Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
April 2015

Alaskans Afield
Learning Outdoor Skills

By Sierra Rose Doherty
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Learning to shoot a shotgun.

Out of 50 people who gathered to learn about grouse and ptarmigan at February’s Mat-Su Wildlife Wednesday lecture, only a handful raised their hand when asked, “How many people here are hunters?” Rick Merizon, the state’s small game biologist, was trying to decipher the make-u­­p of his audience before diving into the subject matter. Then Rick followed up with, “How many people would like to learn to hunt one day?” This time, hands shot up all around. So here we have a group of Alaskans eager to learn about wildlife, the majority interested in learning to hunt, and only a few with experience. This begs the question: why aren’t more folks out there doing it? What are the barriers? It may be a simple matter of opportunity.

Many Alaskan residents—young and old alike—possess a desire to explore Alaska’s wilderness and to supply their families with wild foods. The fact of the matter is we are not all introduced to a tradition of subsistence and outdoor pursuits at an early age. Many of us have to seek out opportunities to develop this awareness.

Sarah Giossi is a Wasilla resident who is looking for more of these opportunities. Sarah was raised in Wisconsin and while her father hunted deer, she was too young to go along. When they moved to Alaska, his schedule changed to night-shifts and that made it difficult to hunt at all. Now, Sarah has a daughter of her own and she’s not willing to let that family tradition fade away.

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Students in the Alaskans Afield moose hunting class meet an actual moose at a Fish and Game research facility.

Luckily, more opportunities are arising for Sarah and other Alaskans who want to become more confident in the outdoors. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has partnered with Outdoor Heritage Foundation of Alaska to offer outdoor-skills workshops in the Mat-Su Valley and Juneau over the summer of 2015. The program, known as Alaskans Afield, is in its second year running and is an expansion of the Department’s long-standing, Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) workshops. Alaskans Afield is designed for individuals and families who want to hone their outdoor skills in a low pressure, fun environment.

Sarah found out about Alaskans Afield last spring when she was looking online for a hunter education class. “I read about the program and wanted to do it because it was affordable.” She signed up for Moose Hunting 101 and Introduction to Shotguns. “I live with a lot of people. Seven people under one roof can get really expensive. We grow our own vegetables and I don’t want to eat the nasty stuff that’s in store-bought meat. I don’t want anything to do with it when there’s natural meat right outside the door.”

The moose hunting class was held at University of Alaska Fairbanks Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer where Fish and Game biologists conduct nutritional studies with captive moose. “I got up close to them,” Sarah recalls. “I didn’t realize just how massive they are and how much work it would be to haul all that out of the field. When the instructor put antlers in my hands and said this would be the lightest thing I would pack out, it really hit me.”

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Students in the Alaskans Afield "field to freezer" class learn about butchering a deer and processing venison.

But the work involved didn’t change Sarah’s mind about wanting to hunt big game. In fact, she has already applied some of her learning in the field. “After the class, I had the opportunity to accompany a friend on a caribou hunt. I saw that he was making some mistakes in the way he was field dressing and caring for the meat. We would have probably lost a lot of meat if I did not go to that class. Moose Hunting 101 was huge for me.”

Alaskans Afield classes are kept small to allow participants to ask questions and practice skills in a supportive atmosphere. Experienced instructors provide a solid foundation and also point out resources for continued learning. “I learned about the gear I needed, where to go and how to protect my meat.” Sarah said. Depending on the class, instructors provide tips on where to find maps and equipment, when shooting ranges are open to the public, what outdoor clubs they can join, and what other ADF&G classes are available. Equally important, a natural networking happens in these classes. Whether you are coming on your own, with a friend or your whole family, you are sure to meet others with similar interests.

Luckily, Sarah has a group of friends who like to hunt. “My friends like to go shoot things,” she laughs, “but I want to get more education first.” So, Sarah is diving in for more learning and fun. “I will definitely be signing up again this year.”

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Learning to fly fish.

This year’s lineup ranges from First Aid, Map and Compass, and Outdoor Survival to Fly Fishing, Archery and Deer Hunting. Whether you want to prepare yourself for dealing with emergency situations when you’re away from the road system, discover which wild plants are edible or plan your next fly fishing trip, Alaskans Afield has something for everyone. All classes are led by top-notch instructors and are usually held Saturdays from 10:00 to 1:00 p.m. Here's a full list of classes, registration information and scholarship opportunities.

There are many critical skills to becoming a proficient outdoors-person, and it is not too late to sharpen your outdoor savvy or start a new family tradition. As Sarah reflects, “Taking these classes gives me more confidence and going back to your roots is the way to go.”

For more on outdoor camps, skills and clinics and BOW

Sierra Doherty is an education specialist with Fish and Game, based in Palmer.

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