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KANUTI: The Value of a “Friend”
Alaska Region, August 31, 2010
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Friends of Alaska's National Wildlife Refuges Volunteer Gary Todd, retired ADF&G biologist, spent a fun and educational week teaching students at Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge's annual Henshaw Creek Weir Science Camp. FWS photo, July 27, 2010.
Friends of Alaska's National Wildlife Refuges Volunteer Gary Todd, retired ADF&G biologist, spent a fun and educational week teaching students at Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge's annual Henshaw Creek Weir Science Camp. FWS photo, July 27, 2010. - Photo Credit: n/a
Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges volunteer Gary Todd provides eager student Logan Dugay with a spontaneous early morning water quality equipment demonstration. FWS photo, July 28, 2010.
Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges volunteer Gary Todd provides eager student Logan Dugay with a spontaneous early morning water quality equipment demonstration. FWS photo, July 28, 2010. - Photo Credit: n/a

The sun was shining brightly on the sandbar when I unzipped my tent at 7 a.m.  The smell of fresh coffee brewing in the nearby cook tent smelled delicious.  Lessons for the students wouldn’t start for a couple more hours, but I was up early to enjoy the fresh summer air and unhurried morning conversations.   As I walked down the sandbar, I noticed the usual early birds were sitting comfortably in a circle around the fire, sipping their coffee and warming their toes. However, our Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges (Friends) volunteer Gary Todd, a usual contributor to the early-hour storytelling, was already in deep conversation with one of our students, Logan Dugay.  Gary had moved his chair right down by the creek’s edge, and was giving a full demonstration on how the water quality equipment worked.  Logan, it seemed, just couldn’t wait for the lesson on river and stream health to begin…he hadn’t even had breakfast, but kids are like that when they find themselves immersed in a nurturing and educational environment; their natural curiosity and desire to learn opens up and blossoms.

It was the fourth day of the annual Henshaw Creek Weir Science Camp, held for students in grades 6-12 who live in villages near Kanuti Refuge.  The camp, which is funded by Tanana Chief’s Conference (TCC) and the refuge through the Fisheries Partner’s Program and a challenge cost share grant, provides students with a week-long outdoor experience in the refuge where the surrounding wilderness is the classroom and students camp alongside teachers and staff next to a functioning salmon weir.  Daily lessons are a union of western science and traditional native knowledge.  TCC oversees the camp by providing a camp coordinator and staff from the communities near the refuge, while Kanuti Refuge also provides several staff each year.  Since the first camp took place in 2007, the Friends of Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges (whose volunteers are anything but ordinary) has also provided an extraordinary volunteer instructor each summer.

Which brings us back to the Friends volunteer Gary, and Logan.  After Gary finished demonstrating the “cool science equipment,” as Logan called it, Logan had still more and pressing things he needed to learn.  As he stood with his bare feet at the edge of Henshaw Creek, Logan asked questions one after another as quickly as Gary could answer them.  As they looked out over the lines of salmon stacked up and hovering over redds, making their ancient way upstream, they continued their one-on-one early bird lesson as I pondered how fortunate we were to have Gary at the camp.   

Gary is a retired fisheries biologist, who worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from 1979 to 2007.  Throughout his career he worked in many places throughout Alaska and on a variety of projects.  He has also been a leader for Cub Scouts, is currently a Junior Girl Scout Leader and is working to form a Cadet Troup. Gary also volunteers his time to work with students on science activities at Tustumena Elementary School near his home in Kasilof.  More recently, he joined the Friends. The Friends group is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the conservation of the natural resources of all the national wildlife refuges within Alaska.  Friends volunteers promote understanding and appreciation of Alaska’s refuges and they also assist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in meeting its mandates.  This year alone, the Friends group has helped the Fish and Wildlife Service complete over 30 projects around the state, winning the “Friends Group of the Year “award for 2010.   

The value of each individual Friend member is hard to fathom, let alone their actions collectively.  Friends members bring with them unique life experiences and special skills, which they share with everyone during projects they work on.  They mentor, teach, inspire, share knowledge, do manual labor, and are positive role models. And as they give to a few, they influence whole communities.  As I co-taught with Gary during the camp, I noticed he was always available, at any hour of the day or night, for anyone and everyone.  He was right at home in the camp setting, he had solutions for every need that came up, he could build something out of nothing, he brought laughter and joy to each lesson he taught, he was down to earth and passionate about teaching, fun, lively, humorous, humble….and oh yeah, did I mention he was also an enormous, encyclopedic, wealth of knowledge on every subject the students could think of - and especially so about his specialty, fish.  Students and staff came to love Gary in very short order.   

Throughout the week, as I reflected on how often I have seen the value of volunteers in reports be reduced to mere dollar amounts, it bothered me.  How do we place a dollar value on a volunteer who gives so freely from their own heart the greatest gifts of all to give to a child…a part of themselves and the time a that child needs to grow, so that those two elements culminate into a single moment where a child understands the world and his or her place in it in a new and deeper way…a moment that may change that child’s life forever?  We cannot really ever place a dollar value on that kind of experience or the work of the volunteers who support us.  We can, however, recognize the colossal and truly priceless value that volunteers and members of the Friends group bring to the work being done on Alaska’s national wildlife refuges.   

Thank you Gary, for adding so much to the annual Henshaw Creek Weir Science Camp and for teaching us the true value of volunteers and what it means to be a “Friend” of Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges.  For more information about the Friends, please contact Betty Siegel at < akrefugefriends@gmail.com >.  For more information about the Henshaw Creek Weir Science Camp, Laura Leblanc of Tanana Chiefs Conference at (800) 478-6822 (toll free in Alaska) or (800) 770-8251 (toll free outside Alaska).  For more information about Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge, please contact the refuge office at 1-877-220-1853 or email Kristin_Reakoff @fws.gov.


Contact Info: Joanna Fox, (907) 456-0330, joanna_fox@fws.gov



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