Hoosier Burn Camp participants pose during one of their many adventures in and around Ketchikan. The group is visiting from Indiana, July 14-25. (Photo courtesy of Hoosier Burn Camp)

Young burn survivors from Indiana are spending over a week in Ketchikan as part of a traveling summer camp. The Hoosier Burn Camp takes participants to different places each summer. But it’s the first time the group traveled to Alaska or even got on a plane together. The trip has been a lifetime experience for some of the campers.

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The campers range in age from 15 to 20, a little older than the camp’s usual traveling groups. This way, they could do more stuff in Alaska, like fishing for salmon.

“Fishing was great and I just love fishing,” Jace said. “And it’s just exciting.”

I caught up with Jace and others on a call during one of their breaks. The camp asked me to only use the teens’ first names. Some of them have had dozens of reconstructive surgeries and the camp gives them an opportunity to just be a tourist and step away from the stress.

Austin was the very last camper to hook a fish on their boating trip south of town. He had doubts it would even happen.

“My first salmon I ever caught in my life. . . was the biggest of the day,” Austin said. “I was basically speechless once I caught it, I was just so happy. And that meant the world to me because I didn’t expect to catch a salmon that big and. . . I did it. So I’ve been pretty happy since then.”

Camper Carson holds up a salmon he caught near Ketchikan, along with Sandra Coats, the owner and charter captain of Chick Charters. (Photo courtesy of Hoosier Burn Camp)

The group of mostly teenagers also walked through old-growth forests, rode e-bikes around town, and took sightseeing flights. Flying was one of Jace’s favorite activities.

“I just thought it would always be cool to go on a float plane, then we actually did!” Jace said. “Landed on a lake out there, saw a whole bunch of mountains. It was really cool. Looked beautiful out there.”

There has been sea kayaking and beach walking, where they saw a bear and seals. Austin liked some of the smaller creatures too.

“We seen a sea cucumbers [sic]. We seen that red, spiky thing,” said Austin. “Do you remember the name of that, Abby? Anemone?”

“Oh yeah, the urchins, the urchins.” Abby said.

“Yeah, that thing was really, really cool,” Auston said. “I didn’t even know they existed.”

Hoosier Burn Camp was started by the Indiana State Fire Marshall and a children’s hospital about 25 years ago. Its programs help kids rehabilitate physically and mentally from their burns. Mark Koopman is the executive director and is traveling with the group.

“In some instances, we work with children that have had 40, 50, 60 reconstructive surgeries before they turn 18,” Koopman said.

He says that changes the way they see the world and how they experience summer camps.

“The physical trauma associated with that is, is exponentially difficult. It’s hard to wrap into words,” Koopman said. “But then when you talk about the psychological trauma associated with burn injury, that’s a whole other thing.”

But he says sometimes the kids look forward to the surgeries too, when they help bring their bodies to their full potential, making trips like this one to Alaska possible.

Hoosier Burn Camp campers enjoy a flight-seeing tour near Ketchikan. (L-R) Austin, chaperones Taylor Louie and Caitlin Dougherty, and Jace in the back. (Photo courtesy of Hoosier Burn Camp)

Koopman says their trip relied heavily on local donations like housing in a church and discounts on adventures. Ketchikan’s Fire Chief, Rick Hines, helped make connections. He hails from Indianapolis and fought fires there for decades, before retiring and moving to Ketchikan. He says Ketchikan generously welcomed the campers.

“Everybody that we reached out to you through the Hoosier Burn Camp was like, ‘Yep, yep, tip my guides. You can go on this excursion for free,” said Hines. “Or, you know what? I won’t do any charters this day and I’ll take your folks out on my boat or I’m going to charge you the minimum I can to operate, or cycle my plane, you know, for three trips.”

Hines says the Hoosier Burn Camp is well-known in Indiana. He relates to the campers in more ways than one. He’s also a survivor. He burned his right arm on the job.

“The one takeaway really is the amount of pain that these kids have endured,” Hines said. “Because there’s no amount of pain medicine that can take away the physical pain they’ve endured, you know, let alone the mental pain.”

So when the campers had the chance to take a dip in the cold salt water on a cloudy day–and go all the way under–many like Austin said yes.

“We’re here to have fun, make great memories,” Austin said. “That right there, that is definitely a great memory that I will never forget on this trip. Never forget in my lifetime.”

Campers not only hooked salmon on the trip but several got hooked on Alaska and say they most definitely will be coming back.