Orutsararmiut Native Council held its first Science and Culture camp in July for high school students.
Campers collected juvenile fish, like baby king and red salmon, and participated in activities in avian biology, ethnobotany and workshops on federal and state subsistence management.
Campers are on a mission on a cool July morning at the base of Three Step Mountain, along the Kwethluk River.
“It’s good, let’s go,” said Nicolai Chase, 16, as he led the way through the tall grass to cross over to a waist-deep waterway sliver separating an eddy from the mountainside.
On the opposite side is a 10-foot-high, 8-foot-wide beaver dam, upon which the campers have placed a fish trap to catch juvenile fish.
They’re keeping an eye out for coho, chinook and chum, as the juveniles tend to like the coarse, woody debris as a feeding habitat.
But the trap comes up empty.
“There’s eggs in the bottle and there is holes so the smell can come out, and each five species of fish can come in here so they can get trapped and we can sample them,” said Chase, referring to a cylindrical cage with a roll of pennies-sized plastic bottle in it.
Nicolai’s mother is from Atmautluak and his father is from Nunapitchuk.
The group begins checking their other traps and laying out a beach seine.
“I have fun going around with the kids,” said James Charles, who came along on the trip as a camp elder.
Charles also has served as an in-season manager with the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission, and received a Conservation Elder Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Charles was born before Alaska became a state.
As a young child he learned the importance of the river, and the life it sustains.
“My mom said, ‘think of other people who use the fish.’ I learned that there are people all the way from the mouth of the river to the headwaters above McGrath. All people want to use the fish, and all the villages are by the river, not away from it,” said Charles, speaking in Yup’ik.
“I’m glad that the youth is learning these programs, and I like them to learn what the fish behavior is — like they go upriver to spawn and die,” Charles said. “We are all growing. All the villages and people need the resource to fish, especially for their food, and I want them to be careful, not over-harvesting and not wasting food, but share their catch with other people who needs them.”
Council partner fisheries biologist Janessa Esquible organizes the camp. She says that this camp is special compared to others because of the cultural component.
“Those are phenomenal programs, but they’re more science-, leadership-, math-based programs,” Esquible said. “The cultural component isn’t there, although they do engage mostly Yup’ik students – students from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.”
With the support of her old boss at ONC, Greg Roczicka, who passed away last spring, Esquible said that she was guided in the right direction.
The sense of history and culture is everywhere. The Kwethluk fish weir that the kids are working with is something that James Charles worked hard to keep open years ago.
Campers begin identifying, weighing and measuring the smolts (juvenile salmon) that they have caught in the beach seines.
Listening to Charles and working in this place, Nicolai wants to reconnect with his heritage; he feels a part of this work.
He hopes that there will be healthy Kuskokwim fish populations for future generations.
“Make sure we have enough fish for everyone’s future,” Chase said.
It’s a future he’s eager to embark upon, which goes hand in hand with cultural knowledge.
“Our elders, they have knowledge,” Chase said. “Even though if they never went to school they still have knowledge.”