Kukaklek Culture Camp

Written by Alexanna Salmon on .

The October 5th weekend at Kukaklek Lake Culture Camp was the fall highlight for 5 students, 5 elders, 5 chaperones from Igiugig Village and 2 researchers with the University of Alaska Fairbanks DEER STUDY The camp, funded by the First Alaskans Institute, the Igiugig Native Corporation, and the DEER STUDY, took place at Big Ku Lodge, at the outlet of Kukaklek Lake and the headwaters of the Alagnak “Branch” River.

We packed enough gear to camp the winter at Kukaklek—it took four floatplane charters to transfer us. Kukaklek, in the Yup’ik language, means “middle one” for it is located between Lake Iliamna and Nonvianuk Lake. Our meals and stories took place over an open fire-pit. On Friday we settled into camp, prepared dinner, enjoyed a demonstration of traditional games and had mini-competitions. We then listened to stories in Yup’ik by the elders. The elders that accompanied either hunted, trapped, fished, or were raised reindeer herding around Kukaklek Lake and Branch River. They mark the last generation of our villagers to live off the land and with freedom to live wherever.

On Saturday we hiked to an ancient Paleoarctic camp, which contains artifacts that suggest the site may be the oldest known archaeological site in the Katmai region. We ate lunch on a high bank overlooking the lake—sun shining warm on our backs. After a quick cranberry picking contest, we hiked back to the river to learn how to set a fish trap in the river. No fish were visible in the area, but the kids enthusiastically waded into the water and set to work! Back at camp, we finished handcrafting our own games, and learned how to make cranberry fish akutaq. We listened to the elders play the harmonica, accordion, and tell stories. The students were tasked with crafting their own stories to tell to the elders. They turned out surprisingly creative and humorous—their imaginations fed with being far removed from the comfort of modern day living, cell phones, and laptops!

The last day was spent packing up camp, canoeing, checking a full fish trap! The elders were preoccupied with interviews on the reindeer herding period in the Kukaklek Lake region. The weather was incredible, the elders in their element, the students true joys, and it all combined to make for the highlight of our fall. The project has just begun, however, the students will produce a coffee table photo book and short DVD about the culture and history of Igiugig, and a traditional place-name map for the benefit of future generations. It is our goal to host more culture camps in the future, and diversify each location. Next time, we will pack more lightly.