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INNOKO:Round Mountain Science Camp, 20 Years of Connecting Local Youth with Nature
Alaska Region, September 12, 2012
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Participants at the Round Mountain Outdoor Science Camp show the medicinal plants they collected to make an herbal sore muscle ointment.
Participants at the Round Mountain Outdoor Science Camp show the medicinal plants they collected to make an herbal sore muscle ointment. - Photo Credit: BLM - CCSC
A student from Holy Cross, Ak proudly displays the Sheefish he caught during the all-day fishing trip. The camp ended up with eleven sheefish and three pike, some of which were cooked that night.
A student from Holy Cross, Ak proudly displays the Sheefish he caught during the all-day fishing trip. The camp ended up with eleven sheefish and three pike, some of which were cooked that night. - Photo Credit: USFWS - Innoko NWR
Learning to fillet and care for the fish they caught was one of the lessons students learned during the camp.
Learning to fillet and care for the fish they caught was one of the lessons students learned during the camp. - Photo Credit: USFWS - Innoko 2012
Eric Stuart, from the BLM Campbell Creek Science Center, shows students how to make a compass from four common materials: a battery, a sewing needle, water, and a piece of paper; as part of the wilderness survival unit.
Eric Stuart, from the BLM Campbell Creek Science Center, shows students how to make a compass from four common materials: a battery, a sewing needle, water, and a piece of paper; as part of the wilderness survival unit. - Photo Credit: BLM - CCSC

“Fish on!” members of the group yelled excitedly and pointed at their fellow campmate. The end of the pole dipped toward the water and a flash of white revealed the catch. “Keep your line taut… let him fight… reel in some line;” advice and encouragement came fast from all sides of the small Jon boat. The line threaded back and forth through the water, swiveling when the fish switched directions abruptly. Another flash of white in the coffee colored water elicited a hurried “Quick, get the net!” from one of the instructors. A student scrambled for the landing net just as the fish surfaced for the first time and then dove with a flip of its tail, dragging out more line from the reel. The student fought to keep the line taut and slowly a pale shape appeared in the murk. “What is it?” someone asked and another replied “Wow, look at the size of that Sheefish!” Quickly, before the fish had a chance to make another run, they scooped it out with the net and swung it into the boat. It was the first catch of the day and the excitement to get the rest of the poles in the water was infectious. It proved to be the first of many fish caught that day on a small tributary of the Kuskokwim River, where students from around the Iditarod Area School District had come to participate in the weeklong Round Mountain Outdoor Science Camp.

 

For twenty years, the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge with its partner, the Iditarod Area School District, has hosted the annual science camp for high school students. It has been and continues to be a popular activity for area youth, who can also receive high school credit if they are selected to attend. This year took students kayaking down the Kuskokwim River, hiking in the boreal forest, navigating to locations using map and compass, and loosing arrows at archery targets on a nearby sandbar. It was an action packed week focused on the boreal forest and how its unique characteristics influence life in Interior Alaska.

The week began with an ominous forecast and low slung clouds obscuring the mountains. By noon it had started to rain and the students looked outside apprehensively, knowing that in a few hours they would be hiking up to the camp cabin with their gear and food. Once the required safety orientation was completed; the boats were loaded with people and gear for the twenty minute boat trip downriver from McGrath to the trailhead. Then, packs were loaded and gear arranged for the mile hike up the mountain to the science camp outdoor classroom cabin. The promise of a hot meal at the top pushed the students and instructors to continue slogging through the wet moss and mud. Getting all of the gear, food, and teaching supplies required two more trips before people were able to dry off and warm up. Cultural instructor and camp cook, Clara Demientieff, prepared delicious meals throughout the week but none was appreciated more than that first meal after hauling gear in the rain. The evening wrapped up with a lesson on how to set a tent to stay dry and other wilderness survival techniques.

The next day, students spent the morning learning about the plants that make up the boreal forest. Students donned blindfolds and were guided by a partner to a ‘mystery’ plant, where the blindfolded student was asked to examine the plant using their other senses. This helped students to realize that plant identification can involve more than simply looking at and describing a plant. It also gave them a chance to explore the forest on a deeper level. The morning concluded with a guided plant walk to give students a chance to collect medicinal plants for the herbal sore muscle rub that they learned to make later that evening. The afternoon and early evening were spent kayaking, learning archery, and roasting hot dogs over the fire.

Wednesday saw the first break in the weather with warm sunshine slanting through the clouds. The day’s focus was wilderness survival and navigation. One of the more popular activities was a unit on knot-tying. Each student was given a length of rope and taught five useful, common knots. For the rest of the week, often one or more of the teens could be seen absorbed in tying a difficult knot or helping another student with one. The students also learned how to navigate using a map and compass. For many, it was the first time they had really studied a map. They were able to see how topographic marks on the map translate to the features in the landscape around them. After spending the day with paper maps and simple compasses, the students were excited to try the GPS units that made up the second part of the navigation unit. The final activity of the day provided students with the chance to share their wilderness knowledge with each other and the instructors. The fire pit became a place to share stories; some full of laughter, while others spoke to the harsh realities of living in remote Alaska. One of the guest instructors along with a few students even demonstrated how to set a snare to catch snowshoe hare or larger game.

The all-day fishing trip was a favorite for both students and instructors, especially after the good weather held and the fish were biting. Some experienced catching and filleting their first fish, while others told stories from summers spent at family fish camps. Sheefish, a large white fleshed fish, were the most abundant but pike also made it on the menu. During one of the few breaks in fishing, the students learned how to take water quality measurements; including pH and dissolved oxygen. They tested water from two very distinct areas; an oxbow lake called Wilson’s Slough and Birch Creek, and discussed what makes a place healthy for fish. The best end to the day was cooking the catch over the grill and seeing the pride that the young fishermen felt in providing the meal.

The final day of camp came much too quickly for everyone. Fire Management Officer, Kristi Bullock, visited the camp in the morning to talk about her job and the very important role that fire plays in the boreal forest ecosystem. The teens learned how to take moisture measurements, weather data, and how to use an inclinometer. After the technical morning, the afternoon provided students with the chance to simply enjoy the forest, when the group went for a winding walk up the mountain. Some students explored the miniature world of lichen, moss, and bugs; while others picked berries or sat in a tree, listening to the forest sounds. The best part, as a teacher, was discovering the unique ways that each person found to spend time in the forest. It is so easy to fall into the pattern of planning out every moment of a camp experience, but it is often the unplanned and spontaneous moments that teach the most. Seeing the first genuine smile all week from an exceedingly shy girl, as she climbed to the crook of a birch tree, brought home what it really means to connect people with nature; and it is as simple as a walk in the woods.


Contact Info: Dara Whitworth, (907) 524-3251, dara_whitworth@fws.gov



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