KWETHLUK — Word spread through Facebook, and kids made their way to gravel mounds at the edge of the village of Kwethluk for an afternoon with the feds shooting arrows and firing air rifles.
A trio from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had traveled by skiff from Bethel, up the Kuskokwim River, then Kuskokuak Slough, then the Kwethluk River for archery and rifle lessons, part of a village-by-village effort to build good relationships.
This year marks the second for the mini-camp in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
These days, game wardens are officially called federal wildlife officers and they arrive in villages not only with their standard police-type enforcement equipment — handgun, citation pad and the like — but also with candy and balloons, bows and air rifles, targets and quivers.
The camps started in 2014 on the Kenai Peninsula. The new activity is part of a decadeslong effort to ease conflict between wildlife managers in Alaska's national refuges and the people who live in the region and depend on the wildlife and fish.
"We live next to each other," said Crystal Leonetti, an Alaska Native affairs specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service who is Yup'ik and grew up going to fish camp outside of Dillingham. "We want to be good neighbors and keep those relationships strong."
The camp was led by Kelly Modla, a longtime Soldotna-based wildlife officer with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and Christopher Tulik, from the Western Alaska village of Nightmute.
Tulik was among the first Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge information technicians back in 1984 when the program was created.
The technicians are local people who know the language and the culture, who find the right river channels and can repair a boat on the fly. Their job is to spread the word about resource issues. In the early days, when he was in his 20s, Tulik remembers feeling like a traitor working for the refuge, alongside the ones with the rules and restrictions on hunting and fishing. Native people, his own people, didn't want to talk to him. He left after a couple of years and worked as a village public safety officer and for his village corporation.
Now federal uniforms are familiar. He's back for a second stint and said relationships are much better. Locals and federal authorities are talking about their shared values.
"We are able to go to the schools. We are able to walk into tribal offices. They welcome us quite nicely today," Tulik said.
Law enforcement officers are traveling the river too, for friendly meetings with elders, tribal councils and others — the Yukon Delta refuge's version of community policing.
Residents increasingly are following the rules, too, federal authorities say. Last year by June 15, federal authorities had seized 53 nets, issued 10 tickets and written 46 warnings for violations on the Kuskokwim. This year by that point, they had seized five nets and written seven tickets.
"The compliance is so much better. That's the good part," said Bill Raften, a Soldotna-based federal wildlife officer who oversees enforcement in Alaska's southern zone.
No one was fishing on the Kuskokwim this chilly June 9 day, but not for lack of desire. People on the Kuskokwim used to harvest more king salmon for subsistence than anywhere in Alaska, with many families netting 50 or more kings for drying racks and smokehouses.
But it's another summer of sharp restrictions to rebuild crashed king salmon runs.
Tulik traveled this spring with managers to Kuskokwim region villages. He answers questions on public radio station KYUK's Yup'ik language call-in shows. He says the new Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission already is making a difference, by giving Native people a bigger voice.
At the camps, he and others start that relationship-building early on. They have covered 13 or so Kuskokwim-area villages this year, from Kasigluk on the tundra to Kipnuk near the Bering Sea coast, from Akiachak to Eek near the Kuskokwim River mouth. Hundreds of children have attended.
At the Kwethluk mini-camp, with a couple dozen children ages 4 and up eager to shoot, it was safety first for both archery and riflery.
"Not yet," Tulik told one little girl who grabbed an arrow too soon.
"Put your bow on your toe," said Modla, directing the children to pause until everyone was ready and checking that no one was in the target area. She and Tulik showed the children how to hold the bow, where to place the arrow and how to pull back on the string until the arrow neared their chin.
"Pull real hard. Take aim. Let go," Tulik said.
The village was busy all over. A hovercraft stopped along the riverbank to deliver groceries. In the community building, tribal leaders were meeting. Men were working on the school basketball court.
The children picked up archery fast. They shot at targets with balloons pinned onto them.
"Catch one!" a little boy yelled, using a term that not only refers to fishing but also hunting animals.
"I shot it! I shot that balloon!" said Brendan Noes, 7.
"Good job!" Tulik told Trinity Savage, 8, after she shot her quiver of arrows. "Go and hang up your bow."
He took the lead during the rifle training.
"This might be a pellet gun but it's still a dangerous gun," he said. The muzzle must be pointed up, at the range or to the ground, he said.
"Good experience for kids," said Bob Guy, a power plant operator in Kwethluk who took a moment to watch.
"Gives them something to do, staying out of mischief," said Charlamagne Olick, who rode up on a four wheeler. Her little brother Byron Spein, 4, got a turn with the air rifle.
But Rikki Urovak of Lower Kalskag, one of two women who rode bikes over to watch for a bit, said children would rather be at fish camp than archery camp.
"If we don't fish, they won't learn what we do," said her friend, Rachel Epchook. "At fish camp, they help us. They swim. They play lap games. They watch the parents."
Elders always said that May and June are for fishing and that nets come out in July, so that the fish can spawn, she said.
"Fish camp is like a vacation for us, after staying indoors all winter," Epchook said.
The next day, state and federal managers announced that fishing would open up for a spell that Sunday, the first opportunity of the year.
The Kwethluk camp ended. Fish and Wildlife Service staff members left in their skiff for the river trip back to Bethel, hoping they left a good message and good will in their wake.