MARQUETTE - Students in Alison Matelski's third grade classroom listened with bated breath as her brother, Matthew Johnson, told them via satellite phone what it was like to stand on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
The students, from North Ohio Elementary School in Gaylord, asked him questions about the wildlife and the climate of the mountain, which Johnson was happy to answer.
They had already watched his progress online as he climbed the mountain over a period of six days and were eager to hear what adventures he'd had.
A sunset can be seen from the Arrow Glacier Camp on Mount Kilimanjaro. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Johnson)
Johnson, a 1994 graduate of Marquette Senior High School, has hiked many places in the united States, but Mount Kili marked his first ever solo international climb.
And though Mount Kili climbers, for the most part, spend their days being well taken care of by swaths of porters and guides, Johnson wanted to try things on his own, opting to carry all his own supplies and pitch his one-man tent in the middle of the porters' camp, rather than with the other climbers. Johnson said his willingness to go it alone earned him some respect from the locals on the mountain.
"I tried to treat it like I was the only person on the mountain and there was no one to help me," Johnson said. "That made me kind of a curiosity. They all wanted to take pictures with me, find out where I was from, hear about Michigan, how people embrace going in the outdoors where I grew up."
Johnson said he spent his evenings working and talking with the porters and guides. He told them about life in the U.P. and how cold it gets on the shoreline of Lake Superior. He explained how most Yoopers enjoy spending time outdoors camping and hiking.
"They were all very thrilled that somebody from America was willing to hang out with them, eat dinner with them and actually sweat and get dirty and do their own work," Johnson said. "I think they were more thrilled at my doing it that way than I was."
And though his stories of the U.P. were what caught the attention of the locals in Africa, it was Johnson's stories of them that made the whole trip interesting for his sister's students back in Gaylord.
Through videos and one phone call made from a satellite phone on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, Johnson was able to relay what it was like to climb one of the seven highest peaks in the world to a group of Michigan third-graders.
According to Johnson's sister, the kids ate it up.
"I'm always looking for something that is interesting for the kids" Matelski said. "A lot of these kids, they've never left their town or the county, and being able to feel like they know a person that climbed an active volcano on the other side of the world was pretty interesting. It got their attention."
Matelski, a 1997 Marquette Senior High School graduate, integrated the climb into her curriculum, with studies on the different climates found on Mount Kili and what types of animals and vegetation they hold. The students learned of the different cultures of the local people and were captivated by a 12-year-old local boy who was climbing Mount Kili the same time as Johnson.
The lessons culminated with a phone call from Johnson himself. He spoke with three classes of third-graders - about 75 students - from the summit of Mount Kili, answering a wide array of questions.
"Having (the students) have a firsthand connection with someone that's doing something that they kind of see as impossible or very unlikely, I think it's really good that they see there are everyday people that do amazing things," Matelski said. "That if they really want something, they can do it and they can pursue different interests. They can do whatever they want in life as long as they put the effort forward."
Johnson said the biggest lesson he'll take away from his trip is to travel as much as possible, and to travel alone. He said bringing family and friends only serves to keep the traveler separated from the local community. On your own, Johnson said, you're forced to learn how to make your own way in a place you may not be familiar with.
"My basic takeaway from the trip was, go out and meet new people. If you grew up in Michigan, you're capable of traveling 99 percent of the places on the planet," Johnson said. "Marquette is isolated by American standards, but our attitude is so embracing. That kind of simple way we have of approaching people is welcomed. It doesn't matter whether we're sitting down with a former government official, which I've had occasion to do, or whether I'm with a rural, poor farmer. It's that same thing."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.