KODIAK — Sunshine, hot summer temperatures, blue skies, calm water-these are not usually terms to describe our Kodiak Archipel! Yet, the ten days I spent on tour with the Island C to clean up beaches on Shuyak Island, I was consistently surprised with these attributes, even though the weather forecast kept suggesting otherwise. The weather was not the only surprise on this trip; it was a group of high school students who really warmed my heart with their actions.
As part of a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Fund, Island Trails Network worked with a group of students through the Student Conservation Association on a project to clean up marine debris, specifically entangling debris from heavily impacted beaches. This was the first such effort in the target areas of Shuyak since the government set aside money for cleanups after the flood of marine debris following the 2011 Japanese Tsunami. Most people remember the Fukoshima reactor disaster, but at the same time that tidal wave also destroyed many coastal structures and sent many tons of debris into the ocean.
Riding the ocean surface currents Japanese and Chinese debris makes its way across the Pacific and up the coastline of Canada and Alaska. In the north of the Kodiak Archipelago, the current divides into Shelikof Strait and along the south side of Kodiak, but the beaches in Shuyak are hit by that current face on. Winter storms also play their part in depositing much of whatever comes riding on the water onto the remote beaches of the northernmost tip of the islands.
Day after day, the group of students supported by two group leaders and a boat crew were taken to the most stunning beaches. Every morning, group leaders made sure that everyone had water and snacks, sunscreen, gloves, a knife and plenty of yellow garbage bags. Then, the first team would board the skiff and put on their life jackets for a quick ride to a nearby beach. A second team would tackle another beach. When a team finished one beach, they radioed in for the skiff to take them to the next site. With hard manual labor the teams cleaned beach after beach, picking up buoys, bottles, buckets, styrofoam from packing and insulation and countless plastic items. The most challenging were the lost and discarded fishing nets and tangles of line, which were always wrapped around driftwood logs and tree stumps, partly buried by beach pebbles or already overgrown by bank vegetation.
At first, any one of those big nets would have presented too big of a challenge to remove. However, with every passing day, our teams became better at working together to solve the puzzles of entangled lines — cutting in strategic places and moving logs out of the way through perfect placement of driftwood levers.
This is dangerous work and there were some minor injuries, not to mention bug bites and sunburns. But, challenged physically and mentally, the teams grew together, and it was an empowering experience for everyone involved. During stretch circles, we reflected on the personal gains and experiences.
Thank you to a great captain, who made this happen, a great ships’ crew (who pulled a lot of weight), a much appreciated cook and a superb group of amazing Kodiak high schoolers, who gave me hope for a better future for our beautiful planet despite its huge challenges. Twice we filled the entire ship with debris; the estimated weight is around 13,000 pounds. ITN is now working with some research projects through Oregon University to figure out how best to deal with the mix of materials that the ocean has spewed onto the beaches.
Sitting on a remote Shuyak beach during break trying to wave away the annoying bugs and feeling the pain in my back and my feet from the many hours of hard work in boots on uneven boulders, I found myself smiling at the amazing nature of the place, the comradery of the group and the presence of a variety of wildlife including sea otters, land otters and whales; geese and oyster catchers, gulls and terns; deer and bears (those were only seen in the distance) and on one occasion a sandhill crane that flew over us. To me, the animal’s calls sounded like “Thank Yous.” And, I always looked up to them with a smile and mumbled, “You’re welcome.”
Switgard Duesterloh runs the Kodiak Environmental Education Program, which invites school classes to hands-on place based Marine Science learning units in the OSDL, and offers summer learning experiences for kids, youth, families and adult travelers. For more info go to keepkodiak.com or email email@example.com.