Boating Safety at the Hub of the Kuskokwim

Annie Grenier, a Kids Don’t Float instructor with the Alaska Office of Boating Safety, encourages a preschool student as she puts on a life jacket in Bethel, Alaska, April 13, 2015.

Annie Grenier, a Kids Don’t Float instructor with the Alaska Office of Boating Safety, encourages a preschool student as she puts on a life jacket in Bethel, Alaska, April 13, 2015.

Don’t be fooled by the modern airfield, wind-powered pool facility, cell service and Internet access; there’s a rare, ancient way of life that exists in the city of Bethel, Alaska.

The hub city for the many Yup’ik communities on the lower Kuskokwim River is host to a variety of subsistence activities, fishing and hunting alike. Schools of salmon swarm the river and its tributaries every year. Whether flowing or frozen, the snaking water serves as a highway to the wealth of moose, caribou and edible plants that freckle the tundra. And yes, of course, there’s the constant supply of fresh drinking water.

From the time migration to Western Alaska first occurred thousands of years ago, the liquid source of life meandered down from the mountains to the sprawling delta.

Deb Ylijoki, a Kids Don’t Float instructor, talks to a preschool class about falling into cold water.

Deb Ylijoki, a Kids Don’t Float instructor, talks to a preschool class about falling into cold water.

“During the summer when the river’s flowing, subsistence and fishing is a huge part of this community,” said Katie Wilkins, a special education teacher at Bethel’s Mikelngutt Elitnaurviat School. “Kids are out on boats all the time, and when it gets warm playing in the water on the river.”

It’s only natural that the people of river communities spend a lot of time on, or near, the water, even at an early age. With so many boaters using the frigid, powerful river, its inherent ability to take life contrasts harshly to its life-giving benefits. All over Alaska, waters like the Kuskokwim contribute to one of the highest boating fatality rates in the nation.

The team of water safety educators who visited Bethel, along with local partners in the community, are trying to do something about that terrible statistic.

“In the boating safety world we talk a lot about statistics, and we say that five out of six recreational boating fatalities in Alaska are the result of a vessel capsize, a swamping or falling overboard,” said Kelli Toth, the Education Specialist for the Alaska Office of Boating Safety. “It’s very real here. It’s not just a statistic. These are people who are held dear.”

The community concern is apparent. The Lower Kuskokwim School District and ME School opened their doors to the boating safety team, giving up valuable class time. The YK Fitness Center, home to Bethel’s brand new community pool, gave the team free reign of the entire facility to send all the school’s first and second grade students through a hands-on program, as well as an afternoon session later in the day for the entire community.

The mission began bright and early on a Monday morning. Three members of Alaska’s Office of Boating Safety and two Coasties entered the ME School with little more than a few life jackets and a general game plan. It was everyone’s first trip to Bethel, but their greeting at the front office made it seem like they were old friends. Principal Josh Gill brought the team into his office and showed them their allotted times and classrooms: four second grade classes, five first grade classes and four kindergarten classes. A daunting schedule for five instructors with one day to train.

With no time to spare, the educators split up to start training. Each classroom was different, but the team had a plan in place to get their message across, whatever their audience.

“We try to keep it as interactive as possible,” said Annie Grenier, a Kids Don’t Float education program instructor, of her instructing style. “Boating isn’t necessarily an activity where you’re sitting, listening to someone talking, so why would you teach it that way?”

The students asked questions, shared personal anecdotes and tried on life jackets. The lesson plan hid in plain view.

“Kindergarten, first grade and second grade all received information on cold water survival, the life jacket law, and choosing a life jacket,” said Toth. “And really that’s our lesson number one before students go off to the pool.”

Wear a life jacket. Make sure your life jacket fits. Have an adult nearby when you’re playing around water. Wave with both hands and make lots of noise if you’re in trouble. Once the basics were covered, the kids were ready for the pool the next day.

Bethel, Alaska, community members take part in a capsizing vessel exercise at the YK Fitness Center.

Bethel, Alaska, community members take part in a capsizing vessel exercise at the YK Fitness Center.

The YK Fitness Center opened only a few months ago, and the spacious pool inside makes the perfect training center. It may be warmer than the still-frozen Kuskokwim, but the confidence gained from wearing a life jacket and knowing it will keep you afloat is invaluable.

“We got them to get into the pool, showed them how to get out, and how to help a friend out,” said Lt. Heikki Laukkanen, the Coast Guard Sector Anchorage Arctic Shield project officer. “I think just the exposure is going to make them a lot more confident in the water.”

Laukannen lead one of three stations at the Bethel pool, each designed to focus on a different aspect of water and boating safety. The other two stations covered life jacket familiarity and the extremely popular how-to-deal-with-a-sinking-canoe scenario.

Between splashes, squeals of delight and moments of working past genuine terror, the students had a chance to apply lessons from the classroom session the day before. Despite a grueling day of six sessions, totaling around 120 children, the educational team kept their spirits up.

“I love boating, I always have, it’s always been a major part of my life,” said Grenier. “It’s something that I’m very passionate about, and I want other people to be able to enjoy that safely.”

The day ended with the community session, where adults and children alike took turns at the three water safety stations. Summing up perfectly what the visit to Bethel was about, one adult put on her life jacket and went swimming for the first time in her life. That’s one more person who is more prepared in the event that a boating accident occurs.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Sarah Brister, a boatswain’s mate at Coast Guard Station Juneau, stows lifejackets in a bag after a day of boating safety training.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Sarah Brister, a boatswain’s mate at Coast Guard Station Juneau, stows lifejackets in a bag after a day of boating safety training.

After two long days of working with community members and students, the team returned to their offices in Anchorage in Juneau. The first ever Kids Don’t Float education program session at the new Bethel pool was a success. More importantly, Toth and her team made connections with Bethel community leaders who look forward to the day that boating related accidents begin to decline because of education.

One trip may be over, but the wheels are already in motion to continue safety education on the Kuskokwim River.

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