Mentoring the Mentor

By Jan Littlebear

First year Yupiit instructor Elena, with the assistance of a local fish trapping expert named Henry White, arranged for her middle school students to make, set and check fish traps in the Lower Kuskokwim; and for her 3rd graders to check for fish trapped in nets that had been sewn and set under the ice near the school; and finally for the high schoolers to sew the nets, make their own fish traps, set them and later check their traps for fish. All of these wonderful traditional, cultural experiences were taking place over the course of several weeks, ending the first week of December. Enter the mentor! I arrived the week when all three classes were snowmobiling out to their sites to check the nets and traps for fish. Lucky me, I got to go along for the ride. I watched as the high school students attached floater and lead-weight cables to fishing nets, and I went with all three grade levels onto the frozen tundra to check set fish traps and nets. I traveled to Napakiak to mentor my teachers, and I received the education!

Early Career Teacher (ECT) Elena first directed me to an oversized closet near the gymnasium where sports equipment was kept. Equipment had all been shoved to one side of the closet to make room for the students. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see six high school students and Henry, huddled around a fishing net that was hanging from the ceiling. At one end of the hanging net, three students stood sewing the floater cable onto the top of the net. They had a huge wooden "needle" with the twine-thread weaving in and out, in and out of the net. Twine wove through three mesh squares and then the student tied a knot to the cable, then three more and another knot, another three another knot, and so on as they worked across the entire top of the net. Once the cable is attached to the top of the net, it helps the net "float" when submerged in the icy water. At the opposite end of the net, students were attaching the heavier lead cable to the bottom of the net, the weighted end. I watched the lone girl of the group working the weighted lead cable. She wove her 5-inch wooden needle in and out, tying knots, in and out; tying knots, measuring distance, skipping one mesh square, taking two, tying knots, skipping one, taking two, tying knots, skipping one, and taking two, all the time tying knots. Using the length of the needle and a pre-measured wooden piece, she skillfully measured the distance between knots on the lead cable, attaching weight to the net.

Fish trapping expert Henry White stands beside a fishing net.
Fish trapping expert Henry White stands beside a fishing net.

As Henry checked the tightness of a series of knots, he remarked, "These are too loose. They won't hold underwater." The girl counted back to where he had indicated and said, "Those aren't my knots, they're his!" pointing to a classmate standing nearby. Henry told her that her knots were too loose as well. Gesturing with her arms, to demonstrate her weakness, she stated, "I'm a girl, I'm not strong enough." Henry then told the students how this girl's grandmother used to sew these leaded cables onto nets for hours every day, and that Grandma could finish three nets in a day. All of the kids let out a collective groan when they heard this fact. I took pictures of the students sewing cables onto the fishing nets. Oh, the lessons I learned in that storage room!

That same afternoon I was invited to accompany the junior high students out onto the frozen tundra to the place they had set their fish traps to see if they had caught any fish. Henry checked to make sure I had my winter clothing. Alas, I didn't. I had left home without my snowpants; no snowpants, no go! I asked the Principal, Mr. Kokes if I could borrow his. He said, "Sure." In addition to snowpants, he brought me his boots. I tried them all on. They fit. Next, I added a fleece pullover, my new red goose down coat - which now made me look like a flaming red Michelin (Wo)MAN. I donned my green velvet, fur-lined Alaska hat, complete with earflap warmers, tied it in place, and further decided that as slick as it was outside I'd better put my ice cleats on. I did. Gloves completed the outfit. Henry walked right by me, within inches, probably thinking the multi-layered puffy red thing with a green velvet topper was a Christmas decoration created by the kids. Then he heard my muffled query, "Are we ready?" He was polite and didn't laugh out loud, but simply smiled and said, "Oh, Jan, there you are."

Field Trip No. 1: Once I was outside, I saw a boy alone on a snow machine and I asked him if I could ride with him. Petey! I caught him off guard. He had no idea what the afternoon held in store for the two of us-neither did I, for that matter. More lessons. Petey, a young middle schooler, was too darned quiet and polite to ask "Do I have to, Ma'am?" I climbed onto the machine behind him. This, my mentoring colleagues, was the very first time in my life I have ever been on a snowmobile. Keep in mind, my body is not what it used to be The legs don't lift nearly as high as they once did, like when I rode horses as a child; the titanium hip is not bionic and doesn't swing out as you might imagine it should; add to that the extra bulk of snowpants, boots, parka, long Johns, wool socks, cleats, fleece layering, the Flaming Red Michelin coat, the green velvet, fur-lined hat complete with ear flaps, and of course mittens. It's a wonder I could even walk, let alone climb aboard behind Petey onto his snow machine.

We set out. Petey drove with caution, care, and consideration—so much so that he and I kept falling a bit more behind the rest of the class. Guide Henry led the group. Picture Henry at the front pulling a sled with our supplies, followed by six or more machines loaded with kids, then a teacher, ECT Elena, hauling a couple of kids, and finally at the tail end you have Petey and his colorful red and green passenger--me. Petey and I fall behind. Petey and I fall farther behind. Petey and I can barely see the entourage in front of us. Petey and I are alone; alone on the ice-covered, frozen, VAST landscape of Alaskan delta tundra. We cross several bends of what I assume is the same river. We cross a huge lake. We cross over the delta. Time passes. We follow well-worn tracks obviously made by other snow machines, but we don't know if they are fresh. We can't tell. We come to a place where some tracks go to the left and some to the right; Petey took us left. Five minutes later he stops, turns off the snow machine and listens. He turns to look at me for the first time since meeting me 30 minutes earlier. He's silent, saying nothing. I ask the obvious, "Did we lose them?" He nods. Once again Petey faces forward, turns on the engine, turns the machine around and heads back to where we began. About ten minutes into our return, atop a rise in the tundra, he again turns off the engine and listens. His very first spoken words to me were: "Can you hear any snow machines?" I cock my head towards where I think our fisher people are. I listen. Sadly, I reply, "No." The sun is quickly settling upon the horizon. Petey sits back down, turns the engine on and takes me back to the school. He pulls up to the boardwalk, lifts his body a bit, and helps me get separated from the snow machine. I ask Petey how much gas we just used, and his whispered reply was so low I was not sure what he said. When I hand him $5 for gas, insisting I replace what was spent, he tries to give it back. I prevail. I later learned that Petey immediately gassed up the machine, returned to the tundra, retraced our steps to the bend, continued on (to the right) and found the class, several of whom had been out looking for us! Obviously Petey had been worried about getting stranded on the tundra after dark, alone, with a strange puffy Christmas ornament!

Day Two-Field Trip No. 2: The next day Henry found me and teased me about not keeping up, and getting lost. I told him he was just a speedster trying to dump the newcomer. He said I could have a second chance because he's going out again with the high schoolers. I remarked that I was too embarrassed to go ask the principal to borrow his pants again. Henry offers me an extra pair of his; he'll bring them over. I agree. So for the second day in a row I am wearing some man's pants-this time Henry's!

Henry instructs, "Jan, there's something I want to tell you before we go out today." Then he informed me that once we're on the delta, I am to step in his steps and nowhere else. Pointing to his knee, he informs me that the mud under the ice is that deep; he moves his hand up to his neck saying the water is that high, and that if I fall through the ice, there will be nothing but my head above the water and they'll have to pull me out. I assure him I'll stay in his tracks--another lesson for the mentor.

Henry White chips away at the ice.
Henry White chips away at the ice.

This time Henry partnered me with the same girl I had captured on film the day before, as she knotted the lead cable onto the bottom of the net. Again, Henry leads the caravan pulling a sled holding our tools, then another two machines with high schoolers, and finally my girl driver, me, and two more teen-agers standing up inside the sled we're pulling. Fifteen minutes later we're all at the site. This time I made it. (Henry did stop a couple of times to be sure we were all together.) Our tools consisted of a long metal pole ice pick and two shovels. There are two circular depressions in the ice, about 18+ inches in diameter and about six feet apart. They're easy to see. Henry tells all of us that the safety check for walking on the ice is to hit the ice with the pick one time, as hard as you can. If it goes through on the first try, the ice is too thin; if it takes two times to break through the ice, then it's safe to walk on the ice. It is on the ice where we need to watch one another's steps and stay within the range set by Henry. I recall Henry's earlier admonition to me and very carefully watch where I place my feet. I followed in their steps. With camera in hand, I bring up the rear of our little expedition.

The boys began to chip away at the larger depressions. It takes no time at all to have them chipped away and two tiny pools of water are easily opened, from which the fish traps are removed. I am busy taking pictures as the students chip away, reopen the circles, pull the fish traps from below—fish traps they made in class the week before—and place the traps onto the ice. They remove the half a dozen or so blackfish trapped inside. I click away. Click. Click. Click. When all of a sudden I hear Henry's words of caution, "Jan, what did I tell you about staying in our tracks?" I stop clicking. I look around. Uh-oh! I had backed up significantly from where the kids were—I wanted a good photo, you know, one with the sun behind me and the right photographic composition? I slowly closed the gap between the group and me, and cautiously retraced my path to where it began. Once within a foot or two of Henry he leans over and in a stage whisper broadcasts, "Jan, I just didn't want my snowpants to get wet!" Everyone laughs. We load up the equipment, I climb onto the backseat of the snow machine, and we return to the school with six or seven blackfish. Elena later informed me that they either boil the fish for five minutes before eating them, or eat them Eskimo-style, frozen.

Jan (in red) rides in the sled with the 3rd graders.
Jan (in red) rides in the sled with the 3rd graders.

Day Two-Field Trip No. 3: Once inside the school, I start to shed my winter gear when Henry asks, "Aren't you going out with me and the third graders?" I think to myself, "How lucky can I be? Three trips in one visit to this school!" I also muse, "Gee, I wonder what color I'm going to code these field trips on my Meeting Maker?" I also think about how I will write up this Mentoring Activity—you know, how exactly am I "mentoring?" An hour later, I'm seated inside a sled, a sled shaped very much like Santa's. Henry informs me that this same sled is used for hauling caribou—as many as ten at a time—a versatile vehicle for sure! Today it's hauling me and about a half a dozen 3rd graders, seated and standing in front of, beside, behind and on top of me. They're all giggling, laughing, and asking questions. One plops right onto my lap, and remains there for the duration of the trip-both ways. Henry takes a picture of us.

Henry pulls in the net.

In only ten minutes, we're at the fish site for 3rd graders. We stop and get ready to check the net. As soon as we stop moving, the little bundles that had been huddled around me all jump out scattering in every possible direction. I noticed that we were now on nothing but very THICK ice, thick ice everywhere. I am reminded yet again of just how well Henry has planned each of these outings with the different aged groups! Even though the thick ice makes me feel safer than yesterday, I continue to watch where Henry places his feet.

Again there are two large circles about 18 inches in diameter, set about 6-8 feet apart, with poles sticking out of each frozen ring, reminiscent of a badminton net without the net. In addition, this time several smaller circles were spaced equally between the two larger circles, for a total of five circles in a line. Henry broke the ice in the larger circles pulled the submerged net out a little bit from one end, the one closest to the snowmobiles. He tied a long rope to it with an empty oil canister attached as a floater and handed it to a couple of the kids. Henry next walked over to the second pole, broke through the circular spot on the ice and started to pull the net out from the icy water. A couple of the kids were on the opposite end—the tied-rope-oil-canister end—holding on for dear life so that Henry wouldn't pull that end through the first hole. Henry pulls and pulls and pulls. He drops the wet net onto the ice as he pulls it through the second opening. The kids gather round and watch as two fish tumble out-a lush fish and a white fish. I take pictures, making my way over to the fish. Henry was smiling, the kids were excited, and so was I! I click pictures again, but this time I watch where I stand. Oh, the lessons I'm learning.

Henry pulls two fish from the net.
Henry pulls two fish from the net.

I asked Henry how they "thread" the net under the ice from the first hole to the last hole six feet away when they first set the net. He demonstrated how to tie empty oil canisters to the rope-line before threading the net through, then the plastic canister floats to the first of the smaller holes, where they grab it and again shove the canister- rope-line down under water pushing it towards the next hole until the canister pops up in the next threading hole, and so on until the net reaches the final hole where it is pulled through and tied to the pole; the pole is set to mark their place. I also remembered how on the previous day I had watched the high school students sewing the lightweight "floater" cable to the top of the net, and I guessed that that floater cable also helps with threading the net under the ice. Pretty darned clever, if you ask me! With the two fish removed, all that was left to do was reset the net under the ice. Henry returns to the canister-end, where kids had diligently kept watch, and he grabs the rope, pulling the net back under the water. He unties the canister-rope from the net, resets the two poles, places the tools, rope, ice pick, and our two caught fish into the sled, and we all piled in. Ten minutes later, we're all safe and sound back at the school. I am the most excited of all! I have learned so much in the past 24 hours that I don't know where to begin.

In a very fast-paced short day and a half's time, I had experienced three ice-fishing, snowmobile field trips; watched nets being prepared by high school students; enjoyed the company of a gaggle of third graders, and been mentored by my early career teacher and her expert fisherman, Henry! Now all that remains for me to do is decide how to color code these adventures on my Meeting Maker calendar. Any ideas?

Henry, snowmachines, students