Student science camp explores Togiak Refuge by boat
DILLINGHAM – “Woo, this one’s bigger! Oh man, this is beautiful,” said 18-year-old Savanna Sage as she reeled in a Dolly Varden from onboard an inflatable blue raft on the Pungokepuk River Aug. 7. Just minutes prior, Sage had caught her smallest rainbow trout of the trip.
Sage, who will be a senior at Dillingham High School this fall, was one of six students from the Bristol Bay region who participated in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge’s high school science camp from Aug. 5 to 8.
Prior to the trip, she had caught one rainbow this summer, a small one out at Lake Aleknagik, near Dillingham. By the first night, she had caught more than one rainbow that was longer than 20 inches, and by the third day, she had caught at least two dozen fish, and was practicing carefully releasing the fish so they could swim away safely.
Fishing was a highlight of the float trip for Sage and other students.
That morning, Drew Wassily, who will be a freshman this fall, caught the first rainbow of his life.
The trip wasn’t just a chance to catch fish.
Camp started with a float plane ride from Dillingham to the Pungokepuk Lake, where campers helped paddle 16 miles down the Pungokepuk River to a pickup site on the Togiak River. The paddle included some hauling boats through shallower spots, and just one stretch of relatively small rapids that elicited cheering once the full flotilla of four boats had made it through.
Along the way, the group used three different campsites, and did a variety of activities, including using a minnow trap to catch and identify juvenile salmon from a minnow trap baited with bacon; a discussion of leave-no-trace practices for camping; a lesson on survival gear and fire-starting skills; creating plaster casts of animal tracks; and a lesson on roasting Twinkies over a campfire.
Hayleigh Johansen and Alyssa Nunn also helped pick blueberries for pancakes — just as they had for much of the summer at home.
Johansen said she had been helping pick berries all summer, including a gallon when her family was in Ekwok.
“I’ve picked since I was five,” Johansen said.
Togiak National Wildlife Refuge Education Specialist Terry Fuller said that camp was meant to teach kids about the refuge and help them develop an appreciation of the outdoors.
The refuge stretches more than 4 million acres including much of the west side of Bristol Bay, and north to the land near Platinum. Students from eight communities that border the refuge, including Dillingham, Manokotak, Platinum, Quinhagak, Togiak and more were eligible to apply for the camp.
Fuller said camp is also an opportunity for the students to get to know one another, and learn from their peers.
“You have people kicking in to help each other out,” Fuller said. “It’s fun. It’s fun to watch.”
About two dozen students applied for the high school camp, which was whittled down to just six participants because of funding. All costs were covered, and any needed gear was loaned to the students.
The refuge hosts two environmental education camps every summer: the high school float camp, and a more stationary science camp at Cape Pierce focused on marine life, for middle school students.
Fuller, the refuge’s education specialist, is a primary instructor for both camps.
Although Fuller and other refuge staff members and an intern offered direct instruction during group time, they also spent much of the trip fielding questions and offering information about the river, fish and other features nearby based on each student’s individual interests.
Before Wassily dove into in Pungokepuk Lake in a dry suit to snorkel with salmon, refuge staff Allen Miller prepped him for the experience.
“And that’s really all you have to do, is be a really good observer,” Miller said. “Just notice details. Look for what kind of fish they are, if they’re adult fish, young fish, if they’re on the top or the bottom.”
The verdict after he got out? Tons of fish to look at, and he kept going back in.
“It’s kinda hard to swim in these things,” Wasilly said. “These are cool though, these suits.”
Molly Dischner is a reporter at KDLG radio in Dillingham, and was a chaperone for the float camp.