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.
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.