Rural Alaska

Camp aims to create homegrown scientists on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta

BETHEL — On the Kwethluk River over the past week, during rainy days geared around studies of wild salmon, government hunting rules and local plants, with time for hiking, fishing and berry picking, maybe the adults jump-started some young scientists.

For the first time in memory, Bethel's tribe put on a science and culture camp for students from the city and nearby villages. Other groups have held science camps in the region, but this one was by the tribe.

Eight students camped out on the Kwethluk River and a revolving group of adults — biologists and botanists, anthropologists and elders, a park ranger and a nurse — took part in the Orutsararmiut Native Council Science and Culture Camp, which started Sunday and wrapped up Friday. After four days in the field, the camp moved to Bethel for ethnobotanical studies of local culture and plants.

The main goal was to introduce students to careers in natural resources, said Janessa Esquible, council biologist and camp organizer. The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge was a partner.

They set up camp, spent time at the Kwethluk fish weir — a station for counting and studying salmon — and collected juvenile fish in minnow traps. One bird expert netted a tiny songbird and showed how, with gentle handling, the bird could be banded and assessed before flying free.

"I learned something too," said elder James Charles of Tuntutuliak, a village down the Kuskokwim River, who had a key role at camp mentoring the young people.  People usually say if you handle a wild animal like that, it will die. Do it correctly, he saw, and the animal lives.

Nicholai Chase, 16 and about to start his sophomore year at Bethel Regional High School, said a fish biologist taught the same when tagging, measuring and identifying the sex of salmon.


"You hold it on the head gently. Not somehow. Not anyhow. Hold it gently," Chase said.

He took part in camp to get a break from home and "explore other places you never went to."

Everyone in the group said they enjoyed helping at the Kwethluk fish weir, where salmon are counted and assessed on their way to spawning grounds. Weirs have a reputation for killing fish, but the kids said they found out that isn't true. Dead salmon in weirs are the ones that spawned and floated back downstream, said Andrea Lee, 16, who will be a Bethel High junior in the fall.

Science camp reinforced her goal of becoming a marine biologist, she said.

Calvin Samson, 16 and a rising sophomore at Galena Interior Learning Academy, a boarding school, figured the camp would help him with biology class in the coming year. He got something more. Normally, he spends summer days playing video games. A week outside was eye-opening.

"I felt like a different person," he said.

Camp shifted on Thursday from the river to studies of local plants: birch and willow, yarrow and Arctic cotton, fireweed and stinkweed. Elders explained how much of what grows all around, even in the tribal building parking lot, can be used in treating wounds and illness.

They found stinkweed, which actually smells good.

What do we use it for, Faith Pavila, 18, of Napakiak asked elder James Charles.

Make a tea with it when you are feeling ill, he said. She wrote down his description and spelled the Yup'ik name as best she could, which Charles translated as "it smells strong."

Not all the kids want to be scientists. Chase said he'd like to be a police officer in his father's home village, Nunapitchuk. One is interested in an eventual summer job at the Kwethluk fish weir. They all talked about finishing high school. Pavila said she plans to go to college but isn't sure what she'll study.

Maybe, said Esquible, the biologist, the students will think about their world a little differently after their week at camp.

"They developed maybe a greater sense of stewardship over the natural resources that they depend upon," she said.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.