It’s midmorning on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Lis Cordner grabs her jacket, a shotgun and the keys to the Airstream trailer she’s spent the summer in before locking the place up and heading down Skilak Loop Road.
During one of several trips throughout the day, Cordner and her partner walk down a path just off of the main road, stopping to point out flattened underbrush where a bear had recently tracked across their daily trail. The two step inside of a short electric fence around a small tarp-covered enclosure that opens into the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s weir at Hidden Creek.
The two are seasonal employees. The aquaculture association had 38 including its interns to gather data from the weirs and work at area hatcheries.
It’s a program that has been successful in that the temporary researchers gather much-needed data for the association which operates three hatcheries and runs several salmon release and habitat projects, said Caroline Cherry, hatchery operations coordinator.
“Without our interns we would be scrambling,” she said. “It is hard to find temporary workers.”
Cordner, who travelled to Alaska after graduating with a master’s degree in fisheries science, said she had been looking for jobs in the ecology field and found the position at CIAA through a friend’s Facebook page.
After applying she landed in Alaska May 21 and moved into the trailer on the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, complete with portable generator and Porta Potty, a drastic change from her school in San Diego.
“I like it a lot,” she said. “It gets a little isolated sometimes but it’s still fun.”
She and Alicia Blose, a Boston-area student with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, spend their days counting sockeye swimming upstream to Hidden Lake where the aquaculture association stocks one million sockeye fry a year.
Before heading out into the field, the temporary employes are given gun safety and first aid training, as well as what they need to know to operate the weirs, measure fish, gather otoliths — a bone hatcheries brand with a specific mark to differentiate hatchery-raised from wild fish — and keep an eye on the run.
The two have gotten acclimated to the strange hours that fish pulse through the stream, the visitors peppering them with questions about weir operation and bears.
The three-foot electric fence around their site works to deter the bears — usually.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work. Only when we’re not here though,” Cordner said. “Like, a couple of mornings we’ll come here and the fence will be down.”
She pointed to a spot about 10 feet away from the tent and said she watched a bear get shocked by the fence.
“It was in the beginning of adult (fish) season so we were still pretty nervous about it when we were seeing bears,” Cordner said. “It walked just right along the fence ... put its head right on top of the wire and it didn’t immediately step back. I guess once its skin touched the wire it jumped back and ran upstream.”
Blose giggled as Cordner said the bears did not seem to be scared of people.
“We were like ‘hey bear, hey bear, hey bear,’ and it just wasn’t even looking at us,” Cordner said. “They just don’t care that we’re here, as long as we don’t steal their salmon from them. They’re in salmon mode.”
Lisa Ka’aihue, special projects manager for the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, said most of the seasonal employees had never handled a gun before so the training was a necessity.
“As long as you have one person in the group that’s comfortable with it you’re good,” she said.
Cordner said she hadn’t had to use the shotgun yet, but was prepared to do so.
“Once I had it kind of ready to go because there was a bear ... the fence was down so we were going fix the fence but the bear was right there, so I had the gun ready, just in case the bear made any sudden moves,” she said with a laugh.
By Sept. 4, both Blose and Cordner will be done counting salmon and are scheduled to help the association with its straying study — a yearly sampling project designed to determine whether any hatchery-raised salmon are straying into nearby water bodies.
In 2012 the study was cut short due to flood conditions, however no hatchery-reared fish were found in either of the Skilak Lake areas that were sampled, according to the Hidden Lake Sockeye Salmon Enhancement Report.
As the pulses of sockeye become more sporadic, the time for seasonal employment comes to a close and Cordner said she is excited to try different types of fisheries research.
“Hopefully my next position will still be field work, like fish and wildlife field work, but maybe my next position will be different,” she said. “Maybe somewhere tropical or something.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com.