On August first ten high school students from the Copper River Basin were singing “Rowin’ Down the River” as they completed a five day rafting trip from Chitina to the Million Dollar Bridge and Cordova. Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment made this program possible through a grant from the National Park Foundation, American Legion donation, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve (WRST) in-kind donations, Alaska River Expeditions discounted rates, and a small stipend from each of the students.
In March students from the Copper River Basin wrote an essay on “The importance of the Copper River as a natural resource, its influence as a watershed, and how it affects the surrounding ecosystem” to apply for this program. The program was limited to ten students. Fourteen applied and a panel of four judges chose the winning essays from a list of criteria. Judges were Bruce Heaton from the American Legion, Linda Flint from Copper Valley Telephone, Mark Somerville from Alaska Dept. of Fish Game and WISE board member, and Dave Wellman, WISE vice president. The panel of judges received the essays after names had been excluded. Winning applicants were: Mary Carlson, Naomi Carlson, John Giraldo, Michael Helkenn, Mark Henspeter, Wade Jones, Samantha Knutson, Mary Marshall, Alex VanWhye, and Kimberly Woods. Instructors for the raft trip included Janelle Eklund, WISE president, Glenn Hart, WRST Education Specialist and Volunteer Coordinator, and Carla Schierholt who also was the official photographer. WISE contracted with Alaska River Expeditions to guide the raft trip.
Students said they were inspired and impressed by the magnitude and diversity of the river, along with the geologic forces, wildlife, plants, the sheer beauty, and the infamous winds. Before the river trip students spent two days getting their ‘feet wet’, so to speak, by various presentations from experts with local agencies and organizations. This part of the program included a tour of the Gulkana Hatchery at Paxson; acquiring information on fish species and importance of the watershed from Mark Somerville at Alaska Department of Fish and Game; a lesson on GIS/GPS by Josh Scott of WRST; a guided tour by Fred Williams of the Copper Valley Historical Society through the George I. Ashby Museum in Copper Center; a visit to the Ahtna Cultural Heritage site to learn about subsistence from Dorothy Shinn, Donald Johns, and Jack Sabon; a talk from Copper Country Alliance members Ruth McHenry and Cliff Eames about their organization and current focus on the pipeline oil spill contingency plan; an overview of the geology of the watershed by Suzanne McCarthy, director and geology teacher at Prince William Sound Community College; and river safety by Trooper Simeon. At the end of the river trip, in Cordova, Tori Baker from the Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, gave students first hand knowledge about the Copper River Delta area and the coastal fisheries; students visited the Copper River Watershed Project office where Kristin Smith and Brenden Reilly gave an overview of their organization and projects, focusing on sustainable economic development.
Students kept a positive and fun attitude throughout the trip despite being ‘silt blasted’ at the Bremner sand dunes in the high winds that funnel through that area. Copper River silt was imbedded in every pore and orifice of the face, not to mention clothes and gear. It was so thick visibility wiped out any view of the mountains or nearby terrain. But as one student said, ‘it’s all part of the experience’.
Observations and notes were taken by each of the students to be compiled into essays and shared with the public and sponsors. Each student was given a topic to write about.
A WISE Watershed Leadership Program Essay Series will be published in the Copper River Record so stay tuned for informative accounts from these students. Community presentations from the students will be in September or October. Announcements will be made as to specific dates and times.
WISE would like to thank all of the above sponsors and presenters for their contributions, along with drivers, Ramona Henspeter, Bob Jones and Heidi Peters; Suanne Hart for the water bottle clips; and Kate Alexander for the delicious ice cream after the river trip. These contributions gave students the opportunity to gain knowledge that will stay with them for a life time.
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.