Karta River: Classroom in the Wilderness

Think back to those boring days during school, when you would tune out the teacher's voice, stare out the window, and daydream about being outside. Well, if you were a student at Craig High School, no dreaming would be necessary.

Students load up and batten down for the skiff ride to Karta River Wilderness on Prince of Wales Island.

For the past few years, Wilderness Rangers with the Forest Service have been working with classes at Craig High School to develop monitoring projects that get kids out, into the field, doing real research in designated Wilderness Areas.

The curriculum is part of the Marine Biology class and Alaska Natural History class in alternate years. Students design monitoring projects, using data from previous years. Projects include phenology studies of False Hellebore, measuring fork lengths of salmon smolt, testing amphibians for Chytrid fungus, camera trapping large mammals, and any other indicator students plan into a study. Along with the research, the students learn about the management of designated Wilderness areas and work through the process of applying for research permits. The goal is that by the end of the semester, the students will have all of the practical experience needed to conduct professional field research—and hopefully open doors to new careers and develop an appreciation of Wilderness along the way.

Designated in 1990, the Karta is one of the more recent additions to the national Wilderness preservation system.

The defining feature of the Wilderness is the 5-mile long Karta River that drains Karta Lake.

Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in the class through the magic of video-teleconferencing. Stanford PhD candidate Lauren Oakes and I talked to the students about our work and answered questions. This year, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to join the class in the field for two consecutive days.

Getting to the Karta Wilderness, like most Wilderness Areas in Southeast, is not an easy task. We drove from Craig to Hollis on the eastern side of Price of Wales Island. There, we met the students at the dock, donned floatcoats, and loaded up in the Forest Service skiff after a safety briefing. The skiff ride to the Karta River takes about 40 minutes.

The crew of students from Craig High School arrives at the beach and prepares to hike into their test plots.

The drainage of a beaver pond adjacent to the river, a popular spot for the students' study plots.

On the beach, teacher Ashley Hutton gave succinct instructions to the students, "This is your project, you know what to do, you are the researchers, so now it's up to you." She also made the valuable point, "We're in a Wilderness area. If your equipment breaks, that's just part of doing field research--you'll just have to roll with it and adjust your project as needed." With that, the students took off to collect the requisite data, set overnight traps, and explore.

I helped two groups of students, one pair collecting stream quality data (dissolved oxygen, pH, salinity, and macro invertebrate surveys) and one pair testing amphibian populations for the problematic Chytrid fungus. While they conducted their tests, I asked them what they planned to do after highschool. The answers varied: diesel mechanic, fisheries biologist, Armed Forces. Thinking back to myself at that age (vacillating between aspirations to be a college professor or punk-rock drummer depending on the day), I realize that these students will likely change their future plans wildly in coming years. But the experiences they've gained from this class—appreciation and understanding of Wilderness, practical and marketable research skills, resiliency when things don't go quite as planned—will grant them more options, more realistic expectations, and more perspective toward whatever paths their future holds.

Two students collect data on water quality in the Karta River.

Students not only gain experience from hands-on practice, but also by teaming up with professionals. Here, a team of students works with Sarah Brandy, a fisheries biologist with the Forest Service.

The data the students collect will inform real-world research. This student swab a rough skinned newt. The sample will be sent to a lab at Indiana University and will help map the spread of a deadly amphibian disease, Chytrid fungus, across the continent.

The Rough-skinned newt is one of only a handful of amphibians that can survive as far north as Southeast Alaska.

These students had no problem finding newts in the outlet to the beaver pond.

Students check minnow traps set by the previous day's group to study salmon smolt.

Once the students finished collecting data, they had the opportunity to enjoy the Wilderness setting.

An "unofficial" aquatic vertebrate survey...

The community of Craig, Alaska.

 

SCS's involvement in Wilderness stewardship, including the Craig HS class, is made possible thorough a grant from the National Forest Foundation. Founded by Congress in 1991, the National Forest Foundation works to conserve, restore and enhance America's 193-million-acre National Forest System.


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