JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — There are a couple of 6-year-olds that come when they can, to shoot 22 caliber rifles. One of them is the daughter of Tennie Bentz, the Wildlife Education Specialist for Fish and Game.
Bentz and Darren Snyder, who has many titles, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service agent and the 4H Youth Development coordinator, team up as a partnership between the 4H Club and Fish and Game to offer an Outdoor Skills Club that runs in the evenings through the school year.
Besides offering a gun shooting and safety program, the club offers a host of activities.
During a class this spring, a few families gathered in the Gruening Park Recreation Hall, armed with GPS units for an evening that focused on orientating.
"Do you guys remember how these work?" Bentz asked. "Can you figure out how many satellites we have?"
Bentz went through an interactive introduction to the GPS units. Several families were in attendance, as the club is designed to introduce outdoor skills to multiple generations as a means to facilitate interactions between adults and youth. The families then scattered towards a geocache, a recorded location with hints entered into a system that the units can access.
The hints for this evening's particular geocache included "donuts" and "a safe place." The group followed the tracking devices past the police station and spent about an hour shuffling through the snow and comparing devices.
"The more (satellites our GPS units are utilizing), the better our accuracy," Bentz told the participants. "I'm within 13 feet, is that about where you guys are?"
Brother and sister Cody and Jessica Millsaps were regular participants during the last school year, accompanied by their father, Josh, and grandfather, Slim.
"Cody likes doing the activities, it helps him learn survival skills," Josh said. "Jessica likes to be outside doing activities. They're not in boy scouts or girl scouts; this is a good alternative."
Within UAF's Cooperative Extension Service there are a variety of programs, Snyder said. One of them is the 4H program, the "H's" being head, heart, hands and health.
"We have different strategic plans and goals and my work meshes some of the program areas together," he said.
The 4H Outdoor Skills Program aims to provide just that: outdoor skills.
"We do a lot of things that we think would be good life skills for the kids," Snyder said, adding that the curriculum is often determined from participants' suggestions.
"Members say, 'We have some resources that can help with fishing-related stuff, fly tying, GPS work, carving, gardening activities...'" Snyder said, and that's how some classes materialize.
Bentz and Snyder emphasized how they'd like to keep it a family club.
"The parents are present and they're learning activities together," Snyder said. "Part of this model is that we are aware that there are specific activities kids (have difficulty accessing) unless their parents are (interested) to learn about them and get excited about going to the range or learning about firearm safety. We want to encourage parents to take on the interest to empower their kids to take on leadership opportunities. It's a multi-faceted effort."
And it's the adults, Snyder said, that help keep the program running.
"Any adult who wants to help organize a 4H club, that's a lot of the help we need," he said.
This was illustrated on the evening of the geocache class.
"I have a (GPS unit), and down in the Lower 48 it was dead-on but here, it's always been 50-75 feet off," Tim Buzard, one of the parents of the participants told the class, "We must be using satellites that are synchronized from the equator."
"There's more than one format," Slim Millsaps said. "You could be entering in one coordinate and your GPS is set for another."
Though Bentz, (a GPS guru), and Snyder, (well-versed in horticulture and agricultural arenas), often lead the classes, they also occasionally act as students.
"Does anyone know how to adjust the screen brightness?" Snyder asked.
"Touch the top button once," Cody Millsaps, the 9-year-old in the class that evening instructed.
And this is just what Snyder hopes the participants gain from the program: the ability to become mentors.
"We want kids to make their own choices," he said. "Learn cause and effect; taking on mentorship roles for the younger youth."
Bents appreciates that the program also acts a health alternative to other afterschool options.
"On a Thursday night when (some) people are sitting at home, we're out hiking or geocaching or making deer calls," Bentz said. "It gives something more to a normal week. I like seeing the kids excited when they've done something new. They have fun and it's a great way for me to have fun as well."
Though the Outdoor Skills Program takes a break for the summer, a special week-long camp open to middle school and high school-aged students begins Aug. 12.
The Sustainable Harvest Camp, a partnership between 4H and Fish and Game, will be accepting 28 students for a week filled of activities such as foraging for wild edible flora, building shelters, and catching, processing, canning and preserving fish. There may even be an opportunity, for those inclined, to field dress a deer.
"The big emphasis I want to provide with this, is an opportunity for people who aren't getting out and doing these Alaskan activities," Snyder said. "A lot of families come and have never done this; they may not have a boat, they may not have fished, gardened, gathered wild products, hunted."
Snyder said the campers will also have the chance to practice archery, shooting and go kayaking.
The camp is in its third year, and Snyder said the plans are to build upon skills developed in previous camps and during the Outdoor Skills Program classes, though it's open to participants of any skill level.
"The camp is a sustainable harvest theme," Snyder said. "Anything in the way of that theme is how this camp is developed. If kids are interested in doing different harvest activities: hunting, fishing, gardening — anything they're interested in the outdoors and harvesting as well as survival skills and general camping outdoors skills. The goal is to have (these skills) be a high interest. Make the most of being Alaskans."
The 4H Outdoor Skills Club will resume in the fall. Snyder and Bentz are looking for adult volunteers who are willing to take on leadership roles. For more information on how to participate or about the summer camp, visit the local 4H Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/Alaska.4H.Southeast. You can also sign up to be on an email list by visiting: www.lists.alaska.edu/mailman/listinfo/uaf-seak4h.