This week’s episode of Voices of the Tongass takes us deep under the surface of our coastal waters. To hear Tory O’Connell share stories from her underwater research career, scroll to the bottom of this post and click the play bar. To read more about why Tory chose to make her life in Alaska, read on.
Tory O’Connell’s perspective on the ocean is usually reserved, well, for fish. Though she was raised in New Jersey, she first came to Alaska in 1978 to work on a bowhead whale survey in the Chukchi Sea. Her first gig in Sitka was working as a diver biologist for a rockfish survey earning $100 a month. It was the very beginning of the commercial rockfish fishery in Alaska, and Tory’s life was about to become seriously entwined with one of Alaska’s most colorful vertebrates.
“There’s a little two person submersible called the Delta. It’s this little yellow submarine, and originally in 1985, I was aware that there was this program called The National Undersea Program, and we were trying to figure out how many Yelloweye Rockfish there were. It was hard because they live in rocky habitats and deep water – normally you would just troll, but that doesn’t work in rocky habits. And you can’t tag them because rockfish have a swim bladder that inflates at the surface. So I got this idea to use the submersible. We wrote a grant and it surprised everyone when we got it.” And so, Tory began to use the Delta to dive down and count Yelloweye Rockfish.
Flash forward to the present. Sitting in Tory’s office at the Sitka Sound Science Center, her innovation and success no longer seem surprising. Tory is one of the premiere marine experts on the bottomfish of the Pacific. She has traveled all over the world talking about how to record and sample hard-to-find species in hard-to-access habitats, and racked up more than 600 dives in the Delta submersible, from California to Alaska. And though she has been SCUBA diving in almost every place she has ever been to, she says that the diving here at home is hard to beat. “Sitka, the outer coast of Southeast Alaska, has some of the best scuba diving in the world,” Tory says, adding that while the water is not very warm, the visibility in deep water can be up to a hundred feet.
And there’s more connecting Tory to this place than the time she’s spent underwater. When we asked Tory how living in Alaska has changed who she is today, her response was that raising her two daughters in Sitka has had the most impact on her. “It’s hard to figure out what’s because of Sitka. I think I have become a better person because my children are such great people…I think this will always be home to them.”
Because Tory grew up on the east coast, she can see how growing up in Sitka has been a different experience for her two daughters. “Popping tar bubbles with your feet in the summer in New Jersey. That I miss. And I miss downpours, thunder and lighting, I miss that in the summer and fall. Real bread, I miss real bread…fireflies. But on the other hand you get phosphorescence. And [Margot and Chandler’s] experience has been pretty rich here…I can’t imagine my life without Sitka.”
Tory isn’t the only one who feels like her life is intertwined with Southeast Alaska. Many Alaskans found their way here in their early twenties, like Tory, and came up with ways to stay. Tory started out as a research assistant making barely enough to get by, and in a few short years she was the point person running the Rockfish survey project. For Tory, Alaska was and is a place where she could make opportunities for herself, and literally choose her own adventure.
How have you shaped your life in Alaska? How has Alaska shaped you?
This week’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features, Squid Fishing, a poem written and recited by Berett Wilber, who was born and raised in Sitka. Her collection of poems, entitled Lesser Known Marine Mammals Lesser Known Love Songs, won the departmental prize for poetry this year at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she has been a student since 2011. Many of the themes and images in her poems are drawn from her experiences growing up in the Tongass, from the ocean, and from everyday life in Sitka.
To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. Check out our Voices of the Tongass page, under the media tab, to listen to all of our shows.
Don’t forget to tune in to Raven next Thursday during Morning Edition!
it’s snowing fat and white in denver
and i am meeting your mother for the first time.
she is burning the turkey
and the salty steam,
that comes out of the oven rich and wasted,
takes me straight back to the ocean, straight back to
squid fishing in the dark,
heavy nets billowing in the black currents,
until the skipper flips the switch
and every surface of the boat shocks itself alight,
a tiny marble palace bobbing in the sea,
shining steady from across the waves.
and then the searchlights, pouring down into the water,
strike opalescent gold – the first clouds of squid,
pulsing up from the gloom
to where we are silently gripping the slick rails,
waiting for the call, boots glowing on the wet deck.
when your mother
takes her shoes off and pours herself a glass of something
shallow and shimmery to drink,
i float off the coast of california in my mind because
you laugh like a lighthouse searching for a ship to save
and you fan the turkey with your hands,
and in this moment,
it seems love
is not so far from fishing, and we are not
so far from squid -
that breathless search in the inky dark,
and the phosphorescent promise
of rising to
To listen to Berett read her poem, click the play bar below. If you don’t see the play bar, try the link.
Today’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Carina Nichols about growing up fishing. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Carina’s stories, read on…
Carina Nichols is 26 years old, and is currently working to become an optometrist. Behind the desk of the local vision clinic Carina seems perfectly ordinary. However, she is not like other optometry students. Her career path took took a long detour on her family’s commercial fishing boat. She and her twin brother Ryan were seven weeks old when they started fishing. They eventually became the crew of their family’s freezer-troller, and they spent every summer fishing out of Sitka, Alaska. So how did Carina find herself interested in optometry?
“I have really bad vision,” she says, “And my parents were really struggling with getting me to be excited to go for walks or be out on the boat.” What they didn’t realize was that Carina literally couldn’t see what they were trying to show her. “They would tell me ‘Look at the whales!’ and I would be looking and looking, and I would see a stick float by the boat, and I would think, Wow, that must be a whale, they sure are boring.” When Carina finally got glasses, her whole world changed: “Some humpback whales were jumping by the boat and I went crazy. I couldn’t believe that that was a whale. I had to go wake my mom up and say ‘You gotta come see these! This is just the most amazing thing!’” Carina’s experience gave her a huge appreciation for being able to see the world around her.
When Carina talks about her plans for the future – optometry school, working to help people, spending time outside, probably even fishing – she is calm and collected, unlike many people her age who are struggling to find direction in a gloomy economic climate. When we ask about her positive outlook, she attributes some of her focus to her years on the boat. “I’m definitely am not afraid to work hard for what I want. Fishing is a lot of diligent hard work, and you have to dig in if you want to be successful with it. My parents were really big proponents of working for what you want instead of just getting it.” She laughs. “We had rain gear real young.”
And Carina says she hasn’t left fishing forever. Her ideal future? Work in the winter and spring, go fishing in the summer. Maybe when her twin brother Ryan gets his own boat, so the two of them can finish what they started at seven weeks old. She would love to come back and work in Sitka, she says, and being out on the water has never stopped being important to her; she feels closest to her home when she is out on the boat and away from the lights of town.
“I love how Fred’s Creek comes into focus.” My dad is talking about the way the blurred contours of Kruzof Island have shifted into misty green coastline, and, as we motor into the anchorage, the warm honey timber of the cabin appears out of the trees. It’s the Fourth of July and my dad, our dog, and I are pulling up to the beach, ready to relax around a campfire with our plethora of nose flutes and a cooler full of black cod collars.
Over the years I’ve found that it’s not just the shore that comes into focus when we pack up the boat and head out of town for the weekend. There is a clarity that comes with camping in Southeast Alaska. A repeated realization; remembering again and again why we live here. It’s probably different for everybody, but for me it’s the ability to walk out my door and into the heart of the Tongass whenever I feel like it. There are so many mountains I haven’t climbed yet, and miles of water left to travel. Every day holds that celebrated promise of adventure. There is something about Southeast Alaska that gets to me, and it’s not just the wilderness; I think it’s the people. It’s amazing what a little isolation and rainforest can do for a community. I feel so lucky to share my love of this place with a whole 14 miles of small town hospitality and charm. That “love thy neighbor” goodwill I’ve grown up with also comes into focus when we get to Fred’s Creek. Later, my stomach full of black cod collars grilled over the campfire, I’ll begin to think of it as “cabin culture.”
Cabin culture, unlike the better known “cabin fever,” does not have me itching to get out and gallop full speed into the nearest wide open alpine. Cabin culture is what keeps us grounded. It is the silent nod of freshly chopped wood piled next to the stove. It is the knowing smile of the cabin floor swept clean of sand and the sticky table wiped down and tidily tucked over its benches. It is the conspiratorial wink of a new rope swing tied up to replace a retired buoy. Cabin culture is our shared respect for the next boat load of escapees that will land on this beach and eat dinner around this fire. It’s our quiet understanding of our common love of living with the land here in Southeast Alaska, and I think it deserves to be recognized every once in a while.
As my dad pulls off the beach to tie our boat to the buoy, a full and brilliant rainbow breaks out, stretching from one end of Sitka Sound to the other. It hangs above the water where a few minutes earlier we had driven through a sheet of rain. Now, drying out under the warm sunshine of a textbook suckerhole, I lift my camera and bring the moment into focus.
Every summer the Sitka Conservation Society lures a handful of unsuspecting, environmentally minded, intrepid folk into the Tongass. They come from all over the world, hoping to experience Alaska. Little do they know that upon arrival they will be introduced to a wilderness so vast they could not hope to grasp it in one summer, and a town so welcoming that they will be taken into stranger’s homes and offered homemade rhubarb crisp. This summer our media interns are a mix of local and imported young people who love storytelling and adventure.
Alex Crook flew to Alaska straight from Cambodia, where he has spent the past 10 months working as a photojournalist and freelance photographer. So far he has accomplished his subsistence goals by catching his first King and making his first salmonberry pie. Alex’s other goals include using photography to give a face to the alternative energy movement in Southeast Alaska. (photo by Gleb Mikhalev)
Berett Wilber grew up fishing with her family and photographing her Southeast Alaska home. Berett’s focus this summer will be collecting stories from locals about the places they love. She’s interested in how the people of Southeast benefit from conservation in the Tongass. (photo by Gleb Mikhalev)
Caitlin Woolsey, another lifelong Sitkan, is excited to be back on the trails. She hopes to spend the summer hiking and writing stories that illustrate the importance of a well-preserved Tongass in the lives of Sitkans and Alaskans in general. (photo by Alex Crook)
Gleb Mikhalev has lived all over, from the midwest, to Russia, British Columbia, and New York City, and he says Sitkans are some of the most welcoming people he’s ever met. Last summer Gleb crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a 32 ft. steel sailboat. This summer he’s found his way to the Pacific, and hopes to spend the summer getting to know the people of Southeast Alaska. (photo by Alex Crook)
Kari Paustian was born and raised in Sitka and has spent the last few summers working on the Forest Service Trail Crew. This summer she will be the SCS liaison with the Forest Service, managing projects and writing stories on restoration in the Tongass. (photo by Alex Crook)
Lione Clare, another Sitkan, joins the intern team as a photographer. She has loved growing up in Sitka, and feels lucky to have had the opportunity to explore and get to know her environment. She wants to work to conserve the Tongass by documenting the beauty that she sees all around her and sharing it with others. (photo by Ray Pfortner)
By the end of the summer, the interns hope to cover a variety of stories, from subsistence living on Prince of Wales to the Blue Lake Dam construction here in Sitka. Stay tuned for this team’s photos, stories, and films about living with the land and building community here in the Tongass.
PHOTO BY BERETT WILBER
Standing on top of one of the Pyramid mountains, gloved hands stuffed into my orange raincoat, I look out over a sea of pink and yellow clouds as the sun sets on the low evening ceiling that settles over Sitka Sound. Alaska is not always the easiest place to call home, but moments like these make me forget the rain and cold. They fill me with awe that presses out against my ribs, bringing up a line from a James Wright poem, A Blessing: “Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom.”
When the sun shines in my hometown, Sitka, I know I am in the most beautiful place on earth. Sitka is a bustling rural metropolis hugging twenty miles of shoreline on Baranof Island, in Southeast Alaska. The southeast “panhandle,” sandwiched between British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska, is made up of eleven hundred islands called the Alexander Archipelago. Baranof is one of the largest, reaching one-hundred miles long and thirty miles across at its widest point. Like almost all of the other large islands, Baranof is covered in mountains and has year-round ice fields at high elevations.
Southeast Alaska is in the Tongass National Forest. Just shy of seventeen million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the country, and is part of the largest area of temperate rainforest on the planet. Temperate rainforest is a very specific and interesting ecosystem, defined by high annual precipitation, mild climate, and tree populations that do not require fire to regenerate.
Fifty degrees and overcast with a seventy percent chance of rain could be the forecast any day of the year in Sitka. Sitka gets about eighty seven inches of rain per year, and there are other towns, both north and south of us, that get up to one hundred-fifty inches annually. Rainfall varies throughout the region due to mountains and wind patterns.
Climate also varies throughout Southeast, but in general it is pretty mild. The ocean keeps the islands cool and wet in the summer, and warm and wet in the winter. Air temperatures range between forty and sixty degrees fahrenheit in the summer and twenty to forty degrees in the winter. Warm Japanese ocean currents keep the water around forty-five to fifty-five degrees, depending on the season.
Finally, temperate rainforests have little to no forest fires. In some places, like California, fire is part of the life cycle of the forest that allows plants to regenerate and be productive. In Southeast Alaska, wind is the change agent that keeps the forest going. In October and November, our stormiest months, straight winds of up to eighty or ninety miles per hour sweep through Southeast, taking out power lines, keeping people off the water, and blowing down trees. When trees get knocked over, the canopy opens up, allowing young trees to grow and providing light to the ground cover plants. The fallen trees themselves become “nursery logs,” providing nutrients to new trees and plants.
While Southeast is not the dramatic icy tundra that many people imagine when they think of Alaska, its majestic mountainous islands make it beautiful in its own way. The mountains are one of my favorite features of the islands, and they have an interesting history. The islands did not all form in the same way, but are the result of a few different geological processes that gathered together over millions of years. At one point, the whole area was covered by glaciers, resulting in the topography we see today.
The Alexander Archipelago is made up of three different types of islands called Wrangellia, Stikine, and Alexander. Two-hundred and twenty million years ago, all three “terranes” were scattered off-shore, separate from each other. The Stikine terrane, made up of volcanic flow, paleozoic sedimentary rocks, and marine sandstone, probably started out as a chain of volcanic islands much like Hawaii. As the plates shifted 200 million years ago, the chain collided with ancient North America at what is now British Columbia. Wrangellia also started as a volcanic chain, but these islands sank below the surface and became a shallow reef covered by marine shale. After a while a rift in the ocean floor produced a large amount of volcanic basalt that covered the reef. Later still, copper was deposited on Wrangellia, and that is why today, the Wrangell mountains have copper deposits. The Alexander terrane, distinguished by its marble and limestone, joined up with Wrangellia off shore in the Middle Jurassic period. Together they made a subterrane that collided with the North American plate in a region of subduction. The collision caused metamorphic and igneous rocks to be formed, and the was begining of the region’s mountains. Over the next 200 million years the land continued to shift, with rocks being added, and some rocks breaking off, forming the archipelago. Today the mountains are still growing, possibly rebounding from ancient glaciation or as a result of continued subduction. 
The Alexander Archipelago is defined by its deep channels and steep mountainous islands. The channels, like Chatham Strait, often mark fault lines between chunks of islands. Their depth, and the dramatic contrast with the mountains, is a result of ancient glaciation. At the height of the ice age, Southeast Alaska was covered in thick glaciers that scoured the islands down to bedrock. The only exposed habitat, called refugia, were small areas of coastline and rocky nunataks that stuck up above the ice at high elevations. Both types of refugia were islands of rock in a sea of ice, and supported life, including mountain goats and bears that still inhabit the islands today . When the glaciers melted, the channels flooded and the tops of the mountains became islands. Looking across Baranof Island on a clear day, you can pick out the sharp rocky peaks that must have survived above the ice, as well as the rounded mountains that were scoured down and made smooth by the heavy ice. There is a lake south of town, Blue Lake, where the deepest point is actually below sea level, probably because the valley was once hollowed out by ice.
It used to be believed that the islands were totally inhospitable during the ice age (Wisconsin glaciation), and all flora and fauna populations arrived and spread in the past 10,000 years . However, because of fossil findings, we are now fairly confident that refugia supported life during the ice age. Sea level was about 300 feet lower, and the coastline was lifted in response to the pressing down of the ice. This created the coastal refugia where plants and animals survived. These areas existed on islands we still see today, but it also connected some landforms that are now separated by water. Fossils of black and brown bears have been found in caves along the coast, dating back to the time of the ice age. Arctic fox, caribou, and ring seal bones have also been found in coastal caves, which leads scientists to believe Southeast Alaska used to look a lot like Northwestern Alaska does today. No polar bear remains have been found, but ring seals are their main food supply, so it would make sense that they would have been in the area as well. 
During the ice age, species were isolated and then they distributed in different directions when the ice melted. In this way species variation developed. Coastal brown bears and grizzly bears are the two main subspecies of brown bears, but depending on who you talk to there are up to ninety subspecies. Coastal brown bear DNA is surprisingly close to polar bear DNA. Baranof Island had some coastal refugia during the ice age, and today the coastal brown bears on the island are their own subspecies . Brown bears live on islands in the northern part of the archipelago, while black bears inhabit southern islands. After the ice age black bears spread south and inland, and the interior bears are now a distinct subspecies separated from the coastal bears, but by studying their lineage we can trace their movement and separation over time .
Southeast Alaska is not biodiverse, but it very diverse in the sense that there are many different ecosystems that exist closely with each other and form complex relationships. There are old growth forests, muskeg, alpine, coastal estuaries and more habitats that are home to many of the same flora and fauna. Because the same species exist throughout the ecosystems, the connections between animals and their environment can be seen, and sometimes they are surprising. The relationships between species and habitats also accentuate the impact of global warming in the Tongass.
The warming of the earth is a global phenomenon that disrupts localized ecosystems around the world. According to a study done by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Alaska’s seasonal average temperatures have increased by as much as 5.6°F from 1949 to 1998. In Southeast Alaska, the temperature in the Tongass has gone up by 1.5-3°F in this time. The most warming was seen in winter and spring, and the only cooling was recorded in the fall . The impact of climate change in Southeast Alaska is clear, but it can pop up in unexpected ways.
For example, let’s look at salmon. There are five types of Pacific salmon that spawn in streams throughout the Tongass. Around Sitka, there are a few pink salmon streams, a king salmon hatchery, and a great sockeye run at Lake Redoubt which is just a boat ride away. When salmon spawn in late summer, they return to the same river where they hatched, and swim up all the way to about the same spot where their parents spawned before. If they are not caught by fishermen or bears or impeded in some other way, they bury their eggs under the gravel in a hole called a redd, and then they die. The eggs have to survive in the streambed through winter, and in the spring the baby salmon hatch and grow until they are ready to swim out into the ocean. They live in the open ocean for one to seven years, depending on the species, and then they return again to their original stream to continue the life cycle. Global warming, however, is bad news for salmon populations.
Because of global warming, the temperature of the streams has been increasing, and precipitation patterns have been changing. In the past few years Southeast Alaska has experienced periods of drought that are believed to have affected whole generations of salmon. A study done for the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, in 2009, looks at cases of poor pink salmon returns and their correlation to changes in climate. The pink salmon returning in 2006, which would have been eggs in the run of 2004, saw unpredicted low returns. According to the study, “Drought conditions and high stream temperatures in the late summer and fall of 2004 may have contributed to the poor year-class strength of pink salmon.” The drought conditions in late summer would have meant less water in the streams, making it difficult for salmon to swim up river. The warmer water may also have presented a challenge to the eggs that were laid. They concluded that “poor marine survival as well as adverse freshwater conditions affected the 2006 returns.” 
Three years later, in 2009, Sitka experienced a warm dry summer that caused concern among locals that we would have another poor fishing season down the road . I remember that summer because it was “the summer of the bear.” The early returning pink salmon (salmon who come from parents who returned early in the season will also return early) came late and couldn’t run upstream when they normally do because of the poor stream conditions. The bears (coastal brown bears) were not aware of the change in schedule, so they came down off the mountains in August just like they always do, expecting to gorge on salmon. Instead there were no salmon, and no berries either because of the dry weather. Grumpy and hungry, more bears than usual found their way into town. A mother with four cubs caused quite a lot of excitement around Sitka. Outside of town we saw bears everywhere. It was the summer of the bear.
The returns in 2011 (the generation of eggs from the 2009 run) were not poor at all, if you look at the pink salmon harvest data recorded by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game . However, the same data reveals that every return of the 2004 salmon descendants has been poor (2006, 2008, 2010). It is probably only a matter of time before climate strikes again and debilitates another batch of salmon.
Salmon are full of nutrients that bears store to make it through the winter, and the same nutrients support the terrestrial ecosystem in the Tongass. In Southeast Alaska there are over 5,000 salmon streams. Because there are so many streams, “47% of the forested area within the Tongass falls within 0.5km of a salmon stream and over 90% within 5km” . Research is still being done on the effect of salmon derived nutrients in the Tongass. So far, we know that salmon bring in nitrogen, phosphorus, lipids, ammonia, and other nutrients that are consumed and distributed through many different pathways . Studies have been done to try and trace salmon-derived nitrogen (15N) and carbon (13C) isotope distribution in the Tongass, but it is a challenging study. It is almost impossible to trace the phosphorus, but that doesn’t mean it is any less important. The problem is that we still don’t really know how salmon derived nutrients are used by in terrestrial ecosystems in the Tongass, but there is no doubt that they are there. At this point it is hard to know how the forest will be impacted if salmon populations continue to decline, but it is undeniable that, like so much of the world, these systems are intertwined with each other.
I would like to think that if everyone could wake up in the morning and see what I see outside my front door, more people would be passionate about conservation. Our social habits that are detrimental to the environment would be easier to change, because if you can love a place, you will want to make sure it is always there. That’s how I feel about Sitka, but I’m lucky. I grew up in a place where you can’t avoid the smell of spawning salmon, and bear sightings are small town gossip. The mountains are literally right outside my door; I don’t even have to get in a car, I can just climb to the top, eating blueberries along the way. I’m lucky that I can love my place first hand, when so many people don’t get the chance to develop a personal connection with the natural world. Even if you aren’t from a place, or have never even been to it, you can still fall in love with the mystery and beauty of a wilderness. More importantly, you can share your passion with others and spread appreciation for our planet. While Southeast Alaska is an isolated place of intricate connections, it serves to remind us that the entire earth is made up of a vast web of interacting ecosystems. When human impact disrupts one part of the system, effects radiate out in a chain of related reactions. If the whole world found its mountain sunset, real or imagined, maybe that would be enough to tip the scales of conservation and balance our delicate ecosystems for another few hundred years.
 ”2012 Alaska Department of Fish and Game Southeast Alaska Pink Salmon Harvest Forecast. .” Alaska Department of Fish and Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/fishing/PDFs/commercial/2012_se_pink_salmon_harvest_forecast.pdf>.
 Connor, Cathy. ” Geology of Southeast Alaska: With Special Emphasis on the Last 30,000 Years.” . Raptor Research News, n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://raptors.hancockwildlife.org/BEIA/PAGES/Section-7.pdf>.
 “Evidence of Climate Change in Alaska.” Climate Change. N.p., 2009. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <http://alaska.fws.gov/climate/inak.htm>.
 Gende, Scott M. , Richard T. Edwards, Mary F. Willson, and Mark S. Wipfli. “Pacific Salmon in Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems.” Evergreen State College. Ebsco Publishing, 2002. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <http://academic.evergreen.edu/curricular/ftts/downloads/gende.pdf>.
 Heaton, Timothy. “Mammal Fossils.” University of South Dakota. N.p., 2002. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://orgs.usd.edu/esci/alaska/mammals.html>.
 Schwing, Emily. “Drought Could Mean Decline in Pink Salmon.” KCAW. Raven Radio, 2009. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <http://www.kcaw.org/2009/07/24/drought-could-mean-decline-in-pink-salmon/>.
 Waits, Lisette, Sandra Talbot, R.H. Ward, and G.F. Shields. “Conservation Biology.” jstor. Society for Conservation Biology, April 1998. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2387511?seq=6>.
 Wertheimer, A.C., J.A. Orsi, E.A. Fergusson, and M.V. Sturdevant. 2009. Forecasting
Pink Salmon Harvest in Southeast Alaska from Juvenile Salmon Abundance and Associated
Environmental Parameters: 2008 Returns and 2009 Forecast. NPAFC Doc. 1202. 19 pp.
(Available at http://www.npafc.org).
 Woodford, Riley. “Alaska Black Bears and the Ice Age Newcomers to the Interior but Long in Southeast.” Alaska Department of Fish and Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlifenews.view_article&articles_id=509&issue_id=98>.
 Woodford, Riley. “Uncovering mysteries: New research reveals much about life, history of Baranof Island goats.” Juneau Empire. Alaska Fish and Wildlife News, 26 November 2010. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://juneauempire.com/stories/112610/out_741885388.shtml>.
“Should I wear these pants or my stretchy ones?” Tracy Gagnon is sitting on the floor of my living room, hunting gear spread out around her, holding up a pair of lightweight hiking pants. Today is a momentous day for Tracy. Not only is it the day after her twenty sixth birthday, but it is the morning of her first ever hunting trip. She has sighted in her thirty aught six at the range, and her head is full of the philosophy of subsistence hunting.
This is a big step for Tracy, who is originally from Las Vegas, and moved to Sitka a year ago to run the SCS program, Fish for Schools. “People in Las Vegas don’t have guns!” she tells us (we laugh because that’s probably not true), “no one hunts, at least no one I know.” Actually, she says, her fifth grade teacher did make the class venison sloppy joes one time. And come to think of it, there was an ex-boyfriend who had an unsettling set of deer antlers mounted above his bed…but other than that, Tracy feels that she has had very little exposure to subsistence hunting culture.
Since moving to Alaska, things have been a little different. Tracy decided to start hunting because she wants to be responsible for her food, and up here, hunting seems like a good way provide for herself. A friend of hers once explained that he never feels more connected to the land than when he is hunting. Never more connected to the animal until he has lifted his gun to fire. Now we are in the car on the way to the harbor, and Tracy tells us she is awed by subsistence hunters in Alaska. “They know the place…they know how to read the wilderness, and they have a deep respect for the process,” she says. She has heard so many stories of the rituals of respect that people have with hunting, reassembling the carcass after harvesting the meat, leaving a lock of hair on the mountain, always thankful to the deer for being in the right place in the right time, and standing still instead of bounding away. “I’ve never had those experiences,” Tracy says, “so my main underlying reason [for hunting] is practical, but I’m also excited about the process.
We make it to the beach by nine, and we are up the ridge in an hour. We are getting a late start, but the extra sleep was worth it. The day could not be more beautiful. As we hike up through the trees, morning sun glints on the edge of each false summit, until we finally break out onto the alpine, where our ridge stretches out in front of us, and snowy peaks block out the horizon. We all agree that we are unbelievably lucky to live in the most beautiful place on earth. Our hunting location will remain unnamed, but I will tell you that we were in the Tongass, and not too far from Sitka. We see two float planes all day, and not a single other person. “Can you believe we woke up this morning and got to do this?” Berett (the photographer) asks. The ridge is about three miles long as the crow flies, and slowly climbs in a meandering curve up to a frozen lake nestled in a deep bowl. We hit snow after five hours of slow hunting, and the dog lies down to cool off. We go a little farther, then start down, still not giving up the hunt. It’s hard to feel discouraged when you have such a glorious landscape to distract you.
Unfortunately, Tracy didn’t bring her beginners luck, and we make it back to the beach at seven without sighting a deer. My mom, the experienced hunter on the trip, tells us not to be disappointed. “Subsistence hunting is like a kind of religion. Most religions have some aspect of faith in that which you cannot see.” She tells us about a time when she was looking down a hillside, and she knew there must be a deer down there because the dog was going crazy, sniffing the air and prancing around like it was Christmas morning. Mom rested her gun on a boulder and looked and looked and couldn’t see anything through the scope, and finally, growing impatient, the dog ran around the boulder and spooked the deer that had been laying there with it’s back against the warm rock. “Deer surprise you when you are at your lowest and feel like giving up.”
We don’t come home with a deer, but we are not entirely empty handed; Tracy found some bright orange Chicken of the Woods mushrooms that she brought home for dinner, Berett got lots of great shots, and the dog brought back a forest’s worth of sticks matted up in her fur. Back in the living room thirteen hours later, Tracy is still excited; “I actually think I’ve never seen a more beautiful view in my entire life. Twenty-six is a good year!”
Photos by BERETT WILBER
Berett Wilber was born and raised in fishing family in Sitka, Alaska. Currently studying as a junior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, the photography skills that she developed as a kid running around Baranof Island have developed into a dedicated interest and professional tool. Although she’s worked in many interesting places, from the steps of the capital in Washington, DC to the prairies of the Midwest, the Tongass is still her favorite place to shoot.