For the past five years, sixth-grade students at Floyd Dryden Middle School in Juneau have had the opportunity to participate in an outdoor skills program, designed with these life lessons in mind. The three-day course, taught by highly trained volunteers, covers a wide range of topics integral to living in Southeast, including orienteering, outdoor safety, appropriate outdoor clothing, firearm safety, marksmanship, meat care, wildlife conservation and management, and ethical harvest.
"Students need to understand that if you are not prepared for the outdoors, you will get in trouble very quickly in our Alaskan playground," said Ken Coate, an Alaska Department of Fish & Game volunteer instructor who organizes and runs the program. By the end of this year, more than 600 students will have graduated from the class, along with 400 Juneau-Douglas High School students.
Courtesy Photo Don Martin teaches outdoor skills to sixth graders.
"The sooner the better, and sixth grade is the earliest I can catch them," he said. "Students at this age are very teachable, and they are not too 'cool' yet to learn; they buy into the safety aspect of firearm handling."
This is especially important, said Milliron, even if students choose not to hunt.
"The driving incentive behind this program is promoting firearm safety," he said. "Because of where we live, even if a student doesn't have a firearm in his or her own house, they probably are exposed to friends or neighbors who own firearms. We want to make sure that they know how to conduct themselves appropriately."
To teach students about the use of firearms and how they should be handled, sixth-graders travel to the Hank Harmon Rifle Range or the Juneau Gun Club, where they learn to shoot a .22 caliber rifle under direct, one-on-one supervision of a certified firearms instructor.
"Even when they are in eighth grade, they're still talking about it," said Milliron of the impact the course has had on his students. "And what's really cool is that because hunting is a predominantly male outdoor activity, approximately 100 girls who wouldn't normally have had a firearms safety class get to shoot and to go through the program."
Students who complete the program are tested to measure what they've learned. If they pass the test, complete their workbook and show shooting and field proficiency, they receive a hunter's education card from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, which is recognized in all 50 states.
Milliron, who was first introduced to the program at Cube Cove on Admiralty Island, takes great care to make sure that parents are comfortable with the skills that their children are learning. In addition to talking about the program at the fifth-grade orientation, he publicizes it through the school newsletter, sends home letters to the parents and holds a sixth-grade parents' organizational meeting.
"Most parents are very, very supportive," he said, "though there are a handful of parents who may have philosophical problems with some portions of the program. Each year, maybe two or three students opt out."
Those students who do participate are taught by trained, experienced volunteers, some of whom use their own vacation days or personal time to help out. Individuals or groups involved in teaching outdoor skills include the University of Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Wildlife Division, ADF&G Sport Fish Division, Dr. Wayne Regelin, Dr. Tony Nakazawa, Juneau Parks and Recreation, Juneau Police Department, Capital City Fire & Rescue, U.S. Forest Service, Juneau Gun Club, Territorial Sportsmen, University of Alaska Southeast 4-H, U.S. Coast Guard, Juneau ANB and ANS camps, and parent volunteers.
"All materials, firearms, ammunition and safety equipment are provided at no cost, mostly made possible by a generous grant from the Taku River Sportsman's Association, and the support of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game," Milliron said.
This year's outdoor skills course will be Oct. 19-21. Coate said the course could continue to have long-term effects.
"If the rules that we teach were always followed, we would rarely have firearm accidents in Alaskan homes," Coate said.
"I can only speculate, but odds are that if it hasn't happened yet, this course will be responsible for keeping an accident from happening," added Milliron. "If not for saving a life."