Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
SELAWIK:A Year-Round Outdoor Classroom in the Arctic
Alaska Region, January 23, 2006
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The cold weather and short days of an Arctic winter haven't stopped the outdoor learning of high school students in the village of Selawik in northwest Alaska.  Building on skills gained at a Science-Culture Camp held in the fall, a dozen or more Selawik students chipped through river ice in November to set gillnets under the ice as a way to continue learning about the rich fisheries that surround them.  Refuge Information Technician Clyde Ramoth joined forces with Davis-Ramoth School staff Norma Ballot (subsistence instructor), Tillman Foster (bilingual teacher aide), and Randy Campbell (science teacher) to provide a unique hands-on way for students to learn about fish and to practice valuable subsistence skills. 

The lessons began with students learning traditional ways for making net floats from spruce and net sinkers from caribou antler. After discussing the details and drawing illustrations of the process of setting a net, students traveled by snowmobile one mile upriver to put into action what they had learned.  Using axes and a tuuq (homemade ice-pick), they chipped one-foot holes every ten feet or so through the 18-inch-thick river ice.  They then used poles to push the net under the ice from hole to hole until its 100-foot length was fully set.  Willows were cut and frozen into the ice to mark the ends of the net.

What a catch! There were over 120 fish in the net the first day! Most were humpback whitefish along with a sizeable showing of broad whitefish, several northern pike, and one sheefish—the species from which the village takes its Iñupiaq name, Siilvik, meaning “place of sheefish.”  The students turned their attention to learning about the different species of fish in the river, their Iñupiaq and scientific names, and the various fisheries studies being done on the refuge.  Following cultural traditions, students gave away their first day’s catch, distributing fresh fish to elders in the village and shipping bags of frozen fish by air to the Kotzebue Senior Center.  They checked the net daily as part of their school day, learning the fine points of keeping a net from freezing into the ice. When the ice approached two-feet thick at the end of November, the net was checked for the final time and fish were provided for the community Thanksgiving feast.

Selawik students not only gained valuable knowledge about fish and fishing from this unique and creative educational endeavor, but also learned important lessons about working together and sharing.  For the students, being in the outdoors beat sitting in a classroom any day. “The students are already looking forward to next year,” said Refuge Technician Clyde Ramoth.  

Contact Info: Kristen Gilbert, 907-786-3391, Kristen_Gilbert@fws.gov
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