This has got to be one of the coolest hikes I’ve ever done! This last July I was able to participate in the Sitka Trail Works Mt. Edgecumbe hike (i.e., climbing our local volcano). The trip began with a boat ride across Sitka Sound to the trailhead at Fred’s Creek Cabin. After unloading and organizing our packs we began our 7 mile and nearly 3,000 vertical feet climb up the mountain (and that’s just one way!).
The first part of the trail winds through a giant stand of old growth hemlock and spruce. After a few minutes zigzagging through the trees we broke out into the open muskegs where the majority of the trail is located. The muskegs of Kruzof Island are a truly amazing site as they are some of the biggest in the area, stretching across most of the island.
After roughly 4 miles of fairly flat terrain, we arrived at the three-sided shelter. There we found a number of other trip participants resting and nourishing themselves for the climb to the top of the volcano. From the three-sided shelter to the top of the volcano it is roughly 3 miles and nearly 2,000 vertical feet. It’s by far the hardest part of the hike, but also the most rewarding.
About two miles from the three-sided shelter we broke through the treeline. At that point the trail dissipates and we were left with an assortment of cedar posts stuck in the ground as trail guides. At first glance the cedar posts marking the trail seemed a bit overkill, however, when the fog rolled in we were happy to have them.
From the tree line we climbed for about twenty minutes completely engulfed in a thick layer of fog. Just as we began to crest the rim of the volcano, the clouds broke and we could see where we had wandered. Below us lay the muskegs of Kruzof Island and its rocky outer coast. To our east and south we could see the peaks of Baranof Island and the small speckles of civilization in Sitka. At that moment, we couldn’t think of anywhere else we’d rather be.
We sat quietly in the colony struggling not to make noise for fear of scaring the birds. It was about ten o’clock at night and the sun was still setting. To the west the sun sank over the horizon and the last few flickers of light colored the approaching clouds. To our east and south the full moon rose in a brilliant orange, promising to illuminate our night’s work. The scene was dreamlike, surreal.
Part of what makes Saint Lazaria so unique is its somewhat unusual land use designation. The island of Saint Lazaria is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Homer, AK. It is also a designated Wilderness Area protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System. This multi-level protection has kept the island in pristine condition.
My work with SCS brought me to Saint Lazaria to learn about Alexis Will and the research she is conducting on the island. Will is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she is working towards her Masters’ of Science in Biology and Wildlife. For her thesis she is trying to determine the diets and foraging grounds of Rhinocerous Auklets (i.e., Cerorhinca monocerata). Will believes that by better understanding this species’ diet and foraging grounds, we will better understand how these birds may adapt to an increasingly variable environment.
Will’s research is also part of a bigger study. In recent years the population of five key groundfish species in the Gulf of Alaska have been significantly lower than in previous years. This is particularly alarming as these five fish species are all commercially important to the state. To determine what is causing this decline, the North Pacific Research Board is currently in the process of conducting a Gulf of Alaska-wide study. Their goal is to better understand the causes for these declining populations.
So how does Will’s research fit in to this bigger project?
Here’s the thing. Rhinocerous Auclets feed on the same fish that the five groundfish species feed on. If Alexis can determine where and how much fish the Saint Lazaria Rhinocerous Auclets are eating, then we will have a better picture of the food base in the Gulf, at least, theoretically. With better information on the health of the food base in the Gulf, the state of Alaska will have better science with which to base their fishing quotas. It’s cool research and I was glad to have the opportunity to learn more about it.
However, what intrigued me most about Saint Lazaria was my experience in the Rhino colony. The Rhinoceros Auklet colony is located at the edge of a very steep and menacing cliff. Below the cliff we could see the commercial salmon fleet at anchor, protected in the lee of the island. As the Rhinos arrived at their nest to feed their chicks, the commercial trolling fleet sat below bracing for the approaching gale, and in the distance the lights of Sitka illuminated the night sky. As I sat in the darkabsorbing the night’s activities, I was reminded of the simple fact that we are ALL part of this global ecosystem.
What comes to mind when you hear the term conservation? Petitions, polar bears, politicians, researchers? David Attenborough? Did heavy equipment tearing up a rainforest floor come to mind? Unlikely. Nestled deep within our earth’s largest temperate rainforest- conservation takes unique form.
This summer, the Sitkoh River Restoration Project mobilized a team of heavy equipment operators on the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. The US Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game raised $318,000 and hired Aqua Terra Restoration to repair critical salmon spawning habitat damaged by clearcut logging in the 1970s. Logging adjacent to the river banks left the Sitkoh without adequate erosion control and the fallen timber salmon need. Dump trucks, chainsaws, and excavators converted blueprints and years of planning into wooden structures and a redirected riverbed that will return healthy fish habitat and stability to this damaged system.
Salmon habitat restoration is relatively new to the Tongass and constitutes a key part of the Forest Service’s transition from old-growth logging to young-growth management, forest restoration, and investment in other industries-such as fishing and tourism. Across the forest, similar river and stream restoration projects are in various stages or have been completed with great success. Multiyear, complex, and dependent on powerful partnerships this rich form of salmon habitat restoration is by no means easy. However, in a land where salmon are lifeblood to both ecosystems and residents, protection of this critical resource is absolutely vital.
Habitat restoration benefits fish, fish-dependent ecosystems, and fish-dependent economies. It also provides career opportunities to skilled ecologists and equipment operators passionate about safeguarding our environment- people who prefer hardhats to suits, the company of bears to water cooler gossip and all in all want to build something good for our earth as opposed to something that’s only good for industry.
There are over 70 damaged salmon-producing watersheds on the Tongass and the Forest Service estimates $100 million dollars are needed to repair them. Salmon and trout alone contribute more than $1 billion to Southeast Alaska’s economy and employ some 7,300 people. It is critical that salmon become the top management priority of our country’s largest national forest; managing for salmon employs restoration workers on the ground, benefits local subsistence and the fishing industry, and conserves salmon-dependent rainforest ecosystems.
The Tongass is one of the last remaining forests with healthy and abundant wild salmon runs. Making this species the Tongass’ top priority makes sense for the ecosystem, the economy and anyone who loves to catch, eat or simply view wild salmon.
Anyone that tells you there is a trail between Hoonah Sound and Lisianski Strait because “it’s on the map,” has never been there on foot. This is because there is no trail there! An SCS Wilderness Groundtruthing team recently explored that area on the Tongass and confirmed that the only trails available are the ones made by deer and bear.
The purpose of this expedition was to look at habitat connectivity and bear use. Members of the expedition were wildlife biologist Jon Martin, mountain goat hunting guide and outdoorsman Kevin Johnson, photographer Ben Hamilton, and SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms.
SCS is interested in this landscape because of the protections given to these areas. The land between Hoonah Sound and Lisianski Strait is protected as LUD II – a Congressional roadless designation status meant to protect “the area’s wildland characteristics.” The lands between Lisianski Strait and Goulding Harbor are part of the West Chichagof-Yacobi Wilderness where management is to “provide opportunities for solitude where humans are visitors.” Management language aside, the most important thing about these areas is that they are large, contiguous protected areas where an entire watershed from the high-ridges to the estuaries is left in its natural condition. This means that these watersheds are able to function with no impact from roads, logging, mining, or other human activities.
What this looks like on the ground is a pristine habitat teaming with bears, deer, and rivers and lakes filled with salmon and trout. There are also many surprises: on this trip, we found a native species of lamprey spawning in a river creek that no one in the group has ever seen before (and the group had over 60 years of experience on the Tongass). We also found fishing holes where trout bit on every cast, back-pools in river tributaries filled with Coho Smolts, forests with peaceful glens and thorny devil’s club thickets, and pristine lakes surrounded by towering mountains.
If any place should be protected on the Tongass, it is these watersheds. The Lisianski River is a salmon and trout power-house and produces ample salmon for bears that live in the estuary and trollers that fish the outside waters. One can’t help but feel grateful walking along the river and through the forests here, thankful that someone had the foresight to set this place aside. Clear-cutting logging wild places like these provides paltry returns in comparison to the salmon they produce and all the other life they sustain.
These watersheds that we walked through are success stories and teach us how the temperate rainforest environment works in its natural unaltered state and how much value they produce following their own rhythms. The actions taken in the past to set these areas aside give us pause to think about what we should be doing today to invest in our future and protect ecosystems that are similarly important ecologically.
Scientists have identified over 77 other watersheds across the Tongass that produce massive amounts of salmon and have ecological characteristics that need to be protected. Some of these watersheds are slated to be logged by the Forest Service. Even worse, pending Sealaska legislation could result in some of these watersheds being privatized, sacrificing protection for salmon streams and spawning habitat. With your help and involvement, SCS is working to protect those watersheds and landscapes so that we can ensure the consideration of long-term health and resource benefits from these watersheds over the short-term gains of logging, road-building, or privatization. It is our responsibility that we make the right choices and that future generations are grateful for what we leave them to explore and benefit from.
If you want to be part of SCS’s work to protect lands and waters of the Tongass, please contact us and we’ll tell you how you can help. If you are inspired, write a letter to our senators and tell them to protect salmon on the Tongass and manage it for Salmon: here
Above: TROLLERS, like the family salmon troller pictured above, made sure that TRAWLING was not allowed in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska. TRAWLING is an unsustainable method of fishing that results in massive bycatch. TROLLING is a much more targeted fishing method and is more sustainable.
The Sitka Conservation Society signed onto a letter raising the alarm that trawl caught fish were being purchased by a local fish processor. Trawling, the practice of dragging a net through the water or along the bottom of the ocean and indiscriminately catching everything in the path of the net, has proven to be one of the most wasteful types of fishing and one of the most environmentally damaging. Trawling has been outlawed in Southeast Alaska east of 140 degrees West Longitude thanks to the foresight and advocacy efforts of fishermen, conservationists, community members, and local government in 1998.
Trawl fishing is very different from the types of fishing employed in Southeast Alaska today. Not to be confused, trolling employs hooks and line and is one-hook, one-fish. Likewise, seining and gill-netting are highly targeted to specific places, times, and types of fish and is closely monitored to ensure fish harvest does not exceed the population needed for long-term population viability. Halibut and Black-cod Long-lining is also a one-hook, one-fish fishery that has tight controls on by-catch and harvest levels. Crab and Shrimp fishing in SE Alaska uses pot and traps and has little impact to the seafloor and does not kill the by-catch.
SCS is concerned about trawling because of the harm is can cause the environment and the threat that it poses to the local economy that Sitka has worked so hard to develop in ways that balance human needs and environmental protection. This is an issue that clearly demonstrates that protecting fisheries is both about protecting the natural environment of the Tongass Temperate Rainforests where salmon begin their lives and being vigilant on what takes place in the ocean ecosystems where the fish grow and mature.
To listen to a radio story on Sitkan’s concerns on trawling and the threat it poses to fisheries, livelihoods, and the environment, click here.
To read the letter that the Sitka Conservation Society signed, click here.
I am a New Englander, born and raised inland of Boston with only superficial exposure to the fishing industry. My past seafood vocabulary includes: lobstah, steamahs, chowdah, cod, haddock, and Sam Adams Summer Ale. My previous understanding of salmon, apart from grandiose images of grizzlies welcoming ballets of jumping fish into gapping jaws, was that there were two types: farmed and wild. For years, I welcomed forkfuls of homogeneously colored salmon steaks into my mouth- oblivious to the colorful salmon hierarchy that exists outside the supermarket freezer- the hierarchy where chinooks rule as king.
Five thousand miles from home, my expanded Southeast Alaskan vocabulary now includes an entire continuum of warm colored flesh. Five different salmon species inhabit these waters. What’s tricky is that each one answers to at least two names. Pinks are humpys, chums are dogs, sockeyes are red, cohos are also silvers. With all these different names, methods of fishing them, flesh qualities and arguing attitudes to which fish is best, I’ve struggled to get a full grip on all salmon. One salmon however, the chinook, I think I’m starting to get.
The most coveted among lip-licking salmon know-it-alls, the chinook’s other name is appropriately ‘king’. Assuming the throne as the largest pacific salmon, chinooks boast fatty, succulent, buttery, pink -and on rare occasions white- flesh. The meat demands high market value, constitutes the smallest percentage of the salmon harvest, and draws avid anglers from across the country to Alaskan waters to usurp their first king. And so, this New England girl, whose most memorable fishing moments previously include hooking my brother and barfing in the cabin of a charter while my cherub-cheeked grandfather hooked haddock with his Northshore cronies, agreed to cruise the Alaskan coast in pursuit of her King.
Chatter on the docks warned chinooks to be abnormally elusive this season. I, however, retained faith. My salmon sensai Greg Killinger, is no novice to the art of hooking kings, claiming hundreds of these desirable fish since moving to Sitka long ago. I bought my day license and king tag and set out.
The sun was hot and bright, stripping layers of clothing from my fellow fishermen and I all day- odd for an Alaskan rainforest. We enjoyed a Friday on deck, admiring a clear view of Edgecumbe- Sitka’s neighboring volcano- and shared the sea with rival boats and behemouth humpbacks.
This is the grocery store of rural Alaskans. Here, you don’t compete for parking spots, shopping carts, or the last rump roast. You instead battle swells, compare wits, and scan the horizon for jumping fish. ‘Subsistence’ is the political term used to describe this cherished anachronism and as enjoyable as the practice is to visitors, it certainly means much more to residents. A powerful traditional value for food is celebrated here. In remote and rural Alaska, where a bag of groceries can cost a small fortune, people also depend on their ability to harvest rich nutrition from the forest and surrounding waters. Each year, by boat and on foot, rural Alaskans harvest this rainforest’s bounties and return home to fill freezers and stock pantries with venison, fish, and berries- a feat that packs with it incredible pride.
I was thinking just how good that would feel, was wondering how the meat of white-tailed deer compares to Sitka black-tail, and was rubbing my somewhat queasy stomach when these thoughts were welcomely interrupted by a sudden STRIKE!
The fishing rod that had spent a great deal of the morning dutifully hunched over in waiting, sprung to attention! Greg scrambled to the rod, tightened the line and placed it in my hands. He looked through my eyes, to the hidden angler within, and said something along the lines of…”This is a king. Your King. And if that reel goes overboard, your hand had better be attached!” The rest of the catch is a hilarious blur of shuffling bodies, me squealing, eager voices shouting ‘keep the pole upright’ ‘to the left of the boat, to the right, and reel faster’ all silenced by WHACK- a strike of the gaff, sacrificing royalty on deck.
I admired the beautiful sheen of her scales, hugged her fat slippery body to my fleece, estimated her length and weight, and grinned for pictures with my prize. We caught a rainbow of other fish during the remainder of the day but like the over-eager, impatient, cookie jar invading child I am, I couldn’t help peering into the ice chest at her beautiful body and the meal she promised.
And so, I caught my king and ate her too. I know she was a female because bright red eggs were revealed while we cleaned her flesh on shore. We also recovered two full herring from her stomach… this was easily the most intimate experience I’ve had with my food and now my food’s food to boot- how wonderfully gross.
Beside a salad bursting with freshly harvested salmon berries and beach asparagus, my king’s meat made for a delicious fresh meal. Harvesting your own food is an honorable tradition that evokes pride, love, and harbors incredible respect for the animal, its habitat, and for the family and friends with whom you chose to share with. The rest of her meat is flash frozen and vacuum sealed, awaiting future travel back to the east coast where I will return home to my family as a unique type of provider. I certainly haven’t made an awful lot of money as a conservation intern in Southeast Alaska but I am beyond rich with experience, newfound respect for America’s last frontier and am hopeful my parents will accept a cooler full of fish flesh as starting payment on my college loans…
A special thanks to my fishing buddy Greg Killinger for sharing his knowledge of these coasts and for helping me reel in my very first king!