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Getting an Education at Spring Camp

Dean Swope

It’s Spring! Springtime brings forth such fond memories of my childhood.

When I was about 8 years old we, the Active family, mom Elsie and dad James along with the late William Billy Moon, went spring camping. Billy Moon’s Yup’ik name was “Iraaluq” which literally means ‘Moon’. This was in the late 50’s and for my five brothers and I, this was the first and last time ever, for us boys to go Spring Camping.

Back then, everybody who subsisted off the land from Bethel and the surrounding villages went spring camping.

It’s the MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR! The end of the long dark winter.

We spring forward an hour so we can have longer day light in the evenings, yet even so, it sure seems like the sun rises earlier every morning and so it does and soon in June our sky will never go totally dark anymore until the middle of August.

About a month before spring camping Dad and Irraaluq brought supplies, over the snow covered tundra by dog team to where the camp was to be.

They loaded their sleds with two by fours and three quarter inch plywood for the tent floor and frame. They even took our boat and motor up to the campsite to use to go back home after break-up of the sloughs and the Johnson and Kuskokwim Rivers. They had chosen a campsite on an island that had a hill all covered with tall grass and some willows. There was a slough behind the camp and a lake in front of it.

This is the time when the geese, ducks, swans, loons and sandhill cranes begin migrating back to the Yukon and Kuskokwim Delta’s Wildlife Refuge Southwest of Bethel. Their calls wafting through the brilliant crisp, clear, blue skies.

When the rising sun appears over the Eastern horizon you can feel it’s warmth right away. And when the songbirds such as robins and swallows begin arriving they are already twittering and singing, even before the sun rises from behind the Kilbuck Mountains East of Bethel.

On the tundra everywhere, spotted sandpipers cry wee-wee fluttering their tiny wings as if in mournful distress and long billed dowitchers or kuukuukuaqs in Yup’ik flutter up high into the sky and then dive bomb towards earth, their wings beating a ghostly “Hoo-hoo-hoo” sound before fluttering high up into the sky to dive bomb again.

Mom and we kids were going to fly up to the camp, while the lake was still frozen at the spring camp site, in a plane with skis flown by the late Jimmix Samuelson of Bethel.

I remember that day well, we boys were so very excited. We all had been pulled out of school to go Spring Camping that year.

While we waited in Datu Samuelson’s store along Browns Slough in the East end of Bethel, one of Jimmixes’ pilots walked in. He asked Jimmix where all these kids and their mother was going. Jimmix grinned and told him, “Spring camp.”

That pilot did not know we all were bilingual and probably thought we did not know English. When he said, “These kids should be  in school. They won’t amount to anything without an education.”

Jimmix glanced at mom who sat silently holding Charlie our youngest brother. Mom was known to speak her mind and could have cut down that man into a whimpering stump, cowering in a swamp. But she didn’t say anything, however I knew she was very offended.

Soon, we were in Jimmix’s plane streaking over the snow-covered tundra to the campsite.

In no time we were flying over the snow covered tundra to the Spring camp site where we would be living for the next month living off the land until break-up.

From the very beginning we boys were taught by mom, dad and Irraaluq about our Yup’ik lifestyle.

We learned about hidden dangers such as bottomless bogs and quick sands around the lakes and swamps. We were taught how to set traps for muskrats and to shoot twenty-twos and shotguns for ducks and geese. We learned how to snare ptarmigan on the tundra.

We learned about gathering edible plants and which ones were poisonous. We learned which and what kinds of birds were around us by their calls. We learned everything about the Yup’ik  Subsistence Lifestyle that we would never learn in school.

Yes, springtime is special to me and I am glad for the memories of it and am still around to enjoy it.