2007 PFIG Recipient Victoria Evans
College of Arts & Sciences
Environmental Thought & Practice and Anthropology
2008 Graduation Year
Internship: Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association in in Anchorage, AK.
I am interning at a non-profit organization called the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Assocation (YRDFA), based in Anchorage, Alaska. While our office is located in the city (about 350,000 people), our work is for the somewhat-faraway region of the lengthy Yukon River. YRDFA exists to represent the fishermen – both commercial and subsistence (aka, native people). My particular responsibilities are to assist the Anthropologist with her research on Traditional Ecological Knowledge: what the native people know about salmon. It's an important topic because salmon runs shift in abundance and timing every summer. For now I'm sitting at a desk each day, researching our topic, but in a couple weeks (mid-June) we're flying to a village on the Yukon River called St. Mary's. For 5 days we'll get around on trucks and boats, interviewing up to 10 native people – mostly elders – on their knowledge about the river, changes they've seen in salmon runs, and natural indicators (for example, when the big yellow butterfly comes, people from Kaltag village know that the king salmon is coming close).
The fun part for me is meeting new people and learning new cultures and lifestyles. Native people live in a harmony with animals that requires awareness of their coexistence. If a seal perceives that the hunter is not fully aware or respectful, the seal will not allow himself to be caught. When there is understanding, the seal is willing to give himself to the hunter. The hunter in turn conducts rituals to ensure the seal's return next year to again feed the village (basically, reincarnation)
The residents of Anchorage also have a different way of life: Hiking (with the dog, of course, because nearly everyone here owns one), biking, and generally playing outside until sunset (currently 11:30 pm). Most everyone is outdoorsy, afraid of grizzly bears (with good reason), wary of moose, and remarkably willing to go out of their way to help others. Friendly people in the city, and a wild frontier outside the city limits.
Notes on the first week
I may be halfway through my spectacular summer in Alaska, but all I think is, "Only one month left, and so many places still to see!" Not to mention my internship responsibilities. I am continuing research on native communities as well as typing up the interviews we recorded during our stay at St. Mary's village. I had immense culture shock and much exertion over coping with the poverty and struggles of the native people. Five days in the village really immersed me in the lifestyle and mindset of both traditional and modern-day Yup'ik Eskimos. Many villages have motor boats, electricity, and some even have water treatment facilities. Yet they continue to subsist on the fish that run from the ocean up the Yukon River each summer. When subsistence is involved, especially over the valuable Yukon River king salmon (gigantic and tasty fish!), any harm to this food source is distressing. Commercial fishing in the ocean and even on the Yukon River can jeopardize a subsistence fishermen's ability to feed their children. On a lighter note, our research about traditional knowledge will hopefully contribute to state regulations on subsistence and commercial fishermen, and our interviews will preserve elders' knowledge for generations to come. Our stay in St. Mary's involved lots of chatting with welcoming, light-hearted people in their small homes or one-room riverside fish camps. We watched many men repair their mesh nets for fishing and many women cut fish to hang in the smokehouse that would feed the family through the winter.
My life outside of work has been exhilarating as well. I bike to work on a trail along a creek, lagoon and the coast. Yesterday was actually a sunny day (!!!) so I kayaked in the glacier-fed Prince William Sound, surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges with blue glaciers that turn the sound turquoise. I've eagerly explored the nature here as much as I've studied native people. Daylight update: sunset is close to 1 AM.
I have returned home to Virginia and find myself missing Alaska, but feeling extremely at peace with my accomplishments, adventures and learning experiences this semester. I also have the fall semester to look forward to, because I am continuing my work for the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association by doing an independent study at U.Va. I researched our study villages by perusing government reports and local libraries, and now I have to complete the write-up of my research, to be included in the introduction of our final report. I also transcribed the interviews of our study, and now I can extract valuable information from them and summarize those findings for our final report.
Everyone at work gave me a warm good-bye. We all got lunch from a local restaurant and sat outside in the downtown area of the city eating sandwiches and discussing my future plans. All summer they made me feel welcome and appreciated as both a summer intern and a friend. Often a colleague lent me a tent and some valuable Alaskan outdoors advice, which I seriously needed. They took me under their wings and answered my many questions along the way. I plan to keep in touch with them and remain a part of their lives. I was so lucky to find this internship! My supervisor even took me mountain biking to discuss my internship experience this summer. I spent most of that morning hopping off my bike just before near-fatal moments, yelling answers to her questions as she sped ahead.
I was able to make some unforgettable friends and memories in the wild Alaskan frontier. My roommate and other interns in the city were my company and entertainment, from hikes after work to movies on rainy afternoons. We road-tripped together, swam in the ocean (!!!), climbed to remarkable mountain views, and braved bear encounters. On a 26-mile (2-day) hike, a mama black bear actually stalked us along the trail before we turned around to find her 10 feet behind us! We had to scare her off with an air horn before marching on, our hearts racing. I often found myself embracing Alaska’s natural beauty with a motherly fear of its future demise. I worry about the development of our Last Frontier and hope that all future decisions are made with environmentally sustainable goals and sensitive respect for the subsistence lifestyles of native people.