less focused on his research and more focused on something else: raising a million dollars to buy the property and open a school in the Alaska Bush.
A few years later, while fundraising at Stanford, Zach met Laura through a mutual friend. The Indianapolis native was starting her own school based on wilderness learning.
“I had gotten pretty jaded with the American educational system,” Laura says. “All the incentives were purely individualistic. It was all about getting the best GPAs, having the best resume and getting into the best college.”
Rather than focusing on acing exams, her program—the Arete Project—sent groups of students into remote settings where they could learn essential lessons about leadership and community service: figuring out how to organize labor, share resources and navigate conflict.
Laura had been leading trips across the country and was looking for a home base.
Laura and Zach clicked professionally and personally. After marrying in 2019, they merged their programs.
Today, the Tidelines Institute brings in students from different backgrounds and regions.
In addition to half-year programs such as Feven’s, university groups can take one- to two-week courses in topics ranging from ecology to environmental rhetoric to climate leadership.
The average day could start with a lecture, followed by a paddling trip to study the tides, a construction project after lunch and dinner made from local foods.
Simply being in the Bush offers learning opportunities never available from a textbook.
“We had this one crazy situation,” Zach says. “As we were paddling, we saw a deer tumble off a cliff. It was hurt badly so we ended up killing the deer, bringing it back to gut and skin, and butcher it. We weren’t expecting to do this with a student group, but it was completely eye-opening for them.”
Turning Education into Action
Running a school in the Alaska Bush takes money. Fundraising is key to keeping two campuses and 11 staff going, and to providing affordable tuition and scholarships to attract students from all walks of life.
Most of Tideline’s funding comes from individual donors in Alaska and the West Coast. Zach and Laura say their biggest payoff is watching what students do when they leave.
One Tidelines alum, Evan Joyce, is pushing his university to invest in cleaner energy. When the engineering student started at the University of Alaska Fairbanks a few years ago, he wanted to get involved in the climate movement. But in a state so dependent on oil and gas, it was hard to broach the subject on campus.
“Kids seemed interested in climate change, but the colleges also have massive donations from mining companies,” Evan says, “and athletic kids are worried about their scholarships, which are provided by oil companies.”
In 2021, he went to Tidelines with the UAF Climate Scholars program and learned new ways to communicate about climate change, and concrete methods for combating it.
Last year, he launched Divest UAF—an initiative to eliminate fossil fuel holdings from the university’s more than half-billion-dollar endowment fund, and reinvest in clean energy.
In December, Feven finishes up fall semester living off the land and learning about the local environment and culture. But the learning continues.
The experience already has changed the way she views climate change in eastern Africa, where drought is creating conflict among nations.
“There is huge tension between Ethiopia and Egypt about the Nile River,” Feven says. “Ethiopia wants to build a dam. Egypt does not want the dam. A war might start over this—a war over the environment and clean water. I want to study that and begin thinking about that.”
Feven’s time at Glacier Bay will influence her career path and her personal life. While she may return to city life, she wants to stay closer to the natural world—even if it means going without cell service.
“When I go home, I’m going to make my family go camping all the time,” she says.