Forty airmiles south of the city of Kodiak on the shore of Sitkalidak Strait with a view of Sitkalidak Island, lies the Native village of Old Harbor consisting of a strip of buildings, nine miles of roads, a harbor and an airstrip. Three weeks ago I arrived in a small plane loaded with boxes of microscopes, science and art supplies, books and notes, groaning under the weight of my panting dog, which had nowhere to sit but on my lap. For one week I had been invited by the Tribal Council to join the population of roughly 200 people and 95 dogs to help run a Marine Science Camp.
I was well aware that some things are different in a village. To start with, we had no idea how many kids would participate and who would show up on any given day. Also, we had to be ready for all ages from kindergarten to middle school, with occasional visits from the preschoolers. Working with such a flexible framework was different and challenging, but under the leadership of Bobbie Barnowsky from the Old Harbor Tribal Council, several adult staff and interns and two teachers from Fairbanks and Anchorage, respectively, we were set to make things happen.
For the first three days we also had Julie Matweyou from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Marine Advisory Program who worked with kids on identifying shellfish, digging for clams to test them for paralytic shellfish poisoning, and helping during tidepool activities and seaweed pressing.
The first two mornings at camp were spent on the beach at low tide investigating tidepools and learning about their inhabitants. On day two, mixed age groups of kids conducted a beach survey by comparing a plot near the water’s edge and one near the highest tide line and counting organisms inside. Later, we talked about the differences observed, why certain animals were only found in one location but not the other and compared numbers between groups. There were more barnacles higher up, but sea stars and sea urchins were only found near the water. I told a story of how I can never seem to keep a rock with barnacles handy for my classes when I also have sea stars in the same container. I learned that sea stars are very good at eating barnacles and also snails. However, because sea stars use sea water to operate their little tube feet and also as a substitute for blood to move oxygen around their bodies, they can not tolerate being left out of water for too long. Hence, sea stars are always close to the water, but barnacles, snails and mussels are where the sea stars can’t get to them.
Hermit crabs are always a favorite. In the afternoon, kids rotated through four activities, one of which was a hermit crab game. You place a hermit crab into the middle of a large pan with four corners. Each corner has a different substrate, for example, sand, shells, gravel and shiny blue glass beads. Then, each kid is given a betting sheet and has to predict which corner the hermit crab is going to choose. Further activities included making crab or jellyfish shaped soaps, pressing seaweeds, and cooking seaweeds.
On the third day we built structures on the beach with sand, gravel and boulders and tried to keep them from washing away with the incoming tide. We also mixed and poured cement using the sand and gravel from our beach and decorated our cement cakes with treasures we found on the beach. One even had a little tag on it that claimed it was “Made in China”; a treasure of the marine debris kind that someone had discovered in the sand.
Plankton collection, a microscope class and an octopus dissection where kids could get their very own tentacle to make a camp T-shirt with octopus tentacle prints were further activities. All was rounded out with games and art activities. Every night the Tribal Council provided a community dinner and invited families to join and listen to the kids recalling the highlights of their day.
After the last cleanup and preparations for the following day, I was usually exhausted. By the time we arrived at our temporary home, even my dog was so tired that she did little else but go to sleep, so she could run and play with the village dogs and kids again the next day. Old Harbor has taught me a lot about adjusting a teaching plan to the situation. The kids were great and I learned from them as much as I tried to teach them. Most importantly, we had fun learning, and on the last day we took some big plastic bags and cleaned up any trash we could find scattered along the beach or nearby in the village, and that made us feel good about being ocean stewards.