A month ago, 16-year-old Sophia Walton had never left the country. Now, she can describe the sound of pink river dolphins splashing in Amazonian waters, the view from high atop the rainforest canopy, and what it feels like to be face-to-face with members of South America's indigenous tribes.

Walton was one of 10 Sierra High School students who returned in mid-July from a 10-day trip to Peru, where she and her classmates experienced the sights and sounds of the Amazon rainforest while conducting research.

"It was a one-in-a-million kind of thing," said Walton.

"Yeah, once in a lifetime," agreed 17-year-old fellow traveler Jaleesa Roberson.

The students raised about 10 percent of the cost of the trip and Harrison School District 2 paid for the rest. Airfare and accommodations cost about $3,500 per traveler.

Megan McDaniel, a Sierra High science teacher, created the program after attending a workshop for educators in the Amazon two years ago.

"I came back from that trip with a mission to make a trip happen for Sierra kids. I wanted to allow our students an opportunity that even I didn't have when I was in high school," McDaniel said. "I just knew the experience would be life-changing."

The group, supervised by McDaniel and Vice Principal Jymil Thompson, arrived in the riverside city of Iquitos on July 6. They spent eight days at four lodges along the Amazon River, traveling by boat.

They met an entomologist who introduced them to his collection of tarantulas, millipedes and walking sticks. They learned from a Shaman how jungle plant materials, such as "cat's claw" vines and "dragon's blood" sap, can be used to heal common ailments. They even went fishing for piranhas and ate their catch for dinner.

The students also helped two U.S. scientists with their research related to rainforest plants and made observations for their own study, which analyzed the differences in the biological evolution of Colorado's ponderosa pine forests and Peru's Amazon rainforest.

"The science portion was that they were to compare the succession of two different forests," McDaniel said. "It was really the beginning levels of an inquiry, where we set out for discovery with a question in mind prior to creating a hypothesis."

The results? Students found the biodiversity of Colorado conifers paled in comparison with the variety of plant and animal species that live in the rainforest.

Students met throughout the academic year to prepare for the trip, learning Spanish from Sierra's world languages department chair Dana Bottolfson, reviewing packing lists, and visiting the woods of Black Forest for their succession research.

"This is a true study abroad program," said Sierra High School Principal Aaron J. Griffen. "This isn't a field trip. They had to do some work. This project didn't start in Peru."

The students also volunteered to help a small riverside community known as the Yagua. In addition to painting a community room, water tower and bench, they created a compost station for the kitchen of a one-room schoolhouse. The students will use leftover travel funds to "adopt" the community and help meet residents' resource needs.

During their visit with the Yagua, students learned some of the tribe's traditions and history. They learned to use blow guns, weave palm fronds and make natural dyes.

They also traded some of their possessions for souvenirs. Roberson bartered T-shirts, hair accessories and small stuffed animals for a blow gun, carved wooden turtles, a woven bracelet and a dream catcher.

Just like the trip, the Yagua people are one of a kind, Roberson said.

"There's nothing like this in the United States," she said. "They [the Yagua] have what we would consider such a horrible life, but they're so happy. It just stuck with me."

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

County Government Reporter