Going to Fall Moose Camp in Nikolai, Alaska
By Mark Biberg and the students at The Top of the Kuskokwim School.
It was a warm fall day as we pushed off into the swift current. We were loaded with camping gear and hearty learners who were looking forward to experiencing fall moose camp.
The colors of the trees along the edge of the river made the view serene and relaxing. As the motor picked up speed and the boat surged up in the water, I sensed the warm breeze on my face. It was a pleasant sense of foreshadowing of the wonderful and adventurous journey ahead.
The people of Nikolai have long gone to fall camp for moose hunting, visiting, and being together as families.
There have been several Elders that recently passed away, and the community has been mourning their loss and celebrating their memory.
Getting out to camp allows people to re-connect with each other, share love and memories, and become intimate with the land.
The river winds around in a series of “S” curves that make a 2-hour boat ride seem longer than it is. But, it was still an interesting trip with a lot of treasures for the eyes and ears.
The edge of the river offers a nice variety of cut-banks, fallen trees, sloping cliffs, smooth sand beaches, and sand bars. Beaver and muskrat can be seeing working and playing on the bank. Bald Eagle and Osprey fly over-head. It is a natural and sensual smorgasbord.
Getting to camp was wonderful. It is located up the North Fork not far from Medfra. (There used to be a store there).
The camp is on high ground over-looking the river. Moose tracks are all around camp-some fresh.
There is a small cabin set up, with a fire pit. We set up a wall tent not far from the cabin. There is small lake behind camp which is home to a lone swan and a wandering young moose.
Getting out to camp is important. In a practical sense it is nice to get a moose and have that winter meat. But in a cultural/ well-being sense, it is good for the body and soul to get out to camp.
The air is fresh, water is cold, and the cell phone and computers are left behind. People visit, take walks, go for boat rides, and spend time together. People come here to think about the past and see if lessons can be learned. They/ we come to places like moose camp to remember what it means to be human.
At camp we learn from each other. Setting up the wall tent takes teamwork. The stove has to be in the right place or the wall tent will start on fire.
Getting wood for the fire can be a chore, but again working as a team makes short work of it. We had plenty of wood and often our tent was like a “maqi” or sauna.
There was always coffee and tea cooking at camp. That made a great catalyst for conversation and sharing of stories. Plenty of fresh moose meat was on the fire.
We also made moose soup and moose stew. I enjoyed venison growing up in northern Minnesota and so I have a natural affinity for moose as well. It was tasty and succulent.
Going on walks and talking about nature is a learning experience. We always are sure to have a rifle or 2 along as it is moose season (they are in rut) and there are still grizzlies and black bears trying to gain a few more pounds before hibernation. Often times the students know many things about the flora and fauna that I do not.
They teach me and that is a wonderful thing. Moose Camp is a great classroom and the students who feel at home at camp can be very effective teachers.
I appreciated having a chance to spend time with several Elders at camp. Nick (and Ann) and Carl have made many camping trips in their lives, and they know the river and the many camps along its edges from 50 plus years of hunting, fishing, and camping along her shores. (The Kuskokwim’s North and South forks).
To watch them navigate the boats on the changing depths and directions of the river is like watching a seasoned captain on the high seas. Getting a chance to hear the Elders talk about the old days was history in the making. I know the students appreciated those stories the Elders told as much as I did. When as Elder dies we lose a library and that should remind us to seek out our Elders and learn from them while we can.
There was moment of transcendence and bliss on the second morning of camp. We were up early having coffee and the morning sun was coming up over the lake. We had been watching a young cow moose across the lake, eating the wet grasses without a care in the world.
Then we see a lone swan come into view on the far side of the lake. It flew up across the lake and up over the river; that was way too awesome. The swan then circled around and flew low (and if it were “buzzing” us) and flew over camp, right over the tops of the trees.
We saw a close up view of a beautiful white trumpeter swan in full flight right over camp. The whole flight was less than a minutes, but those few seconds as it soured over camp were powerful and magnificent. I thought to myself: This is a moment to savor, to appreciate, and to be shared with others.
So now we are back from camp and our goal is to give it some substance and meaning. I want to challenge the students to be storytellers and share what they experienced with others.
They have that immediate and tangible experience that they can describe in writing, in stories and essays. They may do a follow up interview with the Elders. But being at campo and experiencing camp offers a long of stimulation for the senses. It creates a lot of conversation and memories. There are times of silent solitude where a person can think and reflect. Now, we must work as a team to translate that wonderful and rich camp experience in a form that we can share with the community.
I hope to share an experience like this with Rafael and Sean. They love animals and the natural world, but they have not had a chance to camp out much. They would love moose camp and would absorb the knowledge and experience like sponges.
Mark J Biberg
Mark Biberg lives in Nikolai Alaska during the school year and in Anchorage during the summer. He has 2 sons, Rafael Alexander, 8, and Sean Bradley, who live in Anchorage with their mom, Erika Giovanna, and their Abuelita Luz Benites of Lima, Peru. Their Grandma, (Granny B) has lives in Blackduck, MN. Mark is currently a teacher in Nikolai, Alaska, which is a small Athabaskan village on the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River, 47 miles from McGrath, Alaska. Mark coached with BCLB Bears from 1995-2001 under the tutelage of Coach Bechtold. In 1997 the team placed 3rd in the State and were Academic State Champions. Mark has taught in Alaska for 14 years, including in the Villages of Mountain Village, Kotlik, Tuluksak, and Nikolai; and the communities of Delta Junction, Fort Greeley, and Nome. Mark hopes to finish his master’s in counseling this year and work with returning Veterans suffering from PTSD. (His sister Dorothy is finishing her MBA this year as well…..there is some speculation who will finish first).