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Internship in Alaska Was a Great Catch for One Penn State DuBois Student

Mike Yakich holds a huge Sockeye Salmon he captured during the study. The salmon turn red in color during spawning.
8/28/2008 —

DuBois – Mike Yakich is back on campus after six weeks in the Alaskan Bush.  The Penn State DuBois Wildlife and Fishery Sciences Student spent much of his summer at remote sites in the Frontier State as an intern with The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA), based in Kenai, Alaska.  We first told you about the 44-year-old Returning Adult Student in July, just before his journey began.  Now that it’s over, Yakich says, “I knew it was going to be fun, but I didn’t know it would be that good.  It was quite an experience.” 

Yakich worked on the Adult Sockeye Salmon Enumeration Program with CIAA, where he trapped fish, recorded their weight, length and age and returned them to the water.  A single scale was also collected from each fish to be analyzed in a lab later, giving technician’s additional information about the salmon’s age and health.  The information collected will be used to set limits on the yearly salmon harvests.  Yakich says these species are commercially fished and vital to Alaska’s economy. 

The fish are captured for study while they travel upstream to in-land lakes to spawn.  They’re caught using structures called weirs, which workers construct from aluminum pickets.  The weirs create a dam that stop the fish, but allow water to pass through.  A live box is then opened, allowing fish to swim inside. Yakich said once in the box, salmon are picked up by hand for analysis.  Out of all the fish to pass through their weir, 40 salmon a day are studied, and then released.

In order to get the fish, researches must go into remote territory. Their camps were up to 200 miles from the base in Kenai, and only accessible by plane.  Each of the two camps Yakich worked in were occupied by himself and one or two other people; either fellow interns, or seasonal employees with CIAA.

“After four days of training we flew into the first camp at Stephan Lake, North of Kenai,” Yakich said.  “There are no roads, and we had to take enough supplies for our first three weeks there.  After that, supplies were brought in by bush plane every two weeks.”

Yakich said the camps were primitive.  He and his colleagues slept in tents and cooked over camp fires the entire time they were in the bush. 

After three weeks at the camp on Lake Stephan, Yakich headed to a similar camp at Lake Larson.  Here, he counted up to 5,000 fish some days.  Between the two sites he worked, Yakich says he saw an estimated 38,000 fish, and handled every type of pacific salmon.

“I really learned a lot,” he recalls.  “But I also realized how much I already knew going into the internship, since I already had my two year Wildlife degree from Penn State DuBois.”

Yakich said the internship brought him close to many other species besides those that swim in the lakes and streams.  All of which contributed to his overall excitement about his time in Alaska.

“Just to experience this and see the amount of wildlife was incredible”, he recalls.  “I saw eagles, spruce grouse, weasels, bears.”

 Grizzly Bears, in fact, were a regular site around the research camps.  Yakich explained, “I saw at least one bear a day, sometimes up to four a day.” 

The CIAA issued Yakich and his counterparts a 12 gauge shotgun for self defense.  Luckily, he says, it was never used.  Instead, the researchers were respectful of the animals and careful in the wild habitat.  “The bears belong there,” Yakich said. “I’m just visiting.  We kept our distance and always let the bears know we were there by yelling or clapping.”  He explains that, during training, his instructors stressed that one should never surprise a grizzly, and never disturb one while they’re eating. 

“At Lake Larson there was one we called the 10:30 bear,” Yakich recalls.  “He was fishing at the same place on the stream every morning at 10:30.”  

Yakich’s tales from his internship have sparked a big interest in the CIAA with other Wildlife students at Penn State DuBois.  Yakich says many more students will likely apply for the internship next year.  As for Yakich, he says, “I’d go back, for sure.”  

To see more photos from Mike’s adventure in Alaska, visit http://dubois.psu.edu/Alaska

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