Alyssa Johns is this year’s winner of the Robyn Lowe youth stewardship award for Indian Island. A junior at Orcas Island High School, Johns is also taking courses at Skagit Valley College and plans to pursue a degree in wildlife biology specializing in mammalogy. She plays volleyball and softball, and nurtures two Sugar Gliders at home.
Last October, Johns was an intern at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, assigned to the Big Cat exhibit. She says she is looking forward to a summer educating the public about Indian Island and the ocean ecosystem.
“We feel very fortunate to have Alyssa join our team, and we are excited by the number of Orcas high school students that applied for this summer position,” says Kwiaht director Russel Barsh. “We hope that all of them will find ways to stay involved in local conservation, including other kinds of Kwiaht apprenticeships.”
The Indian Island youth steward is responsible for helping caretake the island during the 30 to 36 daytime low tides of summer when it is accessible by foot, working with Kwiaht’s Indian Island coordinator Molly Harding and a corps of adult volunteers. This includes organizing signage and handouts, keeping track of birds, boats and people at the island, and making daily reports. Most important of all, from June to August it is the youth steward who meets and greets visitors to Indian Island, briefs them on the island’s history and ecology, and encourages them to respect wildlife and “leave no trace” of their visit.
Kwiaht scientists say that this face-to-face contact is indispensable for protecting Indian Island’s sensitive wildflower meadows, nesting birds, and inter-tidal marine life from excessive wear and tear; while at the same time making visits to the 1.5-acre island more educational and engaging. In recent years, summer visitors have numbered more than four thousand, making this tiny island one of the most popular nature attractions, acre for acre, in San Juan County.
Face-to-face stewardship is also an issue of safety, Barsh says. Apart from the occasional slips and scrapes around rocky tide-pools (a first aid kit is always kept handy) there are the tides, “a surprising number of visitors walk out to Indian Island from Main Street on impulse when the sandy tombolo is exposed, unaware that it can be under several feet of water in a few hours!”
The Robyn Lowe Fund was established by Kwiaht in 2017 to honor an exceptional Indian Island volunteer. “Whatever the weather,” Barsh recalls, “when the tide went out Robyn was at the island, binoculars hand, briefing visitors and gently steering them around the island to the tide pools and away from nesting birds.” The first Robyn Lowe youth steward, Raeann Boero, is currently a Fulbright scholar in Malaysia, returning to Orcas in the fall.
Kwiaht gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the San Juan County Lodging Tax for this year’s Robin Lowe steward. Kwiaht’s Indian Island program as a whole depends entirely on the generosity of individual Orcas Island donors.