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By Dan Rudy 

Students learn about Stikine on annual river trip

 

Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

Fourth graders with Evergreen Elementary School work together to pull a seine net in the Stikine River during their annual field trip upriver. Brennan Eagle operates the skiff and gives instruction.

Four dozen elementary school students from the Wrangell and Petersburg areas partook in a field day, heading upriver for the 19th annual Stikine River field trip on May 3.

Encompassing almost 700 square miles, since 1980 the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area has been managed by the United States Forest Service. Originating 335 miles away in Canada's British Columbia province, the winding river is a major contributor of wild salmon and home to many migratory bird species. For many in the Petersburg and Wrangell communities, it is a source of sustenance, recreation and economic activity.

It is also a great source of local pride.

"It's really one of the last great wild rivers left in the world," commented Brenda Schwartz-Yeager, operator of Alaska Charters & Adventures, one of several member businesses of the Stikine River Jetboat Association which each year facilitates the school trip.

Alaska Waters operator Jim Leslie attributed the initial idea to his daughter Brooke, who while in third grade had pointed out a number of her classmates had never been upriver. Leslie, Schwartz-Yeager and other operators coordinated with Evergreen Elementary to get the whole school to the Stikine, a major feat.

In subsequent years the trip had been focused more for the fourth grade class. It's become a major highlight for Wrangell students. Seven years ago students at Petersburg's Rae C. Stedman Elementary began joining them, making the field day an opportunity to mingle with a neighboring community. Heading up the Petersburg part of the trip, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Gregg Kowalski said this year's trip was his second.

Thirty-six Petersburg fourth graders were able to join him upriver, requiring several boatloads. Funding for the trip comes from Petersburg Fisheries, local businesses and an Alaska Sea Grant from University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"We look forward to this all year long," Kowalski said. "They will remember this for a lifetime.

Heading up Wrangell's group, fourth grade teacher Brian Merritt this year prepared 15 of his students and a handful of fifth graders for the trip. The students studied the river for two weeks ahead of time, learning about the Stikine's geography, geology, biological traits and how it impacts the local economy.

"We give a good pitch about keeping the river clean and how you found it," Merritt added.

Anecdotally, he found that the upriver adventure had been having the desirable effect of making better stewards, with progressively less garbage and litter turning up each year along the Stikine's riverbanks.

For the trip, a number of groups and volunteers help out with the trip, including the USFS, the public school systems and area businesses.

"It's a whole community affair, there's no doubt about that," Merritt said. "It couldn't be pulled off without the crews, captains and volunteers."

Among the outfitters taking time to convey students from both communities upriver were Alaska Charters & Adventures, Alaska Waters Wilderness Adventure Tours, Breakaway Adventures and Alaska Peak & Seas. Further volunteers helped Kowalski and Merritt chaperone their classes, while others prepared learning stations to focus on different aspects of the river. Students were broken into groups and took turns learning at each of these.

Most of the education stations were found on Cottonwood Island, near the Stikine River's mouth. Just near the landing site, John Yeager taught students some basic survival skills, including how to set up a shelter and build a fire.

"A fire can change your whole outlook," he told them, particularly when stranded in the wilderness.

Students were encouraged to work together and come up with shelter ideas for themselves, making use of the local geography to put up a tarp. Yeager would then weigh in on the finished product afterward, giving helpful advice for improvement.

One of the great joys of living in Alaska is recreating outdoors, he explained, but it is important to do so safely.

"This is a good age to get the kids out and doing some of these things," Yeager said.

Wrangell Johnson O'Malley program director Virginia Oliver's station presented students with the culture of the Stikine, sharing some of the stories and oral history of the Tlingit people who made the river their home.

Corree Delabrue with the USFS showed kids how to "leave no trace," using preexisting trails and fire pits, minimizing impact, packing out waste and burying excrement when in a wilderness area. She explained such mindfulness helps maintain the area's habitat while preserving the experience for others.

After the lesson, students were given journals with which to help remember the experience, either by making sketches or taking notes.

"I like to give them a chance to explore by themselves," Delabrue said.

Further downstream, Brennan and Susan Eagle had their groups work together to pull a seine net in the hopes of catching some eulachon.

"The better teamwork we do, the better chance we'll have of catching something," B. Eagle told them as he prepared his skiff. Each group was able to make three or four passes down a length of beach, and though late in the season some successfully caught the popular little fish.

On Limb Island a little

further upriver, Kowalski taught about the five varieties of salmon native to the region. Keeping things at a brisk pace, his groups would sprint

from station to station to learn about identifying coho, kings, pinks, chum and sockeye. Afterward, they would test

Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

Kayla Meissner starts up a fire on Cottonwood Island May 3 during Wrangell and Petersburg's joint field trip up the Stikine River.

their newfound knowledge with a "nose-on" matching exercise, with students using their

senses of smell to match

jars while learning about tributaries.

Also on Limb Island along its riparian zone, Merritt walked students through the different bird and mammal varieties to be found on the Stikine. During the lesson, the kids learn a bit about the river's geology as well as some tips for safely navigating the shoreline.

Kowalski explained the trip as a whole was a valuable way to join lessons with students' local environment. The things they learn on the trip may not only end up being of practical use, but may also increase appreciation for the river and its impact on neighboring communities.

"They get so much information in one day," Kowalski said. "This kind of pulls everything together that we value in Southeast Alaska."

 

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