It's mid April and both snowing and raining - the complete opposite of the previous day’s sunny skies. Nonetheless, ten 4H-ers ages 5 and up from the Sitka Spruce Tips 4H club and several volunteers, along with the property owners, are squelching around in muddy gravel planting relocated sitka spruce and western hemlock trees, and some yellow cedar tree starts. This is a reforestation project spearheaded by sailor, fine woodworker, and Tongass steward Frances Brann. The project is happening on a cleared building lot adjacent to her property that she purchased in order to restore after feeling disheartened by the way it was being developed. She wanted to involve the 4H youth to provide an opportunity for them to learn about planting trees and stewardship.
The 4H-ers are working hard, shoveling holes and carrying buckets of mulch with mud smeared all over their snow and rain gear and even on some cheeks and noses. There’s no complaining, and one can tell the kids are having a blast regardless of the weather. One young boy even exclaims, “I could do this forever!”
Frances thoughtfully directs the various teams working together to dig slightly deeper holes or make sure the trees are standing upright. But, she says, “It’s not really about how the trees are planted, it's more about teaching the kids about planting trees.”
After all the 60-70 trees are planted, we grab a quick group photo by a lovely handmade sign reading ‘4H Grove 2021’ that Frances carved. Before parents show up, the 4H-ers get sprayed down with a garden hose to avoid getting their family’s vehicles too muddy.
We would like to extend our wild gratitude to Mike Mayo, Andrew Thoms, and Frances Brann for their stewardship of the natural environment of Southeast Alaska and passing on those values to future generations. Both Mike and Andrew have been nursing young yellow cedar saplings here in Sitka, and along with Frances, love to share these trees with friends and neighbors, and hope that yellow cedar will continue to thrive across the Tongass for many generations to come.
About our 4H program:
The Sitka Conservation Society has the goal of connecting youth to the natural environment of the Tongass through hands-on experiential education and leadership opportunities. The Sitka Spruce Tips 4-H program is our primary tool for achieving that goal. Our program focuses on teaching youth how to live with the land and sea, the Alaskan way. The learning-teaching model facilitates leadership development as youth learn skills from elders then pass on those skills to their 4-H peers and their families back home.
More info: https://www.sitkawild.org/4_h
Story and photos by Storytelling & Outreach Specialist, Lione Clare
4-Hers building a shelter. Photo by Lione Clare.
As we approach April, Alaska-Way-of-Life 4-H club concludes its second quarter of programming for youth ages 5-18 in Sitka for the 2020-21 year. We focused on the 4-H value of “Heart” in the months of January, February, and March, with a focus on the life skills of sharing with each other and nurturing relationships. Especially when the weather is cold, it is important that youth have a chance to build connections with each other and mentors in the community outside of just a school setting. By providing youth opportunities to try new activities and talk to various community leaders in a relaxed setting, we hope to give them the chance to discover new interests, make new friends, and learn by example from these role models.
Our programming covered a wide range of topics these past few months, but the highlight of all of it was the help from community mentors. In January we had the Winter Play series, which was weekly meetings to play and explore outdoors in the cold while also learning about winter survival. Some of the sessions included working in teams on skills like building shelters and starting fires. Another week, Marnie Chapman, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast, led a session on finding and cooking edible seaweed. Beyond providing valuable information about intertidal edibles, Marnie exemplifies what a career of staying curious about nature and science can look like. For the fire-building session, Kevan O’Hanlon, former leader of 4-H Alaska-Way-of-Life, came back as a guest instructor and reunited with the youth she worked with 2 years ago. Curriculum and supplies lent to 4-H by AMSEA were critical for putting this series together.
Sitka 4-Hers on a "night hike." Photo by Amy Li.
In February we held a Hiking series, with three night hikes and one sunrise hike -- the highlight being the sunrise hike on the Cross Trail after a fresh snowfall. We met at different locations all over Sitka and during the hikes 4-H’ers had a chance to bond with each other and connect with their surroundings in a completely new way and time of day. We also met for a virtual series called Heart-to-Heart where we learned how to make pop-up cards, collaged together, and wrote penpal letters to 4-H members in Bethel, Alaska and residents at the Sitka Pioneer Home. These activities will hopefully help nurture relationships with elders and other youth outside of the Sitka community, with a goal to broaden the social network of the Sitka 4-H members.
In March’s Spring Break camp we spent lots of time hiking, shelter-building, playing games, and crafting. Campers also got to spend a day with Chuck Miller of Sitka Tribe of Alaska, and he shared stories and personal experiences about seal harvesting in Sitka. In the Cooking series we met weekly on Zoom to make healthy, immune-boosting recipes that are also kid-friendly. We were lucky to have Leah Murphy of the Spinning Moon Apothecary share her expertise on seasonal eating at our first session, and she also shared a special tea blend made just for the participants. We are so grateful to these community leaders who are willing to share their knowledge with 4-Hers and connect with them on a personal level; they are the ‘heart’ of what makes 4-H so special!
4-Hers crafting during 4-H Spring Break Camp. Photo by Amy Li.
We are excited to continue with more programming in April emphasizing our next theme: Hands! The 4-H kids will have chances to practice new skills and work with each other as a team at our activities this month, including a Photography series, the Family Eco Challenge, and more. Reach out to [email protected] with any questions.
– Kate Grumbles, Living with the Land and Building Community Jesuit Volunteer
4-Hers masked up and ready for a hike during 4-H Spring Break Camp. Photo by Amy Li.
For this year of 4-H Alaska-Way-of-Life Club, we decided to separate our programming thematically into four quarters with each quarter representing one of the four H’s: Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. This fall, “Health” has been the theme, with a specific focus on healthy lifestyles and stress relief. Health has been a concern for all of us recently, given the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is important to have good habits in place for ourselves and the people around us.
4-H Wild Edibles Series walks. Photos by Grace Harang and Emily Pound.
We began with the Wild Edibles Series as a chance to explore Sitka and harvest together. Experiences building healthy habits such as these can be invaluable for youth. Every chance that 4-Hers have to become comfortable picking berries and identifying plants now will mean increased confidence in these abilities later in life. If we make a cup of tea with labrador leaves we picked from the muskeg, we are reaping the benefits of our local environment without plastic, packaging, shipping, and other intermediary steps, which also contributes to the health of our planet. In addition to cooking and consuming wild plants, we also found ways to use them in art. We sketched mushrooms, created watercolor paints out of berries, and made 3-D collages out of fallen leaves. When creating art with natural materials, it is important to think about how much and where you are collecting from. The health of our natural resources depends on our ability to collect and consume them in thoughtful ways.
Mindfulness is a helpful tool to relieve stress. We ended most of our programs with short meditations that serve a similar purpose to creating art; quieting the background noise of our minds and focusing on what we sense directly around us. One program that focused on this idea specifically was the Five Senses Walk through Sitka National Historic Park. We stopped at different points on our walk to focus on each sense; for example, counting how many different sounds we could pick out or using our sense of touch to guess what kind of rock or shell we held in our hands.
4-H Salmon Celebration. Photos by Lione Clare.
In our Salmon Celebration, Renée Trafton of Beak Restaurant demonstrated how to filet a salmon, and 4-Hers were able to practice on coho donated by the Sitka Sound Science Center. We also learned how to cook the salmon together. One health benefit of eating local salmon is they are high in omega-3 fatty acids that help us to maintain healthy brain functions. We are so lucky to have fresh salmon found right in our backyard!
Other programs we had this fall included healthy holiday cooking and gift-making, a wild foods celebration, and a “Movement Mondays” series. In the holiday series, we made gifts with reused materials, like wreaths using fallen plants and seashells. For some youth participating in the Wild Foods program, it was the first time they had cooked with rockfish or eaten locally grown kale. 4-Hers who participated in the movement series sampled different kinds of movement with guest instructors on Zoom: tae kwon do, yoga, strength training, and Inupiaq dance.
As we enter into the winter season, programming will shift to our second theme: Heart. Keep an eye out for the January calendar and programs like Winter Play, Storytelling, and Knitting Club coming up. It has been a joy to work with 4-Hers this fall, and I cannot wait to spend another season learning and exploring Sitka with you all!
– Kate Grumbles, Living with the Land and Building Community Jesuit Volunteer
The Alaskan Way of Life
The Sitka Conservation Society has the goal of connecting youth to the natural environment of the Tongass through hands on experiential education and leadership opportunities. The Sitka 4-H program is our primary tool for achieving that goal. Our program focuses on teaching youth how to live with the land and sea, the Alaskan way. The learning-teaching model facilitates leadership development as youth learn skills from elders then pass on those skills to their 4-H peers and their families back home.
SCS partners with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service to run the Sitka Spruce Tips 4-H Club. This club has many local adult volunteers who are committed to youth development and community service. In addition to the Alaska Way of Life programs, 4-H projects in Sitka currently include sewing, shooting sports, knitting, photography, and food and nutrition.
The Alaska Way of Life programs vary throughout the year. Thus, 4-H member participation is flexible due to interest and availability. Fall programs have included hiking, wild edible harvesting, and food preservation techniques such as jams, drying, and smoking. During winter, 4-H members have enjoyed workshops on risk management, survival skills, deer tracking and processing, using your senses, and repurposing crafts programs. Spring programs have included Leave No Trace camping skills, compass navigation, and Earth Day activities. In the summer, we keep 4-H members busy with gardening, hiking, kayaking, and art projects. Throughout the year, we work with community partners and local expert naturalists to learn about the natural history of the Tongass. These have included bird and mushroom identification, the role of herring in the food web, whales, stream ecology, forest ecology, nature art, bear aware skills, intertidal life, slugs, and so much more!
4-H members commit to learning together, sharing knowledge, and giving back to the community. These opportunities are available to school-aged children 5-18 years old. Thanks to community support, there is a very minimal cost.
Interested in joining 4-H? For questions or information about current programs, contact Kate at [email protected] or (907) 747-7509.
Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka Native Education Program teach Sitka’s youth how to respect and process deer
The Sitka Conservation Society’s Alaska Way of Life 4-H program (SCS) and Sitka Native Education Program (SNEP) partnered this January to teach Sitka’s youth how to process one of Sitka’s local bounties: deer. The children from the 4-H program and SNEP Culture Class learned from Chuck Miller (SNEP Youth Program Coordinator) as he removed the hide from the animal and taught much more than just how to butcher a deer.
Miller shared with students what the customary traditional practices of deer processing entail. The first thing he pointed out was that the head of the deer was missing. Chuck explained that the brain of the deer could be mixed with urine and used to tan the hides long ago. Chuck said,
“It is important to not waste, and it is disrespectful to the animal to say ‘eww’ or ‘that’s gross’ because that animal gave up its life for you, so you can live.”
The children were certainly not squeamish. No ‘ew’s resounded from the audience of eager and fascinated onlookers. The children learned that the hoofs could be boiled down and used for rattling sticks to dance with. The hide was removed carefully, and the kids discovered that it could be used for clothing or drums. The children eagerly peered over each other to get a look at the heart, liver, and stomach. Chuck explained that the tendons are so strong that they have been used for battle armor, dream catchers, and to latch many things together.
The class also discussed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations and the importance of limitations on does for protecting fawns to conserve the population.
Miller shared with students how to respect the animal by properly processing the meat, as well as by not wasting parts of the deer. He then explained how respecting the animal transfers to respect for the community; the first deer you get for the year should never be kept to yourself.
“You give it away to somebody who is a widow, an elder, or both. You want to make sure you take care of people in the community who cannot hunt for themselves and our elders.” One of the boys in the group whispered to his friend “I’ll give it to my grandma”.
The class was able see the deer processing steps all the way from removing the hide to wrapping the meat in freezer paper. The kids shared stories of their own deer hunting experiences and favorite recipes as they packaged the meat. Students were enthralled and walked away with both a practical understanding of the deer butchering process as well as a stronger respect for this treasured resource.
The Sitka Conservation Society looks forward to partnering with the Sitka Native Education Program in the future to teach Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community.
Chuck Miller shows a captive audience the importance of respecting the animal and native traditions through the sacred process of butchering a deer.
Students were enthused to see the steps of proper deer processing all the way from removing the hide to wrapping the meat in freezer paper while learning values of respect and community.
Hydrologist K.K. Prussian from the U.S. Forest Service taught 4-Hers of the importance and process of stream measurements during a rainy night hike.
The sun sets before 4pm during a Sitkan Winter. This fact leads to most after-school activities being held indoors. During November and December, the Sitka Spruce Tips 4-H Club enjoyed nature after dark as they learned of Sitka’s plant diversity, hydrology, and soil.
Before we started each hike, 4-H members were reminded of the safety tips necessary for our adventure: group behavior, bear awareness and visibility.
On our first hike the 4-Hers learned that having a healthy ecosystem is dependent on having a variety of plants and animals. During the second night hike 4-H members learned of soil properties from U.S. Forest Service Soil Scientist, Jacquie Foss, by getting their hands dirty and discussing color and texture. The last hike focused on stream measurements such as velocity, turbidity, and temperature. The kids made theories on what different measurements could mean for fish and stream health. The 4-H Club was lucky to have a soil scientist and hydrologist explore with us and learn of their careers and the soil and water around us.
The 4-H club had a blast learning of different soil textures with Soil Scientist Jacquie Foss from the Forest Service.
Mary Wood helps 4-H members get settled into their kayak before going on the water or the first time.
As the kids helped load the kayaks and safety equipment into the car, they complained the day’s activities had not been long enough. Their grumbles continued in the van all the way back to town as they begged Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H leader, Mary Wood, for more time on the water the next day. They only had one day left in their kayaking course, the last 4-H class of the summer, and they were not ready for it to end.
“They are developing a love and a passion for this place and that will have an impact on them,” Wood says about the Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program. From kayaking to gardening to fishing to cooking, her goal is to help the kids appreciate the beauty of their own backyard and grow up knowing they want to protect it.
“They will continue to be stewards of this place and be positive and productive members of their communities,” Wood says. “Even if they leave, they will continue to advocate for the ideals they are learning in 4-H.”
The Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program was started in Sitka three years ago with a push from Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society. Thoms knows that he came into conservation work because of his own experiences with 4-H growing up.
“I look back and it’s really amazing how much it shaped my life,” Thoms says. Growing up in upstate New York, Thoms did 4-H projects centered around nature – enjoying bird watching, building bird houses, working on a Christmas tree farm, and learning about conservation. “Through all of that, I got really into natural resources and natural resources management.”
Thoms came to Sitka 10 years ago and has been dedicated to building more community-driven programs here. The 4-H program is just one part of that vision.
“We are helping to start 4-H, but for it to continue, it has to have people that are passionate and build the program themselves,” Thoms says.
Part of creating a sustainable community is teaching children to use and respect their environment. Subsistence skills like harvesting berries, fishing, and hunting are all a part of life in Sitka, a community of about 9,000 in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. Thoms wants kids to grow up learning how to best use their environment, respect it and protect it. That’s the Alaska way of life.
But, 4-H can prepare kids for careers and opportunities outside of conservation also. Alison Mazzon volunteered with the Alaksa Way-of-Life 4-H program this summer while she visited Sitka on a grant from Patagonia, the company she now works for. While in Sitka, Mazzon helped chaperone the kayaking classes and taught classes on outdoor gear maintenance.
Mazzon grew up in Ohio and learned to sew at her local 4-H program. From her first project of a pair of shorts to designing and making her own prom dresses, she gained more than just the ability to make to her own clothes and several state-level awards from her 12 years in 4-H. Mazzon says she is grateful to 4-H for the friends she made and the leadership skills she gained.
And, like Thoms, Mazzon took her 4-H skills to her career. After studying fashion design in college and working for a few years on the runways in New York City, Mazzon is currently a technical design manager for Patagonia and is part of the team that make high-performance outdoor clothing and gear.
“I don’t know what I would have done with my life otherwise,” she says.
Just a few short weeks after their kayaking adventures came to an end, the 4-H crew took to the beach and learned fishing skills as their first class of the new school year.
In addition to these classes, the kids will also do community service projects, an important aspect of building a sustainable community, Wood says. For example, the kids make jams and jellies for the senior center. She says it teaches the kids a valuable skill and gives them a chance to connect with older generations.
One of Wood’s favorite memories of her time leading 4-H is from last year on Earth Day. She had brought a group of students out to a local hiking trail to do some trash clean up. She expected the kids to complain – spending a day picking up garbage not the ideal way to spend time for 9-year-olds. But, the complaints she got were not what she expected. They were upset that at how much trash they had collected. How could so much litter be found in their home?
Going on her second year in Sitka, Wood has big plans for the 4-H program. She is excited to start building a wider group of volunteers and seeing more kids join the program. She also wants to develop more classes for high school students, as the majority if the activities over the last three years have been for ages 5 – 10.
Whether the kids are learning to make jams with the berries they picked for elders in the community or learning important outdoor skills for kayaking and hiking, the Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program is about creating a strong community that exemplifies social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Those Alaskan ideals, and the ideals of 4-H, are seen as intertwined for SCS and they last across generations.
“There is a big need for interdependence here,” Thoms says. “In Alaska we are part of a community, and you cannot do it alone.”
To learn more about 4-H in Sitka and upcoming classes and events, email Mary Wood at [email protected]