Ron Chambers, a Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Elder and former warden at Kluane National Park and Reserve, travelled with the group, teaching the youth about wildlife and First Nations history. With some of the First Nations students, he was able to share stories about their parents or grandparents.
“To me, the biggest thing of all is the respect they had for what they were doing,” Chambers says. He was impressed by how they pitched in and didn’t complain despite the long days and cold. (For experiential learning, the Yukon’s Department of Education sets temperature cutoffs of –20°C or –30°C, depending on the group’s mode of travel. The drop to –40°C on the night they harvested the bison wasn’t forecasted, but despite the cold, the animals had to be processed.)
Before he went on the trip, Chambers wasn’t sure how valuable the experience would be for students. “[You might think] it’s just a glorified bison hunt,” he says. “But it’s not. It was bigger than that. Even if they didn’t get a bison, you could see that it was still something worthwhile doing for those young people.” It’s an especially valuable experience for Yukon students, he adds, more so than it would be for youth from southern Canadian cities, because it teaches them about the northern lifestyle—one they’ve grown up surrounded by.
Students are chosen for the trip based on teacher references, with a focus on those who’d benefit from the leadership opportunity and experiential learning. While it’s not a high-school course, Porter Creek students who participate in the hunt twice receive credit for it. But they aren’t the only ones learning. The adults each bring their own knowledge and experience, providing an opportunity for everyone to absorb new skills from each other. During the field dressing, for instance, Morrison learned how to do a rib roll—cutting meat off the ribs in one piece. Some youth also jumped in to offer Morrison advice on loading her snowmobile, while a student with an interest in diesel mechanics stayed up late to help keep a parent’s truck running in the cold.
Learning on the land happens differently than it does in the classroom; the environment encourages kids to assume leadership roles. In the mornings, a Grade 11 student would rise before 7 a.m., of his own accord, to get a fire going in the wood stove and coffee brewing. One night, Milne’s snowmobile was acting up. He wiggled the wires and Reynolds-Fraser, who was riding with him, let out a cheer of encouragement. As luck would have it, the machine roared to life. “The cool thing about experiential learning is it just happens,” says Milne. “It’s learning how to adapt and be flexible and be creative because when you’re out on the land you have what you have. You don’t have a YouTube video you can watch to fix stuff. You can’t call a friend.”
Learning aside, there was also just silly fun. One day, four Grade 9 girls, kneeling in the skimmer, danced and sang as the snowmobile towed them along. The sled would stop, the group would look at some tracks, then the girls would climb back into the skimmer and start singing and bopping again. The trip saw some competitive card games, too. “I was the universal international Crazy 8 champion, for at least one day anyway,” Chambers says with a laugh. “Then somebody took my title away.”
For the students, the trip went beyond what they’d imagined. It was Kiriak’s first hunt and one of Reynolds-Fraser’s firsts. “We will cherish those memories for a very long time,” she says. Kiriak agrees. “Going on an open river to getting lost in the forest,” he says, as Reynolds-Fraser laughs. “Elbow deep in bison at minus 40,” she adds.
Typically, the students host a feast for their families and community members following a successful hunt. Last year, though, the COVID-19 pandemic hit shortly after they returned. The feast was postponed indefinitely, waiting for the day when everyone can gather again.