Roughing It

Juneau students take cultural leap to the Yukon River

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2005

Five Juneau-Douglas High School students recently got a taste of ice fishing, mushing, trapping, muktuk and beaver tail in Russian Mission, a Yup'ik Eskimo village on the Yukon River near the coast.

The weeklong experience in mid-February was federally funded through the Rose Urban Rural Exchange of the Alaska Humanities Forum. Since the program began five years ago, about 300 students from cities and villages in Alaska have visited each other, said program director Panu Lucier in Anchorage.

An exchange between students from Floyd Dryden Middle School and Napakiak also is taking place this year.

In mid-April, students from Russian Mission - a village of 330 people 375 miles west of Anchorage - will visit Juneau, where they will experience bowling, movies, malls and perhaps walk on the Mendenhall Glacier.

"The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable sister-school relationship between urban and rural classrooms," said Ali McKenna, a JDHS English teacher who accompanied the students to Russian Mission.

Juneau and Russian Mission are both isolated communities in their own ways, said Chris Jans, a Russian Mission teacher.

The humanities forum is willing to continue to fund exchanges between participating schools, Lucier said. The goal is for urban students to learn more about rural lifestyles and Native cultures, and for village students to see what it's like to live in a city, she said.

"It sounded like something really different that you wouldn't be able to do anywhere else - live in a tiny Alaskan village where everything's so in touch with everything," JDHS sophomore Joey Bosworth said.

That and a week out of school was hard to resist, students said.

Students usually stay with host families, but Russian Mission was holding a winter festival when the Juneau students visited, so they lodged with teachers.

Jans said he was a bit worried about how the Juneau and local students would interact.

"Of course, kids being kids, they just fell in with each other," he said.

The JDHS students said they didn't spend time in the classrooms, but they did see the students at their school work because that included subsistence activities, which then became the basis for studies in the usual academic subjects.

The JDHS students mostly were outdoors, following children or teenagers along their beaver and lynx traplines, snowmachining or skiing to cabins and staying overnight, ice fishing and mushing.

The JDHS students said they expected a barren, flat landscape and were surprised to see hills and trees. But it was the people they remembered most - such as the kids who tagged along and wanted piggyback rides

"The people were amazing," JDHS sophomore Erika O'Sullivan said.

"You walk down the streets - well, they're not really streets - and everyone says 'hi.' They know who you are," JDHS sophomore Jill Carlile added.

"And by the end of the trip, you know everyone in the village," JDHS sophomore Lindsey Kato said. "The little kids were precious."

"They wanted piggybacks. They gave you hugs and high-fives," O'Sullivan said.

The Juneau students "were received incredibly well," Jans said. "People in villages are incredibly accommodating to people visiting who want to know and find out about things. It is so small that you can't have problems with people. Or if they do, it's solved in a way people can live with."

The residents spoke English but used Yup'ik words for traditional activities such as ice fishing.

Fishermen use huge metal picks and shovels to chip away a hole in the frozen river. Their fishing rods are short pieces of wood with string for line, and eels and fish as lures. Then you just jig the line and sit and wait.

"It was not an exciting experience unless you catch a fish," Carlile said.

"All of a sudden you feel this thing that pulls you down into the hole," Kato said.

The JDHS students chopped wood at remote cabins and cleared the snow off the roof. They learned that driving a team of dogs is more fun than riding in the basket, where your face gets coated in icy snow churned up by the dogs.

They ate moose, beaver meat and beaver tail, eel, beluga muktuk, and Eskimo "ice cream," which is made of fish oil - generated by literally squeezing the fish - berries, lard and sugar.

"It doesn't really taste like ice cream at all," Carlile observed.

"Like sweet, dried tuna fish," Kato suggested.

Beaver tail tastes like wood, the students said.

"Good wood. Really tasty wood," said Bosworth appraisingly.

Bosworth and JDHS sophomore Alex Holloway took the plunge in a Yup'ik steambath, a shack sunk into the ground. In the inner chamber, men poured water over rocks by a stove.

"When you can't take any more, you rush out to the antechamber and douse yourself with water," Bosworth said. "And then at the very end, you run out and throw yourself in the snow."

The exchange program began five years ago with students only. In the second year, it added teachers. And in the third year, it promoted sister-school relationships.

It will be up to schools to decide what shape the relationships will take. The exchanges could be part of an Alaska studies course, for example.

The King Career Center, a vocational school in Anchorage, made the exchange with Barrow as part of King's natural resources department. The city students learned about resource issues in the bush, and the rural students learned about job opportunities in government agencies.

"It's basically getting agencies and groups together that don't communicate a lot," said Myroslava Ponomarchuk, the sister-school coordinator for the humanities forum.

"The proper approach to the solution of the gap (between rural and urban Alaska) is you've got to teach the kids how to deal with it because we're about done," said Jans, thinking of his generation. "We're not the ones who are going to make a change."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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