The Alaskan landscape is one of the most dangerous places in North America.
Here, tourists may be struck by calving glaciers, fishermen may encounter giant waves and skiers may be buried by an unexpected avalanche.
So anticipating hazards, and being ready for them, is just common sense.
There are more than 100,000 registered hunters in Alaska. That means sooner or later most of the kids in this state are going to be around a gun.
Molly Yerkes wants those kids to know what to do when that happens.
Yerkes is the principal of Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, where last week 150 of 152 sixth grade students took part in a hunter education course.
“We want our students to know how to be safe around firearms,” Yerkes said. “We believe that this program will reduce the number of accidental deaths and injuries related to firearms in Alaska.”
This is the fourth year the school has participated in the hunter education program, which is supported by a variety of agencies and individuals: The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension, Juneau 4-H Youth and Family Development Program, the Taku River Valley Sportmen’s Association (which underwrites course materials), and the school’s faculty and volunteer instructors.
The program covers a wide variety of topics related to outdoor education, such as wildlife biology and management, regulations, wilderness survival and safety, game care, and, of course, firearm instruction.
“I think it’s important that we offer this to students because kids are going to be around guns whether they hunt or not,” said Riley Woodford an information officer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “They’re going to be curious about guns, and it’s important that they get that curiosity addressed in a healthy way.”
Woodford, who served as a hunter education instructor at last week’s program, said the first time he taught the course he was surprised by how many kids went into military mode as soon as they were handed a training gun.
“One response, that is almost universal, is that the first impulse of these kids is to want to play army,” Woodford said. “The first thing they want to do is yell, ‘Lock and loud, soldier!’ and shoot at each other, because the only time they see guns is in the context of the military.”
“That has to be nipped in the bud,” he said.
Ken Coate, who has been active in hunter education for years, attributes this to television, where most people wielding guns are policemen, soldiers or criminals.
Those people are not modeling the kind of firearm safety he is trying to instill in Juneau’s students, he said.
“First of all, no firearms instructor uses the term ‘weapon’ for a gun; that’s a military term,” Coate said. “And every child in today’s society, by watching television, is being taught the improper use of a firearm — people are pointing guns at other people, keeping their fingers on the trigger, and are ready to shoot.”
The hunter instruction course, which involves both classroom study and fieldwork, is designed to demystify guns by offering a hands-on introduction to how they should be used.
On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, students headed to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Juneau Hunter Education Shooting Complex at Montana Creek.
First, they took a 45-minute walk through the woods, where Woodford had set up silhouettes of deer, moose and bear.
“We’ll ask the kids, ‘Is this a safe shot, or not a safe shot?’” Woodford said. “They assimilate the lessons they learned in their class, and can say, for example, ‘No, because there’s a road behind that animal.’”
At the range, students learned to fire .22-caliber rifles from standing, kneeling, sitting or prone positions.
Parents who did want their children to participate in the firing exercise could choose to opt out of this portion of the program.
Students who passed both the proficiency shoot and a written exam will receive a hunter’s education card.
Coate said the pass-rate for the course tends to be more than 80 percent of participants. Those kids, he says, are then ready to participate in other sportsmen activities, such as the 4-H Shooting Sports or Archery in the Schools programs.
“Ken Coate is the main player in getting the program into the schools,” Woodford said. “He got this outreach going as a real labor of love.”
Coate created a prototype for the school-based hunter education course in Gustavas in 1995, and then brought the program to Floyd Dryden Middle School in Juneau in 2001.
Since then more than 3,000 sixth graders from Floyd Dryden, Dzanteek’i Heeni and the Juneau Montessori School have gone through the program.
“This course is like health class,” he said. “We teach kids that tobacco isn’t healthy, that they shouldn’t drink too much sugar, that they shouldn’t drink and drive — but how many schools are teaching kids about firearm safety?”
“No one gets a lot of glory out of this,” he added. “My glory is to see the kids be safe.”
• Amy Condra is a freelance writer based in Juneau.