Sitka Conservation Society
Oct 31 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Fishing Village Blues

Happy Halloween! This week Berett Wilber’s poem, Fishing Village Blues, takes us down to the docks and into the Pioneer Bar. To hear Berett read her poem, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Photo by Berett Wilber

fishing village blues

pictures of shipwrecks
cover all of the available spaces
on the walls of the Pioneer Bar,
the last haven in America
where it is it legal to smoke inside.
the old-time skippers sip whiskey in slow motion,
while the deckhands drink their piny beers in the vinyl booths.

surrounded by the misfortunes of the fleet -
two-ton diesel fires,
stainless steel bottoms scraping barnacles,
caught at low tide with their hulls on the rocks
like drunk and dangerous bridesmaids.
one more pair of salted hands
puts crumpled dollars bills on the bar
like a grizzled miner with a poke of gold and
Is This Love seeps from the jukebox.
this is the small-town time-machine:
Bob will never die.
Disco will never live.

after a few hours,
the deckhands will leave the bar,
duck their heads to clouds of orange and blue
that the rain makes with the streetlamps,
their rubber boots heavy on the wood down the dock.
their sleeping bags,
waiting up in the caves of fo’c’sles all over town,
will wrap the boys’ shoulders in downy embraces.
the boats in their moorings will lull
their beer-sweet breath even and their mouths slack,
the dock snoring gently from the the slow pull of so many ropes.


Oct 30 2013

A Salmon Connection

Can you teach economics to kids? I wasn’t sure. I’ve been scratching my head at how to convey such an advanced topic to third graders. So what if money stays here or goes there? A dollar is a dollar to a kid and they are going to spend it on the next trendy thing, right? Probably, but Fish to Schools developed a lesson that teaches students that it does matter where money our goes.

We started with a game showing our connections to salmon. We have all seen salmon jumping in the ocean, swimming around the docks, fighting their way up Indian River, and returning  to all the streams and rivers of the Tongass National Forest. We can’t ignore their smell in the late summer air and for those who have been fishing, we can’t get enough. It’s fun to catch and delicious to eat.

After showing that we are all connected to salmon in some way, we dove deeper into the idea that our jobs are connected to salmon (in fact dependent on). To show this we handed every student a card with a picture of a profession: troller, seiner, seafood processor, grocery store clerk, boat repair man, gear store, teacher, doctor, etc. Students gathered in a circle and passed around a ball of yarn forming a web between the different professions. They identified who depended on them or who they depended on for their livelihood. Once every student and profession was connected to the web, students could visually see that each job affects the other. While it may have been obvious to many students that a seafood processor depends on a fisherman (and vice versa) it was much more abstract to show the connection between a teacher and salmon. This game provided a visual and taught students that our Sitka community is tied to salmon, that a healthy economy is dependent on healthy salmon.

After the lesson, a student in one of our classes couldn’t figure out how her mom’s job was connected to salmon. She went home to learn that her mom does daycare and takes care of fishermen’s children when they are out on the water. A connection reinforced!

19% of adults aged 16+ are directly involved in the fisheries as a commercial fisherman or seafood processor. Many, many more professions are indirectly connected, their businesses dependent on seafood. (

Beneficially impacting our local economy and community is one benefit of eating locally-caught salmon. Through the Fish to Schools “Stream to Plate “curriculum unit, students learned many more reasons why local is better. Check back soon for blog posts on our other lessons.

Oct 25 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Kevin McGowan

This week on Voices of The Tongass, Kevin McGowan explains his unusual fishing method: spear gun. To hear this week’s show, scroll to the bottom of this post. To continue the story, keep reading.

Unintimidated by marine mammal or photographers. Photo by Berett Wilber.

Kevin McGowan has made some friends you need a snorkel to find. “Swimming and seeing a sea lion can be pretty terrifying. Usually they’re just curious… but they’re pretty terrifying looking creatures, so it can be unnerving. You see their huge brown bodies and their vicious looking faces. it’s usually just a dark spot swimming under you, and then they pop up and you know they’re there. And hopefully they don’t do too much damage to you.”

Born and raised in Southeast Alaska, at age 21, Kevin knows that the experiences he had (and marine mammals he met) growing up have uniquely shaped him. “My interests are environment based,” he says. “My whole life has revolved around water.” And when he moved away from Sitka for college, he found it very difficult to translate those interests into a different environment. “My friends didn’t get to see that side of me,” he says.  He’s certainly not the only one – while leaving home for college is difficult for all kinds of reasons, for the kids of Southeast Alaska, it is often harder to leave the wilderness environment behind more than their houses and neighborhoods. When the environment is a major component of your activities and interests, it also factors into your relationships with the people around you. In a new geographic environment, kids from Southeast not only have to deal with the usual homesickness, but they have to find a new way to make friends and navigate relationships without access to the things they usually do with their friends. “It would be hard [for my school friends] to see all my real interests, because a lot of them are really location based, the snorkeling and the mountain climbing and boating and kayaking,” Kevin says. “That’s all dependent on things I have here, and going to school I don’t have access to all these things. The way I relate to people from Sitka is a deeper connection. [I] don’t necessarily have that with people at school.”

But luckily, growing up outdoors doesn’t just serve to hinder the social experiences of Southeast Alaskan kids who are trying to make it in more urban and academic environments: Kevin also gives it credit for some of his success. For a guy who admits his high school years were spent dreaming about being outdoors, Kevin says his attitude towards school has shifted. “I definitely have focused academically,” he says. After a hard first year at OSU, he transferred to UAF, and took classes which he needed to catapult him to engineering school in California. Three schools in three years would wear out even the most dedicated student: so how did the shift from dreaming about getting out of the classroom to doggedly trying to stay in it occur? He sees his motivation linked to his experiences growing up in Alaska. “There’s a lot of curiosity that I’ve developed growing up here, adventures and finding new things,” he says. “So with school, I want to learn a lot of new things. It’s helped myself apply myself to schoolwork. Because there’s new things to learn. New people to meet, more foods to try. You don’t necessarily need to be snorkeling to experience somewhere cool and new.” And even though there will be challenges to surmount, it’s hard not to have faith in his ability to succeed. If he can make a good impression underwater on a sea lion underwater, it’s hard to imagine him feeling out of his depth.

Want to listen to Kevin’s stories about spearfishing in his own words?

Oct 25 2013

Tongass Building

There are countless reasons to ‘buy local’ ranging from defining and maintaining local character to strengthening the community to stimulating local entrepreneurship and keeping money in the community.  In a community like Sitka that can, more often than not, present a suite of challenges, primarily, a limited capacity to produce certain goods and commodities that other communities have easy access to. Not only are we limited by capacity, we are physically isolated and rely heavily on a barge system to provide us with many of the building blocks of an autonomous economy.

Roof in progress

The solution is simple, build a local economy around the materials you have, wood. As part of the transition framework, the USFS is diverting away from ‘big timber’ and devoted to diversifying forest product economics. This includes a Land Management plan that moves towards small scale, sustainable timber harvesting within roaded, young growth areas. SCS has worked to highlight this transition through community projects that demonstrate young growth and local wood as viable building materials. This shift in Tongass management opens Sitka up to develop a local workforce centered on our assets and ensures that we will capture the economic value of our resources within the local economy. The harvesting, processing and installation of local materials leads to jobs throughout the SE. This type of economy results in not just more jobs, but enhanced social capital in our communities, healthier buildings and the beginning of a robust building supply chain. Local materials means less CO2 emissions tied up in transport and less money leaving our community.

Jamal Floate (left) discussing the project

Today, more and more architects and builders are choosing local, sustainably harvested, produced or recycled materials. Enter Jamal Floate, local entrepreneur, builder and owner of Renaissance Construction. Despite the many challenges faced here in Sitka, he is buying and building local. He constructs projects with energy efficiency in mind and uses local, sustainably harvested wood products. His current project is a private home here in Sitka.  The external and support components consist of wood products sustainably harvested and milled in Wrangell. Floate hopes to use locally harvested and milled Sitka Red Alder from False Island for interior finish work. If he does, the alder can be kilned and processed right here in Sitka by Todd Miller.

Floate is equally committed to energy concerns, not only are the bulk of the construction materials locally and sustainably produced; the house will be highly energy efficient.  That starts with the design and size, the building footprint is only 780 square feet, and the finished square footage will be around 1000 square feet.  Despite the modest foot print, the house will include a great room with vaulted ceilings, a large loft bedroom and master bath,  guest bedroom, second bathroom, kitchen, utility room and covered outdoor deck.  This is due in part to the materials, as well as the building envelope, technology and design techniques. The design incorporates a radiant floor heating system that is more conductive than other types of radiant heat, and will run off of water from the home’s water heater.  The house will also have a zero clearance wood-burning stove, providing exceptional heating capacity and improving indoor air quality.

Floate maintains that this construction model can be replicated in Sitka, and the cost per square foot is no more expensive than traditionally produced homes made with imported building materials. The combination of design and materials will result in a healthier house  and distinct character.  It starts with a paradigm shift, that spaces can be smaller and with more thoughtful design and planning they can be unique and efficient.  This model is linking local businesses and strengthening the community. The possibilities are endless and could result in other opportunities in the retrofitting and renovating sectors of construction as well.

View across the soon to be kitchen and great room

Oct 17 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Charlie Wilber

Charlie Wilber found his way to Alaska over 40 years ago, and it didn’t take him long to decide he wanted to stay. This week on Voices of The Tongass, Charlie shares what exactly has kept him in Alaska, and lessons he has learned along the way. To hear this week’s show, scroll to the bottom of this post. To continue the story, keep reading.

Photo by Berett Wilber

Charlie Wilber came to Alaska in 1971 as a smoke jumper, parachuting into remote areas of the interior to put out wildfires. “I’d hardly ever flown on an airplane. I got to Seattle and the state of Alaska had a person hired at the gate to try to convince you not to come to Alaska because there were no jobs…I thought I would only spend a summer here, but here I am, still here.” When smoke jumping got “boring,” it was time for the next adventure. “I wanted to make Alaska home,” he says. “I felt like there were a lot of opportunities here for a young person. I still feel that way. I tried to figure out what I could do so I could live here. By a weird series of coincidences I had a friend with a hand troller in Icy Strait. I worked with him for about a week, thought ‘Hey, this might be something’, and it took off from there. I bought my first boat in 1979 and never looked back.”

We had to clarify: “So you bought a troller and became a fisherman after only one week of fishing?”

“Yes,” he says, chuckling. “And I would not do that ever again, nor would I encourage anyone to learn that way. The smart person would become a crew member for an experienced fishermen. I said, ‘this looks pretty easy, I could figure this out,’ and it was fairly painful for a number of years. It wouldn’t be the first time I learned something the hard way. Someone told me once you aren’t really fishing until you have every penny in it, and you owe money. And then you are seriously fishing because failing really isn’t an option at that stage.”

In the process of collecting stories for Voices of the Tongass, we have talked to several “fishing kids.” Charlie is the first “fishing dad” we’ve interviewed, and we want to hear his perspective on parenting on a fishing vessel. “I suppose probably some of the most enjoyable times is when I had my two daughters on the boat with me. I’ve really enjoyed developing a working relationship with my daughters. One seemed to take to the water, and the other decided that probably wasn’t in her interest. And I think that’s a good thing, that the two of them have found their own path.” Through summers spent on the boat, Charlie has passed his well-weathered wisdom on to his kids. “You know, if nothing else, I wanted my kids to have an appreciation for the environment that we were in – for the ocean. Wanted them to have an understanding of what I was doing…and I think they do both have a real sense of appreciation for the environment. When they were little we would go somewhere and they could spend all day with their little nets checking out bullheads on the rocks. There’s not many places you can do that.”

And then we have to ask: What has he learned about fishing, in thirty-four years on the water? “In order to be good at it you have to be very observant,” he tells us. “A lot of it is by hunch: there are a lot of nuances. You can’t see the fish, but you can see the fishermen. You can learn quite a bit from that.”

We pepper him for the stories of the what else he’s learned and the unusual things he’s seen on the ocean: comets and waterspouts, trolling through herds of humpback whales, the northern lights, sharks, sunfish flopping on the surface of the water. But he makes it clear that one of the things that’s most important to him is not something you need to be out on the ocean to see. “Not a day goes by where I don’t still see the novelty of being able to walk out my door and be in the forest. And its not just recreation: I feed my family with deer, and obviously with fish. In order to have healthy salmon runs, the environment is very important. You can’t have successful fishing when there’s not habitat for the fish to spawn in. My living depends on having a healthy environment on land and on the ocean. The word sustainability gets used a lot these days, but it’s the honest truth. Fishing isn’t just a hobby. I’ve got a serious investment in equipment and everything else. It’s how I make my living. I want these fish runs to be healthy for a long time, for long after I’m gone, I hope. To see the salmon returning each year…it’s almost an inspiration. You can go to Indian River right now and almost walk across it without touching the water. It’s really phenomenal. How many thousands of years has that been going on?”


Oct 11 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Alaire Hughey

This week on Voices of the Tongass, Alaire Hughey takes us up into the alpine on her family’s annual opening day hunt. To hear Alaire’s story, and her views on subsistence living, click the play bar at the bottom of this post.


Photo by Berett Wilber


Oct 03 2013

Voices of the Tongass – The Contingencies of Chance

Today brings another poetry episode of Voices of the Tongass. Berett Wilber’s collection of poetry, Lesser Known Marine Mammal’s Lesser Known Love Songs, is inspired by her life in Southeast Alaska. To hear Berett read hear poem, The Contingencies of Chance, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Photo by Berett Wilber

the contingencies of chance

where does the outside end?

when the air enters your lungs?

in the beds of your fingernails?


let yourself feel



up against the edges

of your skin, fear

will rip your lungs into sails,

tear down the lines between things and


collapse you.

breathe yourself in:

the scent of lilacs at night,

the silver of the river at our ankles:

the oxygen in your blood is

already just air

and so you are

already just everywhere.


we are vessels, pitchers, open bowls

and the sheer strain of living

tears holes in us

that we cannot repair ourselves.

we can only fill each other:

give yourself away.

(you become hollow if you

board yourself up

if the walls inside of you echo,

splinter through them).


the tiny sutures of your eyes,

your voice: rope yourself to the world.

it will stain you irreparably and you

will build yourself into it,

stretching spindly bridges

until they crumble and fall.


in the moments

where you have to strip back the paper

of your walls, and

raze the scaffolding of your life

to the ground -


curse if you must.

but if you would like to keep yourself alive,

open your mouth

and pour yourself out.


the world will never demand less of you.


we were not meant to stand empty for long.

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Keep up to date on all of the issues. Check out "The Southeaster" Blog.

  • Hungry for Huckleberry Pie, Venison Stew, or Fresh Greens? Come to the Wild Foods Potluck Nov. 2!
  • Stand Up to Corporate Influence!
  • Kayaking Kootznoowoo: Report on SCS’s Final Wilderness Trip
  • Encouraging Local Natural Resource Stewardship on the Tongass: Kennel Creek
  • Teaching the Alaska way of Life: 4-H in Sitka
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