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Dawson youth trade fries for fry

DAWSON CITYWould you like fries with that? The well-worn question is a routine part of many student summer jobs.


Would you like fries with that? The well-worn question is a routine part of many student summer jobs.

Clinton Taylor and Hannah Findlay-Brook of Dawson City have found summer employment far removed from the inside of a burger joint.

Rather than serve fries, they collect fry (juvenile fish) and give them a lift, carrying them upstream past barriers in the water.

Taylor, 13, and Findlay-Brook, 14, are fisheries field assistants in a six-week project run by the Dawson District Renewable Resources Council.

Under supervision of the Dawson community steward Sebastian Jones, they’ve monitored fry numbers, trapped, measured and counted finger-sized fish of different kinds and relocated them above stream obstructions, mainly beaver dams and culverts.

Last week, with the lanky assistants and gear squeezed into a pickup truck, Jones explained the multiple goals of the project.

The council wants to restore salmon access to the upper streams, add to local knowledge by giving Taylor and Findlay-Brook skills and experience and hopefully show young people there’s work in the fisheries field, said Jones.

“This is, to a certain extent, a pilot project this year. If we can show that we’re actually accomplishing some good by moving fish to areas which have been blocked off, then there’s a good chance we’ll do it next year and other years in the future,” he said.

“If we can move a couple of hundred fish in each stream, then I think that will show that it’s probably worth it.”

Chinook salmon eggs are laid in gravel at the end of summer, hatch in the stream bed and emerge in spring.

They migrate from their natal streams to smaller rearing streams with more food and better shelter where they stay until almost two years old, said Jones.

“This is why it’s so important for Chinook salmon. If we can get them upstream from these culverts so they can access the rest of the creek, they may well spend the winter and next summer before they then migrate down next fall.”

The team made the first stop of the afternoon at the bottom end of a large culvert in Mickey Creek, not far from where it flows into the Fortymile River.

The waist-deep water called for hip waders. As Taylor and Findlay-Brook made their way through the pool to the six fish traps they’d set, Jones realized that he didn’t even have to give them instructions anymore.

They emptied the wire-mesh traps baited with salmon roe into a bucket of water, gathered about 60 small speckled fish, and hauled it up the bank to the back of the truck.

The trap closest to the culvert had the most fish in it, an indicator that they would swim farther if they could overcome the fast flow, said Jones.

Measuring and counting each slippery, wriggly fish required knocking them out briefly.

The smell of cloves filled the air as one crew member added a small syringe of liquid to a second pail of water.

“Clove oil works as an anesthetic,” Jones said.

“You know how you put cloves on your tooth (for a toothache)? It works similarly, but oil doesn’t dissolve in water so we mix the oil with alcohol.”

Part of the beauty of the project is it’s low-tech, low-cost design, said Jones. And it’s also lower impact than blowing up beaver dams or running hatcheries.

“A project like this is much less likely to have unintended consequences.”

Taylor identified each fish — mostly grayling here — and placed it on a ruler, announcing the length to Findlay-Brook who records the data.

They joke about who drops the fish, but Jones made sure they take turns with the tasks through the day.

The fish went into a recovery bucket of fresh water and got a short truck ride up around the culvert.

Findlay-Brook hoisted the fish pail out of the back, commenting on how strong arms her arms will be afterwards.

The two assistants have learned to identify protected spots for release, said Jones.

“Where young fish hang out, they like places where they can hide from predators like kingfishers, mink and otters, behind bits of wood, between big rocks.

“They can swim through fairly fast water but they don’t like to actually live in it most of the time.”

In applying for the job, Findlay-Brook was attracted to working outside, doing something fun and interesting.

She’s learned about Fortymile and Clinton Creek, areas she didn’t know.

“I’ve learned a lot about different kinds of fish. I’ve seen a lot of them and learned how to help them, and what’s wrong with the areas they’re in and about beaver dams.”

Taylor agreed he’s gained knowledge about the different local species. The best part of the job is “playing around in the creeks,” he said with a smile.

But it’s not always easy work, noted Jones later.

There have been days of bushwhacking, scratches, sweaty labour and lots of bug bites, but his assistants are “both excellent kids,” he said.

“I’m tickled pink with how keen they are and with what grace and good humour they’ve approached the work.”

The crew traveled on to six more traps where Clinton Creek empties into the Fortymile.

This location yields Chinook salmon fry. Huge moose tracks lined the creek and an otter scampered up the bank while the team measured the fish.

Taylor stepped out of his gear, his feet wet again.

When Findlay-Brook asked how many “soakers” he’d had with his low gumboots, he informed her that he stayed dry the day before — the only day so far.

This time the fish got a longer ride. Above a series of beaver dams, Findlay-Brook emptied the bucket of fish and seemed happy to watch them swim away.

There is satisfaction in the work, said Jones.

“You do feel like you’re doing something productive and useful. It’s not what you would call a world-changing thing, but if we all do stuff like this, the world will be a better place. It all adds up.”

The Dawson District Renewable Resources Council hopes to increase public awareness of fish habitat management and river stewardship through the project.

Andrea McCrae is a freelance writer who lives in Dawson City.