Herring Camp is a five day program that teaches students both ecological and traditional knowledge. A student examines a plankton sample, collected by his classmates. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

As a host of herring arrived in Sitka Sound last week, another school clamored to be out on the water. Nineteen students spent their Spring Break at the Yaa Khusgé Yaaw Woogoo (Knowledge of Herring Camp) – a 5-day program that taught students both the cultural and ecological significance of this critical resource.  

In its second year, the camp is a collaboration between the Sitka National Historical Park, the Sitka School District, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. Blending western science with traditional knowledge, the camp seeks to provide students a holistic understanding of herring. Marine ecologist Michelle Ridgeway, who runs a similar program in the Pribilof Islands, returned as Camp Director.

KCAW’s Emily Kwong tagged along for one of the boat trips and submitted this audio postcard.


Downloadable audio.

Herring Camp, Day 2 begins with a scavenger hunt for predators. I’m standing on the observation of an Allen Marine boat with a whole cluster of students. Birds are spiraling in the air and diving in the waters around us.

(Boat on the water, engine sounds)

Ryan Carpenter (Sitka National Historical Park ranger): We’ve got some definite herring predators at 3 o’clock. I can see those black and white birds.

Patty Dick (6th grade science teacher): Alaska waters – it’s like the nursery of the planet because the whales come up to eat, but then the birds come up to nest because of this rich, rich ocean ecosystem that we have.

Slideshow (Click through to view)

Today’s lesson is all about the oceanography of the herring habitat. One student kept his hands firmly on his binoculars.

Conner: I’ve birded quite a bit in my life so it’s pretty exciting to be on the boat. I don’t get to come out here very much and see what birds are out here.Patty Dick: Wahoo!!! Plankton soup!

Science teacher Patty Dick triumphantly holds a container of water into the air, filled with the herring’s favorite food. Two of her students, Delaney McAdams and Esther Burdick, are intrigued.

KCAW: What did you know about herring before taking this camp?

Esther Burdick (student): I thought of going to the beach with my parents to collect herring eggs for our garden and when I was younger, I’d just pick them up off the beach and I’d just put them in my mouth and eat them. I didn’t think about the predators and the prey. I think it’s a really good experience to do the herring camp and learn more about what I didn’t know before.


Students and adults tow in a plankton net. Students went on a three hour cruise around Sitka Sound to study the herring habitat – it’s predators and it’s prey. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Jessica Gill (Fisheries Biologist, Sitka Tribe of Alaska) : Alright, let’s pull it up.

Mary Miller (Superintendent, Sitka National Historical Park): See how engaged they are? This is day two and they’re in charge of the science.

Our vessel is the magic school boat of dreams, where kids become student researchers. At the bow, students are pulling up a sample of the ocean water. At the stern, they’re crouched over a joystick, manipulating an underwater camera as it scans the sandy bottom floor.


Chuck Miller tells the history of Indian River, as “Vanna White for the day” – camper Madison Roy-Mercer – held up place name signs. One side was in English…(Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)


And the other side was in Tlingit. Miller noted that it’s spelled Kaasda Héen. The dual language place names are one of many ways the camp honored both ecological and traditional knowledge. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Below deck, camper Madison Roy-Mercer holds up signs with the name of the place we’re passing in both English and Tlingit. Chuck Miller tells the story of Mt. Edgecumbe. In Tlingit they called it L’ux.

Chuck Miller (Youth Program Coordinator, Sitka Native Education Program): L’ux is what we call it and it means blinking because when our people first came to these shores, the first thing they saw was something blinking. That’s what brought them here. It was the volcano erupting.

The camp is funded through a $21,000 grant from the Outdoor Foundation and matching funds from the Sitka School District. Last year, the schedule divided the scientific research part of the camp from cultural activities. Certain days were devoted to each, but this year, the two worlds are blended.

Becky Latanich (Chief of Interpretation and Education, Sitka National Historical Park): We’re singing songs. We’re doing native languages and native place names. The science is happening and it’s all at the same time. So it’s not prioritized or compartmentalized.

We cruise into some waters just behind Crow Island. And that is when the grand celebrity of predators shows up.

(Kids cheering on the whales)

Carpenter: 6, 7 right there…we’ve got tails!

Burdick: On like a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being sleeping – very boring – and 10 being awesome rollercoaster, 90 degree drop, I would rate it like a 7 or an 8.

KCAW: Seeing a whale?

Burdick: Yeah!

Heather Powell: So while we’re eating I just wanted to do a quick song. This song is Raven’s First Dance.

(Raven’s First Dance song) 

As the trip winds down, we sit quietly as Heather Powell of the Sitka Native Education Program sings us home. On Thursday, the group also sang cultural songs while watching the herring fleet at work. Ranger Ryan Carpenter said it was one of the most powerful moments of camp.

The full schedule for Herring Camp included cooking herring eggs on the beach in a bentwood box, dissecting herring to study their anatomy, cutting down a hemlock tree and laying it’s branches in traditional spawning sights.


Our boat returns to Crescent Harbor. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)