Juneau, Maine swap fish tales

Posted: Friday, January 22, 2010

"As you'll maybe find out when you leave here, there's no place like this on earth," commercial fisherman Chris Place told 25 Glacier Valley students interviewing him on board his 42-foot combination vessel, Mara, last Friday.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Place knows this better than many. He grew up fishing in Southeast Alaska and, though he has owned other boats, the Mara is the same boat on which he lost parts of several fingers when he was just 14 years old. He later left the community and was trained as a classical French chef but returned to Alaska, and to fishing, a job that means he's seen more sunrises and sunsets "than most people will see in a lifetime."

"Set, haul. Set, haul. One day bleeds into the next... . When you're fishing, you try not to sleep," Place told them. "The less you sleep the more money you make. You never know when your biggest day will be."

Fishing, Place told the students, is part of what makes Southeast Alaska what it is.

Many of those students, in fourth and fifth grade, may not have left Southeast Alaska. But before they're done with the two-year project for which they were interviewing Place and 12 others last week, they'll have a better understanding of the fishing community in Southeast Alaska - and how it is like, and unlike, a fishing community all the way across the continent, in the Stonington School District in Deer Isle, Maine.

The two-year, multi-faceted grant "Swapping Fish Tales," uses the arts to learn about, compare and contrast the two fishing communities. It is funded in part by the Kennedy Center and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council Arts in Education program. It was applied for by local Annie Calkins; a little more than half of the $31,300 total grant came from local donations and the two communities themselves, she said. This part of the project was led by local playwright, theater artist and former radio reporter Ryan Conarro, artist in residence at Glacier Valley Elementary School.

"This is the first phase," said Glacier Valley teacher Florence McFarlin. "We're looking at the importance of fisheries in our area and its impact on us."

It's also a phase that has included learning how to conduct an interview and asking good follow-up questions, and how to interpret that information using drama skills, Conarro said.

At a performance at 9:30 this morning at Glacier Valley, the students will be performing "statue moments" from their 13 interviews, consisting of especially striking moments and stories, like when Place lost his fingers, or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher Mandy Lindeberg talking about her reasons for working in research, or Tlingit elder Nora Dauenhauer talking about growing up and the role of fish in Tlingit culture.

They also interviewed sports and personal use fisherman and an officer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"Most of our interviewees have one or two really compelling stories," Conarro said. "This (project) is such a big thing, it's easier to look at it as a bunch of little things that add up it - the performance in and of itself is a culminating event, and it does feel to me like this could easily have been its own project and be done now - but it has a future life."

Part of that future life is on video, as Juneau high schoolers have been videotaping the interviews for future projects and archival; Josh Doane, an 18-year-old senior at Thunder Mountain High School, videotaped Friday's interview.

Other aspects of the project include professional development for teachers, wiki communication between students and teachers in Maine and Juneau, and elements of science, social studies, performing arts, visual arts and technology.

Friday, students interviewed Place about how the fishing community here is different from how it used to be, how it works, and what it's like. Glacier Valley student Tyler Osterhout said he especially enjoyed learning about trolling, or "the little hooky thingee;" Doane said he enjoyed Place's stories.

Though the project is still evolving, it will culminate with a play incorporating what the students have learned, written by local playwright Dave Hunsaker, that will be performed in both Juneau and Deer Isle.

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