• Canada's Coolest School Trip experiences a traditional smudge ceremony. (Photo: Jessica Finn/Canadian Geographic)

With a few quick rolls of a feather the pungent smoke rises from the shell and tumbles over the heads, hearts and feet of the stock-still students. The only sound is the rustle of a dry wind in the tall surrounding aspens and the burble of glacier water in the nearby brook.

“Smudge is a prayer,” Matricia Brown, a local Cree knowledge keeper, said. “This smudge is made of four sacred medicines: sage, sweet grass, tobacco and cedar. We take the medicines and burn them to purify.” She inhales deeply. “Oh this is a good smudge. The creator is being kind to us today.”

It’s day one of Canada’s Coolest School Trip, a partnership between Parks Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Air Canada, Nature Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Foundation and Historica Canada that brings one class on the trip of a lifetime, and it's already living up to its name.

This year’s winners are Mrs. Ramsay’s Grade 7/8 class from Duke of Connaught Junior and Senior School in Toronto, Ont. Their video about the natural and cultural significance of Rouge National Urban Park, Canada’s first and only National Urban Park, garnered the most votes in the national competition. Their prize? An all-expenses-paid trip to Jasper National Park in the heart of Alberta’s Rockies.

After an early flight, the 25 students were bussed from Edmonton to Parks Canada’s Palisades Stewardship Education Centre - Palisades for short - in the heart of the Jasper Valley. Even the bus ride was exciting: A stubborn mangy Dall’s Sheep stopped the bus soon after we passed the Jasper National Park sign, and the too-beautiful-to-miss mountain views on either side elicited cries of “it’s a double trap” from the back of the bus.

After being shown to their rooms the class was taught about to the wildlife they might see (bears, cougars, wolves, coyotes, foxes) and what to do if they saw any bears or cougars (basically, make a lot of noise so you don’t see them up close). With wildlife safety covered the kids were sent on a scavenger hunt before it was time for the smudging and drumming ceremony.

Brown began drumming with a “heartbeat beat”.

“It’s the heartbeat of mother earth; the first thing we hear when we’re born. It’s also called ‘weak-strong’ because you can’t be one without the other.” She demonstrates with the unmistakable rhythm of a heart: lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub.

A walk through the woods for more games followed dinner. Along the way we examine bear claw marks in one of the trees and trip a hidden motion sensor camera (that regularly captures all the aforementioned wildlife).

Stay tuned for the class' day two activities, which in addition to canoeing and mountain biking, will include learning the truth about the history of the Palisades: a jumble of brown painted, cedar roofed, log buildings with strange names such as “machine shop”, “the garage” and “the barn.”