“We borrow the earth from our children.” Fifteen-year-old Maria pulled this proverb out of her back pocket during a discussion we were having on why stewardship is important.
The Chugach Children’s Forest, a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Geographic, aims to better engage local youth with the Chugach National Forest. Through this, they strive to foster stewards of the land who will care about and desire to protect what is theirs. For the past nine days I have been on a Chugach Children’s Forest Expedition, working on stewardship and habitat restoration projects in the Prince William Sound area of the Chugach National Forest with nine teenagers and three amazingly knowledgeable trip leaders. The trip started off in Anchorage, where the teens learned how to prep and pack all of the gear they would need for a nine-day stint out in the wilderness. The next day we were off to Whittier to load eight kayaks plus us and all of our gear onto a water taxi to our first camp site, Eshamy Bay. Like Cordova, Eshamy Bay has an invasive European black slug problem. Our goal at Eshamy Bay was to collect and exterminate as many of the slugs as we could during our three days there. I started off our slug-slaying mission with a lesson on basic slug biology–they’re omnivorous, hermaphroditic, prefer cool moist environments, etc. Then I introduced the concept of invasive species, and how the black slug could cause harm to the ecosystem there. The group was so great about picking up the slugs. They had such positive upbeat attitudes about everything, and were excited to actually have an impact on a real life environmental issue. I will admit that candy incentives were prized to the best slug slayers in the group, but I truly felt that they desired to make a difference. Tim Lydon from the U.S. Forest Service office in Girdwood, Alaska, even stopped by to have a discussion with the teens about national parks and the importance of the work they were doing on this trip. Before we picked up and moved camp, we went on a few sea kayaking outings in Eshamy Bay. My most memorable moment of the trip happened on one of these outings when we paddled to the mouth of the river and just sat in the little bay it was emptying into. Salmon were jumping and swimming around. I stared down into the clear water and saw 15-20 salmon swim under my kayak. This was my first time seeing salmon swimming in the wild, and it was so beautiful. The night before we moved camp we had a big slug-slaying fire to make sure that all of the little beasts were dead. Of course the slug bonfire was preceded by a fire-building lesson in which a few of the participants got to learn how to build a proper campfire. This was the general trend on the trip; everything was a learning experience for these kids. Most of the time I also listened intently, as I have yet to cultivate many of these basic camping skills myself.
After three nights at Eshamy Bay, we moved our camp over to Point Nowell. Here, what the teens had already learned through the ethics of “leave no trace” was put into action. A bird’s nest with 4 or 5 maybe 2-3 day old chicks was found near one of the path entrances to the boy’s tent area. The situation was evaluated, and a decision was made to utilize another entrance into the area that did not disturb the newly hatched chicks or their mother. The other entrance was a farther walk, but the teens were able to weigh the costs and benefits of such a decision using what they learned about “leave no trace” which I thought was pretty fantastic.
There were so many moments like this on the trip, where they had to put the lessons they were learning into practice and make decisions in the face of unexpected obstacles. It’s that kind of active learning that really sticks with you, especially when you’re a kid. In the next blog post I will continue with more details about the rest of the trip, and some thoughts on the group’s experiences as well as the importance of an expedition such as this one.
To be continued…