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Local college student hones skills in Alaska

October 18, 2009
While most college students spend their summer breaks clamoring for low wage jobs or trying to land useful internships, graduate student and Tidioute native Missy Conte opted for the remoteness of the Alaskan wilderness to hone her job skills. For the past two summers, Conte traded the comforts of internet access, cell phone usage and a soft, warm bed found at home for a sleeping bag, canvas tent and limited communication with civilization while working as a biological technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Fairbanks, Alaska. While working towards her Master’s degree in aquatic biology at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, she was intrigued by the natural beauty of the Alaskan wilderness while attending a conference in the city of Anchorage in 2006. “I loved the scenery. I also knew I wanted to work for the federal government,” she said. In 2008, Conte applied for several fisheries technician positions in Alaska and landed one with the Fairbanks outfit, giving her the opportunity she desired. “I was able to see interior Alaska and experience it in a way that most people will never get to,” she said. Although her wish to experience Alaska had come true, Conte admitted she had some reservations about the trip. “I had apprehensions. You don’t have internet access. You really don’t have phone access except you get use a satellite phone for 10 minutes a week,” she said. Her hesitation soon diminished as she took her spot to work on a weir on the Gisasa River, a tributary to the Koyukuk River. A weir is a structure, which was constructed by Conte and her three campmates, that is put into the river to funnel fish into a trap. The technicians then count and sometimes sample the fish for size, sex and age. The objectives of the Gisasa River weir were to determine daily passage, estimate seasonal escapement and describe run timing of adult Chinook salmon and summer chum salmon. In addition, the group was also documenting observations of resident fish and determining the sex and size composition of the Chinook and chum. “The Gisasa River is a tributary to the Koyukuk River and provides spawning and rearing habitat for Chinook salmon and chum salmon,” Conte said. “These salmon species contribute to mixed stock subsistence and commercial fisheries in the Yukon River. My job was to count and sample the fish going through the weir.” Perched on the weir for two 3-hour shifts daily, she got the Alaskan experience she wanted. “In the summer, it was daylight most of the time. It was amazing to be sitting there on the weir counting fish and watching a grizzly bear catch fish less than 100 yard away,” she said. While the the surrounding wildlife and the remoteness of the camp, which was only accessible by boat or float plane, may have seemed dangerous, Conte felt secure with the survival skills she was provided with before arriving to camp. “We had to take bear and shot gun safety training before we left Fairbanks,” she said. “It basically showed us how to handle encounters in the field.” The threat of roaming grizzly bears was lessen by a simple, yet important structure at the camp. “We had a bear fence around the camp,” Conte explained. “It’s knee high and it’s just wire, like a horse fence, that goes around the camp is hooked into a solar panel.” Conte also had the opportunity to count the salmon using state of the art technology. After working on the Gisasa River weir, Conte worked at the Chandalar River, a tributary of the Yukon River. Using dual frequency identification sonar (DIDSON), she counted the salmon using state of the art technology, “It uses a beam that shoots across the river and the fish swim through and break the beam. Those come up as a blip on the computer and we counted those,” she explained. Regardless of the use of computers, Conte said the camp was just as remote as the Gisasa River weir. The lasting impression Alaska had on Conte led her to return to wilderness and do the same job and experience sample collection in different way with a helicopter ride to survey the spawning area for fish carcasses in the Chandalar River area. “When an area was found, we landed and all fish at the site were sampled,” she said. The data collected included sex, length and vertebrae samples for aging from fall chum salmon carcasses. “After we were done getting our target number of samples we could not make it back to Fairbanks due to weather. As it turned out I was scheduled to leave Fairbanks for the summer the next day and hoped that the weather would clear so we could make it back in time for me to catch my flight,” she said. “Even though somewhat stressful going on that helicopter trip for the carcass survey was the best way to end the season.” With little distraction from the civilized world, Conte spent the 2008 and 2009 summers learning more about her chosen field as well as learning more about herself in the stillness of the wilderness. She returned with to Eastern side of the country with a better appreciation for nature and her ability to survive without the usual amenities of a daily showers, phones calls and having everything at her finger tips. Conte intends to finish her thesis and wrap her Master’s degree this school year. With entering the full-time workforce soon, it is fair to say her quiet summers spent on the remote Alaskan rivers are over. However, she is grateful for the chance of a lifetime she received twice over.


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