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KANUTI: Using Nature’s Classroom to Build our Future
Alaska Region, October 20, 2011
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The Henshaw Creek salmon spawning grounds in Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge are nature's classroom for students attending the science camp held there annually. July 2011.
The Henshaw Creek salmon spawning grounds in Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge are nature's classroom for students attending the science camp held there annually. July 2011. - Photo Credit: FWS
Students at the Henshaw Creek Weir science camp prepare to wade out for a lesson with weir staff. July 2011.
Students at the Henshaw Creek Weir science camp prepare to wade out for a lesson with weir staff. July 2011. - Photo Credit: FWS
Students of the annual Henshaw Creek Weir Science Camp in Kanuti Refuge spend an entire week outdoors learning about and enjoying nature. July 2011.
Students of the annual Henshaw Creek Weir Science Camp in Kanuti Refuge spend an entire week outdoors learning about and enjoying nature. July 2011. - Photo Credit: FWS

We are standing in Henshaw Creek near the shore, feeling the warm sunlight on our faces and arms as we dip our fingers into the chilly arctic water. The stream is aglow in the summer sunshine as light rays reach through the clear blue water to where salmon scurry around just above the colorful, stony bottom. The weight of the whole drainage seems to press against our bodies as we begin to wade across the stream. Salmon dart by us so close we can feel the wake of their movements against our knees. The wind fluttering through the forest canopy nudges bright green leaves into lively chatter with one another, stirring the sweet scent of birch and willows into the air. The tall white spruce leaning to shade the fish-bearing pools seems to enjoy the inquisitive raven that lands nearby to watch.

When the students and I arrive at the salmon weir in the middle of the stream, two fisheries technicians welcome us and begin demonstrating how to take scale samples and how to measure the fish as they pass through the weir. Students take turns trying their hand at biological data collection as they explore their interests in natural resources and fisheries careers, but they are also experiencing the spontaneous lessons that only happen in nature’s classroom. For a few students, this is their first time experiencing the sensation of wading through water in a pair of waders. For most of the students, this is the first time they’ve spent a week studying salmon on their spawning grounds, and for one student, it is the first time she has ever been close to or touched a living fish.

The group of six students at the salmon weir is part of a larger group who are attending the 5th annual Henshaw Creek Weir Science Camp in Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge. The camp provides a week-long outdoor educational experience that balances western science and traditional native knowledge for students grades 6-12 who live in villages that are located near the refuge. This year 11 students from the villages of Allakaket, Alatna and Huslia are attending. One of the goals of the camp is to connect youth with nature because positive interactions with the environment can lead to a life-long interest in enjoying and preserving nature. The camp really does connect students to nature! As we stand at the salmon weir, engrossed in the whole body experience of being in the middle of the stream and working directly with the fish, it’s clear that the camp goes beyond just helping create the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts.

Students, and in fact all of us, need this kind of experience. When we are given unhurried time in nature, something extraordinary happens. We slow down to “earth time” and find ourselves immersed in a world that insists upon a relationship with us. When the raven swoops low overhead and flips in flight, the students laugh, feeling his playful intent. When the squirrel in the tree calls out to tell us we better not cross the stream and come near his cone stash, we acknowledge his request by hushing our voices. When our sudden movement in the water spooks the nearby big female salmon off her redd, we regretfully feel her fright and panic as she darts downstream. We are relieved to see her making her way upstream again. At every turn, nature is interacting with us, adding depth to our lesson in a way that can’t happen inside a building. Nature does not ask us to explain why we are here, either. Instead, we are acknowledged as customary community members. That acknowledgement surprises, and frees the students to be completely engaged in the moment, and unreservedly, wonderfully at home in nature.

In this world, fish and birds and mammals have as much need for food and safety and well being as we humans do. In this world, everything is connected. Suddenly in this outdoor classroom, the students are no longer studying “nature out there” from a perspective of separateness. The fish are not diagrams in a book; they are living, squirming beings, splashing water on our arms as we release them through the weir gates. There is no more “nature out there.” There is only here, and we are all members of one community.

We are working together as the fish come into the weir, counting the fish as they make their way along their ancient journey from the open ocean to spring-fed spawning gravels. School rivalries have long been forgotten as each student sees there is room and need for everyone present; everyone has a part in the whole. The students are discovering and building a broader sense of community, one that includes valuing each person and valuing nature as an essential part of the community. Immersed in nature’s classroom, without walls to contain the lessons or creativity and learning, the students are developing a greater sense of who they are, and who they might become.

When youth have opportunities to spend quality time in nature’s classroom and to be at home in nature, their appreciation of nature and conservation grows -- and that’s truly something to celebrate, but what’s even more valuable, is that students who spend time in nature with other students gain a special understanding of building community and teamwork that the conservation movement depends upon. Perhaps, though, what is most important is that the skills youth learn in nature today will help them and their communities for life. In the smallest village or in the middle of the biggest city, they can find peace in a distant, yet happy bird song or in working the smallest garden patch. On the grandest scale, as we connect our youth with nature, we are fixing things that never, ever should have been broken. We are, in essence, restoring humanity’s relationship with planet earth, our home, and in doing so we are strengthening the next generation and giving them a pathway to hope and a future worth looking forward to.

For more information about the annual Henshaw Creek Weir Science Camp, which is partnerhsip between the Tanana Chief’s Conference (TCC), Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fisheries Partner’s Program, please contact Kristin Reakoff at kristin_reakoff@fws.gov.


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



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