When Yorkton Regional High School students depart for Spain on their 20th anniversary Europe Trip later this month, they will be in the care of one of the most experienced travelers they could hope for.
Teacher, organizer, and chaperone Steve Variyan has been on every trip since the beginning.
Before 1992, YRHS offered a yearly trip to France exclusively for French language students.
"When I went on my first trip, it was with the French group," explains Variyan, "and my thinking was that there's so much learning and education that goes on in these trips that it should be open to not just French students. … So we opened it up at that point, and it's been the European Educational Tour ever since."
The trip has happened in 19 of the last 20 years: every year but 2002, when fear of traveling in the wake of 9/11 led to many parents pulling their children from the tour.
The destinations change every year. France, Spain, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy: Variyan has seen them all more than a few times.
But he's hard-pressed to pick a favorite.
"I get asked that a lot. I don't think I can nail it down to one place that's really the best. Greece is wonderful. Spain is one of my favorite places to go. Italy, France are really good. Hypothetically, I could see myself settling down in the south of France during winter."
The tours run during the week of February break—a short time in which to take in the sights of one or more entire countries. Consequently, the schedule tends to focus on many of the same major locations from year to year.
"When you do the same trip over and over again, it does lose some of its luster," says Variyan. "We always include the major stops, but I always try to include something I've never been to before, just to try."
At one time, when organizers assumed that including more countries in each trip would drive more interest from students, the tours were even more ambitious. The largest ever was in 2001, when a group of 75 students and chaperones took in seven countries in nine days.
"It was just way too much," remembers Variyan.
After that, the trips were scaled back to a more manageable size: one or two countries, and 30 to 35 students. This year's tour will stick exclusively to Spain, with most of the time spent in Madrid and Barcelona.
The trips are still exciting for Variyan, but they are never relaxing.
"A lot of people think you just go on a holiday. But it's not. You're the first one up. You're the last one to go to bed. And we go hard on these trips. It's pretty tiring."
So far, YRHS has had no serious incidents or accidents on its European Educational Tours—something of a rarity for a school that has done so many large-scale overseas trips.
"There's a lot of horror stories you hear, and a lot of it boils down to care and responsibility of the chaperones."
Variyan is due to retire in a few years, and he looks forward to returning to the countries he has visited to see them at his own pace and "in a different way."
He has already had that chance a few times. Five years ago, a group of former YRHS parents approached him about organizing a trip to let them experience what their children did in Europe. He took a trip to Spain with a group of 22 of them.
The parent trip has since become an annual tradition, giving Variyan two European tours each year.
"Usually we get parents pulling out their photo albums, and they want to go to where their kids went," says the teacher. "It's great. It's nice to go and not have the responsibility."
The stress of the student tour has sometimes made Variyan question whether it's worth his continued involvement.
"I've thought a lot about maybe not doing them anymore," he says, "but there's a lot of joy you get from seeing the kids see these places, and knowing how your reaction was the first time you went in, say, the Colosseum—the wow factor.
"There's a lot of wows that we put into these trips. And that's still the best part."