PHOTOESSAY: Kayak-based Habitat Restoration Expeditions

 

The first flock of youth kayakers from the Habitat Restoration program has returned from their adventures in the Nellie Juan – College Fiord Wilderness Study Area in Prince William Sound. Paddling alongside was photographer Frederick Norrsell who submitted these images of a fantastic week spent learning, working, and playing in this glacier-dominated landscape, and former youth participant Sydney Treuer, who returns as our correspondent from the field. 

By Sydney Treuer

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On May 29th, high school-aged youth from across Southcentral and Southwest Alaska converged in Anchorage to begin preparing for ten days of camping, kayaking, and stewardship in the Nellie-Juan College Fiord Wilderness Study Area of the Chugach National Forest. Some of the students were already experienced campers, while others were embarking on their first ever trip into the Alaskan backcountry. In the foyer of the Chugach Voyage to Excellence school students from Anchorage, Soldotna, Kodiak, and Whittier met and took stock of their fellow travellers.

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With only one day in Anchorage to prepare, the students worked through the morning to learn how to set up and take down the tents, use camp stoves and water filters, and pack gear into dry bags. Under clear skies in the Chugach VTE school parking lot, the students picked up the knack of hooking on rainflies, stowing away MSR DragonFly backpacking stoves, and filtering water with no problem.

The afternoon found the students planning backcountry meals, shopping for supplies, and organizing food into bear-safe containers. The students were split into three teams, with each team responsible for planning their own lunches, and two dinners for the whole group. After a lesson on backcountry cookery the students were set free with a budget and a shopping cart and proceeded to, in the words of student Elijah Griffin, “terrorize Fred Meyer’s.” The trip leaders looked on with some trepidation as students rolled giant cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli and stacked tins of spam onto the register belts. But only a few items—a bag of refrigerated tortellini and a small packet of brown rice—were nixed.

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With their gear prepped and their food packed, the students headed to the Alaska Pacific University’s pool. Decked out in PFDs and paddle-skirts, the students participated in their first kayak-skills course. As part of the course, the students had to intentionally flip their kayaks and practice swimming free. Some of the first-time kayakers discovered flipping the big stable boats was harder than it seemed. Others found they had a knack for it, managing to flip their boats without even trying.

After a good night’s rest, a hearty breakfast, and a day in Whittier waiting out foul weather, the group was ready to begin their Prince William Sound adventure. The plan was to travel first by charter and then by kayak to various points identified by Chugach National Forest Wilderness Rangers as needing cleanup, monitoring, or maintenance. The first few days would be spent in Culross Passage. The group would then kayak into Long Bay, and to Applegate Island and, after a two-mile crossing over open water, Main Bay and Foul Bay. Throughout the trip, the students would dock at beaches to do restoration and maintenance volunteer work. They would also find time to learn camping and kayaking skills, and about Prince William Sound ecosystems.

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The students set out the first day full of enthusiasm. Not even the gray clouds above or the white caps of the waves could stint their excitement. When the charter boat captain pointed to a Minke whale off the bow, the boat fairly rocked as students crowded at windows and on deck to catch a glimpse of the tiny speck in the distance. It was an auspicious start to an excellent voyage.

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But no great adventure is without its tribulations. Dropped by the charter at the mouth of Long Bay, the students faced their first challenge: setting up camp. The tents, which had gone up so easy under the sun in Anchorage, were a bit trickier to set up on the rainy gravel beach. The water filters had to be lugged to and from a fresh water creek nearly ten minutes way. And the little camp stoves took achingly long to boil a single pot of water. The students worked together as a team however, and managed get everything done and have enough energy left to laugh and tell stories in their tents well past their 11pm bedtime. But by midnight, the patter of rain on tents provided a gentle counterpoint to the students snores. 

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In the coming days, the weather improved and the students developed a system for setting up and taking down camp. Though their days were still packed, the students found that their increased efficiency meant they had more free time. More than one student could be found in their free moments sitting quietly on a beach looking across the water to beaches they had paddled from, and bays they would soon be paddling to. One student noted, “I think that AK Geo should continue having camps like this so that way teens can take time away from the city and learn to enjoy life a little more.”

If camping had become the students’ new way of life, restoring and maintaining the shores and forests of Prince William Sound became their new purpose in life. For many of the students, the surprising highlight of the kayaking trip was picking up trash and debris. In Culross Passage the students found recreation sites frequented by campers and fishers in need of restoration. In Long Bay, the students stopped to clean up a cabin site and perform trail maintenance. In Picturesque Cove, Main Bay, and on Applegate Island, the students found debris blown ashore from passing boats and ships.

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Some of the service sites were difficult to reach, like the distant Main Bay campgrounds. Sometimes the debris was heavy, like the stacks of pressure treated wood the students hauled down one trail, or difficult to transport, like the ten-foot-long piece of Styrofoam the students found in Foul Bay. But the students approached each task with enthusiasm and energy. The more challenging a restoration, the more rewarding it was. As one student noted, “We picked up a lot of bottles and buoys. We took 20 minutes to cut away a net wrapped around several trees partially buried under the sand. We carried a net from the back of a lagoon – it took 6 people holding branches across to carry it. I felt so good cleaning up the environment, knowing I made a difference.

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In nine days, the students picked up more than ten bags of trash, hauled enough treated wood to build a small cabin, naturalized five fire-pits, and left seven separate beaches cleaner than they found them.

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On the final night of the trip the students made a fire low on the beach so that the ashes might wash away as the tide came up. In the twilight of an Alaskan summer night, the students roasted marshmallows, read aloud to each other, laughed and shouted, and lamented that time had flown by so quickly. Ten days prior, the majority of the students had been total strangers and all of them came from different walks of life. Together, they had learned more about each other, themselves, and the environment in which they lived.  That night, one student wrote in their journal, “Camping changes you. I think it makes you appreciate nature more.” 

The participants returned from their adventure brimming with excitement, laughter, and plenty of stories – feeling as if they had known each other for much longer than ten days. Many of them expressed that they were deeply impacted by what they learned about the environment, and impassioned to be stewards of Alaska’s beautiful wild places.