In the Tlingit community of Keex’ Kwaan (Kake), early summer is in full swing. It’s 70 degrees, thimbleberry flowers are abundant, black bears munch on tender grasses, seaweed dries on tables in the sun and the Alaska Youth Stewards crew is beginning its field season.
Alaska Youth Stewards is a community-based stewardship program that provides summer employment for our current and upcoming leaders while ensuring they are healthy, supported, and given meaningful experiential learning opportunities in their home communities. Catalyzed by partners within the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, AYS operates across Southeast Alaska and includes the Training Rural Alaskan Youth Leaders and Students and Youth Conservation Corps programs. This year, there are AYS crews in Kake, Hoonah, Angoon and Klawock.
The Organized Village of Kake has proudly hosted the Kake AYS program since 2017. This year, during its first week, the Kake crew is planning its season and learning skills in outdoor and wilderness safety, using traditional plants, ocean sampling and research, photography and storytelling and financial wellness.
On a special tour of their community, the Kake AYS crew highlights its projects and favorite places. At the community garden, radishes, carrots, rhubarb, potatoes and more are growing and will be shared with community members. It is a beautiful day, so everyone spends some time tending to the beds, weeding and watering as we get to know one another. Throughout the season, the AYS crew also gathers traditional foods to share with their elders and community.
Inspiring young leaders
About a 20-minute drive from town is Seal Point Recreation Area, a great spot for a picnic lunch in the sun. Last year, one of the AYS projects involved working with the Unites States Forest Service on trail maintenance here, so elders, visitors, and future generations can enjoy all the area has to offer. Three of this year’s five crew members worked on that project and have joined AYS again this season.
“This is my second year working with AYS, and I really wanted to join the job again because I love the outdoors,” said Brandon Ward, whose hobbies include boating, kayaking and four wheeling. “We have been outdoors already most of the time this week and it’s really fun,” he adds.
Alexis Copsey, a new member this year, also enjoys the outdoor aspect of her job.
“My favorite part of AYS would have to be being able to go outdoors and learn more about how to keep myself and my crew members safe when we go outdoors,” she said. “It’s also helped build my knowledge and expand my career connections for the future and build friendships.”
AYS facilitates exposure to role models and professionals who will continue to support educational and life pursuits long into the future. Whether the participant decides to stay in or leave and return to their home community, being exposed to culturally meaningful employment opportunities and knowing they are supported, is pivotal.
The highlight of the tour is a place called Cathedral Falls. As we climb down to it, Tory Houser, Recreation Staff Officer for the Wrangell and Petersburg Ranger Districts, gives a geology lesson about karst and how you can spot clues along the trail indicating there are unique features in the area. A karst landscape forms from the dissolution of soluble bedrock, such as limestone, creating features like towers, sinkholes, caves and fissures.
The walk down through the forest is beautiful, with sun peeking through the spruce needles. Devil’s club leaves glow as they reach towards the light. Maidenhair ferns delicately line the trail and the pungent smell of shaax (stink currant) wafts around, engulfing our nostrils as we walk by. Suddenly, the forest opens up to a welcoming swimming hole with a waterfall cascading through an impressive limestone tower. The surrounding rocks are fascinating, each holding secrets to the past. One even has an embedded fossil of a shell.
The final stop is an old logging site known as Soderberg Camp that is now home to a precious wild strawberry patch, but mostly open, unused land otherwise. Last year, the AYS crew began to envision a design it is hoping will become closer to reality this year. In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the crew plans to add value to the site with a totem walk and picnic shelters, so Kake’s families and elders can have a nice spot to enjoy a meal, go for a walk, pick strawberries, and watch the sunset not far from town.
Ward excitedly takes the lead on showcasing the ideas to the new members of the crew and Houser, so she can report back to her USFS districts and work on the next steps necessary to secure funds for the project.
The AYS crew members interview each other and discuss what they love about Kake. Most enjoy spending time outdoors with family and friends in their favorite places, but Kake’s strong sense of community is also valued.
“Community support is really special,” Copsey said. “One of my favorite things is our culture camp every year. I have a lot of memories and always have a fun time camping with my community.” Kake’s week-long culture camp, started in 1988, teaches traditional values and food harvesting and processing across generations.
“The community is really supportive, especially when we fundraise for sports travel, and when someone passes away,” echoes Mamie Crookes, who is also working with AYS for the first time this year.
Crew leader Audrey Clavijo notes how reciprocity is a value embedded within the AYS program. “AYS upholds Kake’s community values by giving what we can back to community members through our projects like trail building and recreational improvements, and sharing food through gardening, gathering, and preserving,” she explains.
This is Clavijo’s third season leading the Kake AYS crew. In an interview with a crew member, she discusses how accomplishing the projects set out for the season is a major goal of the AYS program, especially because many of them are the hopes and priorities of the community and youth. Throughout the summer, Clavijo works closely with her crew members to set and pursue their own unique goals, whether they are directly related to the AYS program or not.
“I really hope we can get a lot of projects done, but my real success as the crew lead would be feeling like each student has attained their goals that they have for the summer. I want to facilitate that in whatever ways that I can while getting closer with each person and leading the best way that I can,” adds Clavijo.
Grave Island: Improving Kake’s Resting Place
It’s a misty morning the next day, which feels refreshing after several days of intense sun. We boat over to Grave Island, where the crew is continuing work on designing and improving a trail for easier access to existing grave sites and to create more space for new sites. Improving accessibility here is a beautiful way to serve the Kake community and honor the resting place of ancestors and loved ones. Much of the island is so overgrown that many grave sites are barely visible anymore.
AYS makes some measurements and outlines where a new section of trail will be constructed. The big challenge is where to place a set of stairs, as part of the route is muddy, too steep and eroding. In pairs, the crew members bushwack through the cow parsnip and alders searching for a reasonable route that could have the fewest stairs to make it as easy as possible for elders. They eventually settle on a path and take some final measurements for the Forest Service, which will also be providing support for this project.
With some time to spare, the crew tends to the beginning of the trail, which they began building last year. After an hour of whacking weeds and laying fresh beach gravel, some relax on the beach and others take some time to visit a family member that has passed on.
AYS encourages strong young leaders in Kake who care for their community members across time — including those that rest in peace on Grave Island. The positive outcomes of their work are enduring. Future generations will enjoy exploring the trails AYS builds and cares for, and may even fill their bellies with fresh garden vegetables tended in the community garden
The Kake AYS crew would like to say Gunalchéesh/Thank you to their community members and all the partners that support their program: Organized Village of Kake, Spruce Root, Sustainable Southeast Partnership, United States Forest Service, Sealaska Corporation, Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, National Forest Foundation, Native American Agriculture Fund, Student Conservation Association, Sitka Conservation Society.
• Bree Travica, Brandon Ward, Mamie Crookes, Ethan Kadake, Alexis Copsey, and Audrey Clavijo comprise the Kake Alaska Youth Stewards Crew..Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a diverse network of tribal governments, organizations, businesses and individuals working together to reach cultural, ecological, and economic prosperity for Southeast Alaska. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can also be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.