Copper River Record February 27, 2020
By Robin Mayo
A geologist, a biologist, and an archaeologist walk into a room….it sounds like the start of a joke, but it really happened last week at the inaugural Copper River Basin Symposium at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Visitor Center. And the results were inspiring!
The theme of the symposium was Tradition, Science, and Stewardship. In this article I’ll mostly review the science aspect, and plan to address tradition and stewardship in the coming weeks.
At many science symposiums, participants get together for big events like keynote speeches, but then have a choice of several different tracks. You have to make hard choices about which presentations to attend, and often end up learning mostly about your own discipline. This makes sense in some ways, but shortchanges the idea of thinking about our system as a whole.
For the recent symposium, the time for each presenter was short, but everyone had the chance to see all of the speakers. The topics were very diverse, but were grouped into sessions, blocks of 2 or three presentations with a common theme. Themes included Climate Research and Modeling, Glaciers, Hydrology, Archaeology, Working with Indigenous Communities, Wildlife, Collaborative Conservation and Human Dimensions, and Fisheries.
About 90 people total attended the symposium, some travelling from as far away as Texas and staying the entire time, as well as locals who stopped in for part of a day. Attendees ranged from experts in their fields, to Ahtna elders, to youth getting their first glimpse of some of the topics.
From the start, it was evident that local science is already embracing a cross-discipline approach. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Archaeologist Lee Reininghaus presented on exciting finds of ancient campsites along the shores of ancient Lake Atna. To start looking for the sites, she consulted geologist Mike Loso, whose experienced eye helped pick out the remnants of shoreline now high in the hills. In a reciprocal benefit, carbon dating from campfire remnants can now help geologists.
As Fisheries Biologist Matt Piche gave a talk on Native Village of Eyak’s chinook salmon tagging project in Baird Canyon, he mentioned that one of the benefits of the expensive study is that other studies can be added without incurring significant extra costs. In questions after the talks, and many informal conversations, ideas were sparked for more cooperation. What can biologists learn from the bone remnants found at archaeological sites? How can linguistic studies of place names help geologists learn about the formation of our landscape? How can a climatology study be used by fish biologists concerned about the effects of warming ocean waters? The possibilities are endless.
One of the most fascinating topics for me was Geolinguistic Evidence of Dene Presence at High-Water Levels of Glacial Lake Ahtna by James Kari of University of Alaska Fairbanks. Full confession: I did not begin to really understand 90% of his information! Trying to condense years of research and insight into a 15 minute presentation is nearly impossible. However, the rich heritage of Ahtna names in our landscape, vividly descriptive words packed with meaning, was abundantly clear. This led to conversations about restoring traditional place names and being mindful of the ancient traditions that infuse our whole valley.
Trenton Culp of Ahtna, Inc. and Dusin Carl of Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission gave a talk titled Bear Density of the Tazlina River Drainage, on sampling the DNA of our local bear populations. In designing the study, they tested and rejected the idea of live trapping, settling on a method of collecting hair samples with barbed wire. As well as being far less invasive and much cheaper, this charmingly low-tech solution is also far less stressful on both bears and researchers. They have already collected DNA samples from far more bears than they initially expected, and will continue the study.
I wish I had space and time to summarize every one of the amazing presentations at the Symposium. Words are also failing me in expressing the feeling of being in the same room with so much love for and knowledge about this place we call home.
Thanks to the partners who made this event possible: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Copper River Watershed Project, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission, Wrangell Mountains Center, Ahtna Heritage Foundation, and WISE. Thanks also to the sponsors who provided funds or in-kind support: Alyeska Pipeline Company Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Alaska Geographic, US Bureau of Land Management, and Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission.
Paul Boos Photo. Students from Copper River Stewardship Program presented “Adventures in the Watershed Classroom. L to R, Braden Beckett, Cordova, Arthur Bishop, Kenny Lake, Grace Reyes, Cordova, Josie Beauchamp, Slana, and Jesse Hale, Kenny Lake.
Copper River Record September 12, 2019
By Robin Mayo
The theme for this year’s Copper River Stewardship Program was “Stories in the Landscape.” We wanted to learn about the dramatic geology of the Copper River Watershed, and also share stories with each other, and with the people we met along the way. Six High School Students from Cordova and three from the Copper River Basin spent 10 days in July travelling all over the watershed together. Their adventures included wading up their chests in the ponds of the Copper River Delta as they helped US Forest Service staff maintain Dusky Canada Goose nest islands, and hiking into the jagged remains of a volcano in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park near the headwaters of the Copper River.
As they got to know each other early in the program, the students wrote personal poems. “Where are you from?” can be a complicated question, since we are created by places, people, and the events of our lives. The students dredged up family memories and used a template developed by Alaska Poet Laureate Earnestine Hayes to create poems.
Where I am From
I am from long, crisp days on the river followed by warm camp fires and friendly laughs of the loved ones around me.
I am from rock scrambling down the banks of McCarthy Creek, my old worn Chacos filled abundantly with river rocks.
I am from Mac and Cheese over our rusty green camp stove, and hot chocolate that my little brother and I sneakily made with twice the suggested serving of powder.
I remember the feeling of sand in everything; your dry bag, your sleeping bag, your tent, and often even your oatmeal while journeying down the mighty Colorado River for weeks at a time…
…and I remember laying beneath the northern lights at a camp we call “The Center of the Universe” as the October air riffled through the birchwood trees.
I stand for protecting this land of which I feel so blessed to inhabit, and protecting the voices and rights of those who walked it before me.
I am from “your voice matters”—some words which I have carried with me throughout my journey as an advocate and a steward amongst this land.
And I am from creating artwork wherever I go. I am from this unique state, but more importantly, I am from my adventures. Cassidy Austin, McCarthy
Where I am From
I am from the present, from my future and my past
I am from the nights spent camping, and the days working and relaxing.
I remember the nights watching fireworks, and days spent sledding, my friends, and my parents.
I stand for the land we live in, and those who walked it before us.
I’m from those who seek to preserve the past, and make a future for those who will be here next.
I’m from Alaska Arthur Bishop, Kenny Lake
The students travelled across Prince William Sound on the ferry Aurora, and read first-person stories about the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in the book “The Spill.” As they looked out on the blue water, rocky beaches, and lush hills, the stories brought to life a tragic time when these waters were a place of tragedy. To help process the painful personal experiences, they created drawings and wrote letters putting themselves in the shoes of the oil spill responders.
Later in the trip, we gathered at the Viking Lodge, a Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Public Use Cabin on the Nabesna Road. As rain pelted down outside, the students and adult leaders shared more stories based on their lives, prompted by the color of the MnMs they grabbed out of a bag. Blue stands for water, red for an embarrassing story, etc. The hilarious round of storytelling that ensued included answering the door in your underwear, rescuing a sparrow nest from the lawnmower, and a somewhat bungled but ultimately successful ice skating marriage proposal.
The next day we met with Ahtna Elder Wilson Justin at his camp. We were surprised to learn that some of the traditional stories of his people can take days to tell. Wilson wove together stories from his childhood at Nabesna, his gradual enlightenment as a traditional healer, and his work as an advocate for the environment and traditional values. He challenged the students to see the coming changes and challenges as a chance for uplifting, just as the geologic action of the earth brings chaos but also builds mountains.
That afternoon we hiked up into the mist on the Skookum Volcano trail, finding stories of eruptions, landslides, and metamorphosis in the dramatic landscape. Luckily we had some visiting geologists along to help us read the clues. The students were asked to find an interesting rock, and get to know it. Back at the cabin, we wrote the story of our rocks. Some stuck to geologic details, while others gave their rocks names and complicated personal lives.
This program was a wonderful reminder of the power of stories in our lives. They help us learn about each other, inspire, and enlighten.
Copper River Stewardship Program is organized by a partnership including WISE, Copper River Watershed Project, Prince William Sound Science Center, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, US Forest Service Cordova Ranger District, and US Bureau of Land Management Glennallen Field Office. A huge thanks to Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, AT&T, Oil Spill Recovery Institute, Conoco, and BP for providing funding.
Photo: Time for reflection and journaling is an integral part of Copper River Stewardship Program.
Copper River Record March 7, 2019
By Robin Mayo
Teenagers eager for adventure are invited to apply for the 2019 Copper River Stewardship Program. For over a decade, this program has provided an eye-opening opportunity to explore the watershed from the headwaters to the delta, and make friends from diverse communities. It will be held from July 16-27th, 2019.
Copper River Stewardship Program is a 10-day trip that includes science, wilderness exploration, writing, service projects, and other elements designed to grow awareness of the scale, diversity, and complexity of the Copper River Watershed. It is open to all youth currently in 8th-12th grade who have significant ties to the watershed. As well as students from the Copper Basin, Cordova, and Valdez areas, we also welcome participants with strong cultural or family ties to the region.
The adventure is a little different every year, but always includes time spent both in the Copper River Basin and the Copper River Delta near Cordova. Activities have included rafting, canoeing, hiking, and camping. This year’s theme is “Stories in the Landscape,” so we plan to explore geology and learn the stories of the land and people.
Applications are due March 29th. The cohort of 10 youth will be chosen to represent the diversity of communities and backgrounds in the region. For many youth, a highlight is the strong friendships that are formed when you camp, eat, travel and learn together for 10 days. Copper Basin youth marvel at the civilized amenities of Cordova and the size of the temperate rain forest, and their downstream friends wonder “will we EVER get there?” as they experience a typical van ride in the Copper River Basin.
Students can earn high school credit for their participation. The program has already been approved for credit by Copper River School District and Cordova City Schools. Students from other districts have had credit granted as well. To earn ½ elective credit, students must participate in all aspects of the program, and create a final project which will share their experience with their community.
If you’d like to learn what it is like to be a steward, check out the final projects posted on the WISE website, including videos, graphics, and writing. www.wise-edu.org/copper-river-stewardship-program.html. The application packet can also be found at that location. Learning is important, but there is also plenty of fun, including campfires, sliding in the mud of the Copper River Delta, and sharing good food and adventures with friends.
Copper River Stewardship Program is organized by WISE along with Copper River Watershed Project, Prince William Sound Science Center, US Bureau of Land Management Glennallen Field Office, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and the US Forest Service Cordova Ranger District.
Photo: A day spent maintaining Dusky Canada Goose nest islands on the Copper River Delta is a highlight for many stewards.
Copper Valley Ruralite March 2019
By Robin Mayo
On the banks of the Gulkana River, a group of teens are gathered around the cut-up remains of a spawned out salmon, focusing intently on fins, eyeballs, scales, and other body parts. Then they get busy jotting down impressions in their yellow “Rite-in-the-Rain” notebooks, using simile and metaphor to create vivid descriptions. Nearby are the rafts and tents that are transportation and home for the group for the next four days.
Leading this activity is Alex VanWyhe, a quiet young English teacher from Haines who is guest educator for the Copper River Stewardship Program (CRSP). CRSP is presented by a partnership of agencies and nonprofits, including WISE, Copper River Watershed Project, Prince William Sound Science Center, Bureau of Land Management Glennallen Field Office, and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Over ten years ago, Alex was one of the Stewards travelling down the Copper River on a journey to discover the meaning of a watershed. Now he has come full circle, having earned a master’s degree at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and is leading writing activities to help teens process their experiences. Alex is an engaging teacher with a strong interest in interweaving a sense of place into everything he does with his students.
Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment (WISE) offers Copper Basin youth a year-round schedule of programs designed to get them outdoors, learning about science, the environment, and celebrating the natural wonders all around us. WISE is a locally based 501(C3) nonprofit organization, formed in 2002 by teachers, resource managers, and others who wanted to bring the benefits of environmental education to residents of all ages.
WISE programs span the seasons, and try to offer something for everyone. In winter, a science lecture series showcases research happening in the region. In the spring, every 4th, 5th, and 6th grader in the Copper River Basin is invited to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitors Center for Earth Discovery Day, with 12 learning stations presented by outdoor professionals from agencies, villages, and organizations throughout the region. In the summer, weekly hikes explore local trails, and multi-day programs focus on Aquatic Ecology, Geology, and provide support for Project Healing Waters. WISE also offers two credit-earning courses for high school students, Copper River Stewardship Program, and Outdoor Wilderness Leadership Skills (OWLS). Autumn brings an outdoor program called Changing Season to all second and third grade students in the Copper Basin schools. If you add up all the WISE programs and other Agency/organizations programs WISE partners with it totals 21 programs! This joint effort is the glue that ensures sustainability. We couldn’t do it without each other.
Getting kids outdoors and teaching them about science and how all things are connected in the environment is the short-term goal, but WISE is also interested in the long term outcomes of environmental education. There are many research studies showing that time outdoors has a positive effect on everything from social skills to good health. As they learn about the world around them, kids are also learning about teamwork, resiliency, self-reliance, and the interdependence of all things. An important goal is that they learn a stewardship ethic, the idea that they are responsible for taking care of their world.
Is it reasonable to expect that every child who wades in a pond goes on to be a scientist? Of course not. WISE “alumni” go on to work in all walks of life, but with a heightened awareness of the natural processes going on around them, and their importance as a steward. Appreciation for a sense of place and the wonders of nature help us become better citizens, who care for and take care of our homes.
Looking back on his experience on the Copper River Stewardship Program, Alex reflects: “One of the greatest gifts that I received on that journey was the awareness and practice of being intentional about my relationship with the Copper River Basin. As this summer’s guest educator, I was thrilled to be able to help foster and instill that same sense of purposeful, active stewardship.”
Trevor Grams is another Copper Basin youth who grew up with WISE programs. He recently graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a degree in Geology and GIS, and is applying to work with NOAA on one of their research vessels. While participating in Copper River Stewardship Program as a High School student, Trevor caught a fascination with fisheries that led him to spend a year in Norway as an exchange student. There he discovered a totally different perspective, as most of Scandinavia’s salmon are farmed.
In 2013, Trevor travelled with a group of WISE sponsored youth to the international World Wilderness Congress, WILD10, held in Spain. “It opened my eyes up to what is going on around the world, and made me realize how good we have it in Alaska. People were comparing land management strategies, citing Alaska as a good example.”
Cassidy Somerville has participated in WISE programs since she was very young. As an elementary student, she enjoyed Changing Seasons and Earth Discovery Day: “It was a chance to be outdoors and didn’t feel like school, but we were learning about everything I was interested in.” As a high school student, she worked on the Willow Creek Research Project, supported by WISE. She is now a student at University of Alaska Southeast, and works for Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the summers as a Fisheries Research Technician. Cass credits her high school experience in research with getting her start in field research. She will graduate this spring, then plans on taking a Certificate Course in Outdoor Leadership before pursuing her dream of working in a therapeutic wilderness program.
For all three of these young people, the practical and inspiring experiences WISE provided when they were young gave them the building blocks they needed to start building a life around adventure, stewardship, and wilderness.
WISE sustains its programs through donations from people like you, our earned income nature tour program, corporations, organizations, and grants. There are even those who donate from their acquired minimum distribution from their IRA.
Copper River Record February 28, 2019
By Robin Mayo
When you think of a leader, what comes to mind? Is it someone up on stage in front of a crowd, making an inspiring speech? Or perhaps an Arctic explorer breaking trail in a blizzard, exhorting their lagging teammates to keep up?
Last week, I was talking comparing notes with an outdoor educator friend about what we hope youth are learning from the adventures we organize. He recited the Scout Law that he still remembered word for word, 60 years since learning it: "A Scout is: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent.” We had a chuckle about the clean part, but agreed that these traits are also keystones of leadership. I grew up in 4-H and FFA, and the leadership ethic we learned included Humility, Integrity, Empathy, Collaboration, Communication, and Respect. Lectern thumping and heroic acts of physical endurance are never mentioned in either of these models.
As an adult, I’ve attended sophisticated leadership trainings which share the same ideas but include a lot less marshmallow roasting and silly games, which is a shame. One of the most useful models I’ve seen is Jim Collins’ 5 levels of leadership: Level 1 is the highly capable individual, Level 2 the contributing team member, Level 3 the competent manager, and Level 4 the effective leader. But to reach level 5, a Great Leader, you have all the abilities needed for the other four levels, plus you have the unique blend of humility and will that’s required for true greatness. How interesting that of all the leadership qualities, it is humility that takes you to the highest level.
But what does leadership look like in a down-to-earth, outdoor setting with youth? When you get a group of youth together for several days, natural leaders often emerge. These are the ones that the others naturally follow. There is no official title or symbol of leadership, and the individual may not even be aware of the role. If the natural leaders are going in the same general direction the adult organizers have planned, the camp is a delight for all. But sometimes the natural leader has other ideas, and relative chaos ensues. So part of our job is to identify and work with the energy of the youth leaders, and a safe, fun, and educational time will be had by all.
WISE is starting a new yearly tradition of honoring outstanding youth leaders, and at the Annual Meeting last Saturday we were pleased to name Josephine Beauchamp of Slana as our first leader. Josie participated in Outdoor and Wilderness Leadership Skills, Geology Camp, and Copper River Stewardship Program last summer, and recently travelled to Anchorage to attend Alaska Forum on the Environment. She is very much a quiet, behind the scenes leader, who last summer excelled at logistics, trip planning, and attention to detail. In early February she overcame her fears to speak in front of an audience of 75 people at Alaska Forum on the Environment, to help give a presentation on the power of wilderness experiences in building community. Josie is also an outstanding homeschooled student with Upstream Learning, and a star member of the Slana Archery Team.
Once you learn to look beyond titles and traditional leader roles, you find that leadership is all around you, in large and small acts of kindness, empathy, inspiration, and resolve. Several years ago one of our youth was asked to give advice to adults on including youth, and made a simple sign that stated, “Let Youth Lead!” It now hangs in the WISE office as a constant reminder that often, the best thing you can do is create an opportunity, then step back and see what happens.
Photo By Kate Morse, Copper River Watershed Project. WISE Leadership Award winner Josephine Beauchamp of Slana (Right) and Warren Brower of Gakona work together to transplant foliage onto a Dusky Canada Goose nest island on the Copper River Delta during Copper River Stewardship Program.
Copper River Record January 18, 2018
By Robin Mayo
Part of my job is keeping track of news in the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, so when headlines popped up last week about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos making a multi-million-dollar donation to a scholarship fund, I took notice. Thirty-three million is a lot of green! For this generosity, the donors are getting nationwide attention. This is definitely a major donation, and extra special thanks are in order, right?
Well, sort of. It depends on how you look at it. Bezos’ net worth is somewhere around 105 BILLION dollars, so I was curious how his donation stacked up as a percentage of his total fortune. If we consider an average family with a net worth of something around fifty thousand dollars, they only need to donate $16 to their favorite charity to match the proportional generosity of the Bezos family. Although this donation will not earn them headlines, seats at the head table, or naming rights for a building, in terms of significance in the family finances, it is the same. In fact, it may be more significant, because this family is probably operating on a fairly tight budget, and will have to save that $16 somewhere else.
Americans donate about one half of one percent of their net worth to charity annually, about $250 for our “average” family with a net worth of fifty thousand. Amongst the very wealthy, the amount varies wildly, with the Gates and Buffets giving over ten percent, but the Walton family, founders of Walmart, averaging only .04 percent of their net worth annually. Statistically, the lower middle class gives more generously than almost anyone.
WISE Board of Directors members are asked to make a financial contribution to the organization every year, and they do so generously. We suggest a minimum amount, but also note that the donation should be at a level that is meaningful to the donor. I’d like to put forward that any charitable giving should be measured by this parameter: How meaningful is it? What could you have purchased instead? Will you notice the deficit, and have to make sacrifices to make it possible?
WISE’s charitable income does not figure in the millions, but we are very proud and humbled to make about ten percent of our annual budget from individual donations. We have donors who give $500 or more a year, and others who faithfully send a $25 check. If you figure the donation as a percentage of net worth, I suspect our humblest donors may actually be the most generous. And it is not so much the amount of the donation that really matters, it is the intent behind it, the willingness to sacrifice to help others, that keeps this dream alive.
Since this article is already full of numbers, here is another to think about. Since our founding in 2002, WISE has earned and spent about 1.1 million dollars. As much as possible is spent locally, on wages, fuel, and supplies. Combined with the other nonprofits in the Copper Basin, it is a significant boost to the economy.
As you file for your Permanent Fund Dividend and consider Pick.Click.Give donations, I hope you will consider giving to an organization that resonates with you. Your humble donation may actually be more meaningful than someone else’s multimillion dollar gift.
Photo caption: Charitable donations make priceless moments like these possible. Copper River Stewardship Program 2014.
Copper River Record October 2017
By Robin Mayo
Armchair hikers, are you ready for another season? Until the snow flies the hiking is still great, but after a busy summer I’m ready to relax a little, explore some maps and dream about next summer.
For sheer challenge and drama, you just can’t beat a hike up Willow Mountain. The trail is steep but easy to find and follow, and the views from the top are unsurpassed. With the base at about 1500 feet elevation and the summit at 3300 feet, the approximately 2 ½ mile trail is wide, smooth, and solid. Folks in great shape can get to the top in 2 hours or less, and descend in about an hour, but for the rest of us plan on a full day of hiking, with lots of breaks to catch your breath and enjoy the breathtaking vistas.
Willow Mountain is located near Mile 88 Richardson Highway, the pullout at Willow Lake is a good place to park and access the trail. The land is owned by Ahtna, Inc. who welcomes people using the resource with the purchase of a land use permit. One day or season-long use permits can be obtained by contacting the office in Glennallen at 822-3476.
Hikers should carry extra water, food, and warm, windproof layers. Even on a hot day, the summit can be quite chilly and windy, and you will want to linger. Sturdy footwear is recommended, as the trail is steep enough to have the gravel rolling under your feet, and turn your legs to jelly. I’ve heard some locals refer to Willow Mountain as “Bear Mountain,” and we often see bear sign, so plenty of noise and protection are recommended.
From the north end of the Willow Lake Pullout, cross the Richardson Highway and get on the Alyeska Pipeline Right-of-Way. Alyeska allows use of the ROW for short stretches, but asks that large groups give them a heads up so they know what is going on. Turn left to head south on the pipeline, and follow the right-of-way for about a mile. Shortly after a yellow and black sign that says 7-11, start looking to the right for a 4-wheeler trail heading up into the woods. It will go around a gate and onto the powerline, follow the powerline for a while, then head up the mountain. There are no other major trails in the area, so it should be easy to find your way.
This first section of the trail goes through an unusual forest for the Copper Basin. The dominant trees are large paper birch, which only grow in a few small patches elsewhere in the Southern Valley. I’ve often wondered what conditions led to this isolated but very robust birch grove.
After several very steep stretches going up the eastern face of the mountain, the trail curves around the shoulder, and completes the climb up the southern side of the mountain. Steep sections alternate with not-quite-so-steep stretches, and great vistas abound. Right before the summit there is a level saddle with a nice alpine meadow, then the trail leads up to the communications towers at the summit. The hum of the equipment is a bit of a distraction, but the convenience of the well-built and maintained double track trail is worth putting up with a little civilization.
As well as the Wrangell Mountains and surrounding lakes and rivers, great views of the Alaska Range, Chugach, and beyond can be seen from the summit. On the long gentle slope north of Mount Drum, look for the distinctive bumps of the Klawasi Mud Volcanoes. This is also a great place to ponder the fact that a huge lake called Lake Ahtna used to fill the Copper River Valley. Glaciers blocked the gap where Woods Canyon now lets the Copper River flow through the Chugach Mountains, and the top of Willow Mountain was an island!
Once I thought I got a glimpse of Russia, but was quickly corrected, as I was looking east. So I reckon it must have been Greenland.
Copper River Stewardship Program students and staff celebrate a climb up Willow Mountain in 2015. CRSP Photo
Copper River Record August 2017
By Robin Mayo
For ten days in July, high school students from the Copper Basin and Cordova participated in the Copper River Stewardship Program, an intensive exploration of the watershed which gives the students a chance to learn about the diverse communities and ecosystems that make up the region. The theme of the program this year was “Helping youth find their voices,” with daily writing and reflection projects. Alex VanWyhe was our guest educator, leading the humanities portion of the program. Ten years ago, Alex was a student in WISE’s Watershed Leadership Program, a precursor to the Copper River Stewardship Program. He now teaches English at Haines High School, and his participation in this year’s program brought it full circle.
The ten students were chosen through a competitive process, and will earn high school credit for completing the program and doing final projects. This winter we will plan an evening for them to share their projects with the community.
The students paddled canoes up and down Alaganik Slough to a US Forest Service camp on the Copper River Delta, where we helped maintain artificial nest islands for Dusky Canada Geese. We took a long ferry ride through Prince William Sound with a chance to learn more about the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Then we joined a BLM Glennallen Field Office river crew for a raft trip down the Gulkana River from Paxson Lake to Sourdough.
Early in the trip, the students learned to write Haiku, a Japanese poetry form with a simple 5-7-5 syllable count. Alex encouraged the students to write throughout the trip, with the incentive of a poetry competition and prizes on the last day. Students and staff alike tapped out rhythms on canoe paddles, tent walls, and raft oars for the rest of the trip, and scribbled our words into “Rite in the Rain” notebooks. On the final evening, the stewards gathered around a fire and shared their best efforts.
The Copper River Stewardship Program is organized by WISE, Prince William Sound Science Center, Copper River Watershed Project, US Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This year’s program was made possible with funding from Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, and BLM.
Throughout the day we slowly went
Through Dusky Bay
Cool liquid glistens
In the morning sun as waves
Spread like wildfires
Spa-loosh we tramp on
Through the bogs squishy terrain
And the sound of life
Team Dusky works hard
Viciously ripping Sweet Gale
From Shrek’s musky swamp
Once used boats now tied
Waters change behind our backs
We wander onward
Boots stomp natures path
The scenic view is foreign
We wander onward
We are tasked with maintenance
We have met our task
Invisible from view
Nestled between the shrubs
Protect the nests
We slide upon rocks
Struggling from their heavy grasp
Worn rafts now flow free
Hear the water’s rush
Why does everyone forget,
Summer isn’t over yet.
Nine months of winter I did my school,
Just like any other fool.
And just as that’s all dead and gone,
Just as winter’s finally done,
I find school has followed me here,
This is now my serious fear.
Oh, why does everyone forget,
Summer isn’t over yet.
Golden rays cast down
From the foggy sky above
Warming the ocean
Mud clouds around you
Disguising the underneath
Who knows what’s below?
As the tide passes
We sit, cold in the water
Writing a haiku.
Cassidy Austin-Merlino and Kelsie Friendshuh
Copper River Record February 2017
By Robin Mayo
With the returning sun, there is more motivation to get outdoors on skiis or snowshoes, and explore some of our trails in winter. In fact, winter is the preferred time to travel across wetlands easily without risking damage to the fragile and essential ecosystems.
The Tonsina River Trail heads south from mile 12.3 of the Edgerton Highway, and goes about 1.3 miles in a gentle downhill, first to the bluff, then west along the bluff to a gorgeous picnic spot overlooking the river. WISE often uses this location as an outdoor classroom where we can learn surrounded by panoramic views, birdsong, and the spicy scent of sage.
There is a nice pullout on the south side of the road where you can park, and a small kiosk at the trailhead.
The first half of the trail tends to be wet in the early part of the summer, and of course with our boots we dig the trench deeper and wider, compounding the problem. I like to wait to use this trail until a good dry spell, or towards the end of summer. Or why not explore it in winter and avoid the mud altogether? Locals ski this trail fairly often, so there is a packed base to support cross-country skiis or snowshoes.
Like so many of our Copper Basin trails, the land status is a little complicated. The trail itself is on a 17(b) easement. Test time: who remembers this unique Alaskan land designation from my article several weeks ago on land status? Gold stars all around! In a nutshell, 17(b) Easements are special corridors which were created to allow access across lands that were conveyed to Native Corporations by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA.)
When I was researching land status for this trail on BLM-Alaska’s Spatial Data Management System, I noticed that the Ahtna region is the only area of the state for which the easement data is complete. Way to go land managers!
The easement for the Tonsina River Trail is only 25 feet wide, so please stay on the trail to avoid trespassing on surrounding lands.
This trail is a great one for wildflowers, and we often come across wood frogs. Kids always want to hold critters they find, but may be unaware that frogs have a fragile and very important slimy skin covering that can be badly damaged by handling. It is best to observe them as they hop about, then let them go on their way unharmed. I always try to imagine how I’d feel if a giant frog picked ME up…
Happy hiking everyone, and be sure to get out and enjoy the “warm” weather!
Copper River Stewardship Program 2013 students enjoy the view at the end of the Tonsina River Trail. Kate Morse Copper River Watershed Project Photo.
Copper River Record December 2016
By Robin Mayo
It’s a picture perfect day as we motor across Prince William Sound on the MV Aurora. The sun is sparkling on pristine water, gulls wheel overhead, and in the distance fishing boats cluster. Some are already pulling their nets, and through our binoculars we see the wriggling masses of glistening salmon rise up then spill onto the decks. On the bow of the ferry, travelers are enjoying the warm sunshine and passing scenery, sharing sightings of whales, otters, and sea lions. They lean over the rails eagerly, craning for a glimpse of Dahl’s porpoises cavorting at the waterline.
But in the ship’s lobby, the mood is more somber. A small group of high school students is gathered around a map of Prince William Sound, reliving the night over 25 years ago when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef. We are transported to a cold night in March when a combination of events sent the tanker out of the shipping lanes, bleeding crude oil into the water. There is no easy answer to the question of “Why?” It is easy to blame the captain of the ship, but hearing the entire story, we learn that he was just one factor in a whole system that failed that night.
Once the stage is set, the students are given first-person narratives from Exxon Valdez oil spill responders from the book “The Spill” by Sharon Bushell and Stan Jones. They are asked to put themselves in the shoes of the men and women who were there, then create a piece of artwork or writing to symbolize the experience. Individually or in small groups, they find quiet places on the busy ship to absorb the poignant stories. With the beautiful scenery as a backdrop, they read the pieces quietly to one another.
Several hours later, we gather again by the map, with pastel drawings and poems in hand. One by one, the students introduce the narrators, summarize their stories, and share projects. Using their particular talents with words and pictures, the students expressed sadness at the lives and beauty lost, outrage at the injustices, pain at the futile waste.
The crew was asleep.
Content to place their fate, and the fate of their cargo
In the hands of another.
Their minds were at rest
As they dreamt of the meaningless things
That would never again occupy their thoughts.
Little did they know that the meandering of their minds
Would be rent apart by the sound of unforgiving, crushing rock
Wreaking havoc on the hull.
Little did they know this sound would forever haunt them,
That their dreams would be filled with the sound
That resulted in the release of liquid death.
The sound that condemned thousands of souls to heartbreak and misery.
The sound that destroyed an entire ecosystem.
And yet they slept on.
Oblivious to this wretched fate.
Dreaming as Mother Nature held her breath.
Artwork by Alexis Hutchinson
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.