What does it take to become a fisherman?
On a beautiful Friday afternoon, sixteen Kodiak kids took to the Buskin River to find out. Small hands held rods and reels and made their first cast into waters with the hope of catching a salmon or Dolly Varden.
Kodiak is a fishing town, and salmon are the lifeblood of this Alaskan island and wildlife refuge. The annual summer salmon return from ocean to river sustains both people and wildlife throughout the year, and attracts sport-fishing enthusiasts from around the world.
For kids growing up here, though, a first-time fishing experience isn’t always right out the back door. Young conservation leaders in the community are looking to change that. This July, the Kodiak Refuge Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) developed and led the Refuge’s first ever “Fishing Friday,” an environmental education event for community youth who have had little to no opportunity to go out fishing.
“The event idea came from the need to diversify and increase access to environmental education in the Kodiak community,” said Kyla Villaroya, 2018 YCC crew leader, who grew up in Kodiak and now attends D’Youville College. She sees the service-learning focus of YCC as an opportunity for her crew to reach beyond the established audience of youth enrolled in the Refuge’s popular Salmon Science Camp: “we can broaden our community identity of environmental science learners and outdoor enthusiasts. We are trying to engage more people with their natural resources.”
Over the past three years, the Youth Conservation Corps has worked on projects that bring elements of Salmon Camp to new and diverse young nature lovers. In 2016, Education Specialist Shelly Lawson saw the outreach potential at the local school district’s free summer lunch program, and the first “Pop-Up Salmon Camp” led by YCC members engaged more than 100 youth in an afternoon.
“Some children don’t have rides to come to our programs, and also may not have their own fishing gear,” Lawson observed. “We were trying to find a way to bring our programs to youth where they are — and the lunch program was the ideal location with 100–300 children congregating there every day for lunch.”
Building on the wild success of the pop-up camp, the crew this year decided to add one of the most popular elements of Salmon Camp: fishing day. They again reached out to the lunch program participants and provided transportation to the river, a free fishing lesson, snacks, and all the gear needed. They also brought in additional help, including visiting young adults from the Arctic Youth Ambassador Program.
The result? A forest of fishing rods and a swarm of kids ages 5–14 descended onto the gravel banks of Kodiak city’s closest salmon river, accompanied by a crew of teens ready to get their feet wet in environmental education. With enthusiasm, they explored the natural habitat of hopeful anglers and played outdoor games until it was their turn with a rod and line.
“Some had never been fishing before, never used the gear, so they learned how to cast their rod,” Villaroya said. “They also put their patience to the test, and experienced how much waiting a fisherman has to do. They learned about how fishing can promote camaraderie; by the end of the day some of the kids who were supposed to be playing games came over to suggest prime spots that their fishing friends should cast in.”
For some of the teens, teaching a group of hopeful fishers was also a learning experience. The Youth Conservation Corps program at Kodiak Refuge is a chance for high school students to explore various careers in conservation available at the Refuge — everything from maintenance to field biology to environmental education. They learn as they work, building skills and confidence along the way.
Villaroya recalls her first summer as an YCC crew member in high school, as she looked for career possibilities in her home town. “Growing up, I always treasured the environment and wanted to break into outdoor and environmental education, so this program was the perfect opportunity. The novelty of that job made such an impact on me — I would do it all over again if I could! And so I did, as a crew leader.”
Learning new skills in the outdoors and sharing that knowledge with others is a hallmark of the Kodiak YCC summer. For Villaroya, “Fishing Friday” exemplified the process of discovery and teamwork that has kept her coming back as a program lead. “My favorite part was at the end when everyone- participants and leaders- reflected on how it went. To the kids especially, it was such a novel experience, and they came away knowing they could learn something new very well. Self-efficacy ON FLEEEEEK.”*
*(“On fleek” is a youth term for “on point.” Thanks for keeping us up to date, Kyla!)
Story contributed by Lisa Hupp, Outreach Specialist at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.