Almost three months have already gone by since I started my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society, under the supervision of Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Director at SCS. It is now the start of September and I cannot believe how fast time flies by when I am truly enjoying my eye-opening opportunity. It still feels as though only yesterday I landed in Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Nowadays waking up every morning to rhythmic pulses of the rain droplets and the fresh aroma of the soothing ocean breeze has become a part of my daily life.
Along with the overwhelming invasion of nature in my life, I also get a chance to spend the majority of my time here in the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. The Tongass is one of the last few forests untouched by industrialization and remains as the largest temperate rainforest on earth. The forest encompasses part of the Northern Pacific coastal forests along with the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia. Due to its vast size, the forest hosts a number of various types of trees: western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock. The forest is also home to five species of salmon, brown and black bears, and Bald Eagles.
My days at Sitka are often filled with a variety of outdoor activities- all of which have constantly kept me marveling at the great nature I am surrounded by. From hiking up mountain trails to kayaking upstream against the swift tides, my internship projects have led me to explore different parts of the Tongass while having the opportunity to meet other biologists, conservationists, and interns. One of my projects involved monitoring a conservation and restoration project implemented by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) in the Starrigavan Recreational Area. I am conducting vegetation surveys in these forest gaps and collecting data from trail cams to monitor deer activity within the gaps for tagging purposes. The workers of the USFS cut oval forest gaps with an area of 100 ft in diameter to mimic natural disturbances in the forest. The purpose of this is to encourage the growth of shrubs and ferns, which are another type of food sources for deer and bears. Starting since the 1950s, a significant percentage of the big trees (old growth) in the Tongass were logged and when the second generation of trees grew, they left little space for sunlight to reach to the ground. Thus, without these gaps, the growth of shrubs and ferns will decrease, thereby lowering the food sources for the deer, which may lead to a decline in the deer population in the future. Within the gaps, there are also deer enclosures to monitor how deer foraging affects vegetation growth.
From the peaks of the mountains to where streams meander across the landscape, my weekly duty takes me to a stream that flows through the community of Sitka. Once a week I would ride my bike down to Indian River to collect water samples from the river. According to the protocol, I would filter the water from the river and pour them into two sampling bottles. The Sitka Conservation Society is a part of SALMoN (Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network) and participates in the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO). GRO documents water chemistry from rivers around the world in order to understand long-term ecological changes to freshwater ecosystems. To document the water chemistry, GRO analyzes nutrient concentrations, dissolved organic carbon, and the isotope ratio of strontium. Local streams such as Indian River will be studied alongside the great rivers such as Amazon, Yangtze and others. The program started when Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the founders of GRO was a Scientist in Residence at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
My days often began with journeys packed with wilderness adventures. I went on a five day camping trip to West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness which is located about 55 miles away from Sitka and it takes around 3 hours to get there by boat. This trip by far is the longest period of time that I’ve been out camping. The purpose of this project is to install temperature loggers into five different streams in order to monitor the health and the quality of the stream waters. To arrive at some of these streams, we had to bushwhack through the forest while making noises to alert the bears. Some trails were challenging and tedious with rugged and slippery mud-covered grounds but they were all fun. Once we’ve reached the streams, we conducted a variety of analyses such as installing temperature loggers and recording the stream width. We also measured the flow of the streams and noted down the dissolved oxygen levels. While performing these tasks, it was fascinating to see thousands of salmon fish swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water. The end of each day was an even bigger adventure for me since we would move from one campsite to the next. Before the sun sets, we would spend about 30 minutes, cruising around the ocean in our boat, searching for a safe spot to camp. We camped on different parts of the forest each night and got to explore the wonders of the old growth wilderness in the dark, quiet night.
From sampling streams, my internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake where its top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake. Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before at Sitka. Not only was it the longest camp trip, it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake where I had a chance to work with the Forest Service. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makes management decisions based on the data collected each season. Once the fish pass through the weir, they head up to the northern tip of the lake and travel up streams to spawn. Through out the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies become bright red and the male sockeyes’ heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time, before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It definitely was a biological process worth observing.
With large amount of ocean surrounding the island comes the freshest seafood. The most important resource of Southeast Alaska is salmon. There are five different types of salmon here: king, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon. Here, salmon is fished for industrial purposes and plays a major role in sustainable fishing as well. Out of the five different types of Salmon, I have already tried three of them, which are King, Sockeye and Pink. The two that I haven’t tasted yet are Coho and Chum. Most people here prefer the King and I have to agree with them on that. I also got a chance to try deer meat, which tasted like beef but leaves a trace of gamey palate in your mouth.
Despite the nature explorations that were required for work, I also had a chance to enjoy the beautiful picturesque landscape of Alaska. The town of Sitka is small with a population of 9000 people, yet it is lively and vibrant with esthetically decorated small vendor shops. Sitka is surrounded by the sounds of clashing waves and mountains varying in heights. During my leisure time from work, I went on hikes on the mountains with friends and enjoyed stunning landscapes from the peaks of the mountains. Along the way, I met other interns and co-workers who were passionate about conserving the natural beauty that the Tongass has to offer.
On the 28th of August, I completed my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society and had the opportunity to gain hands on conservation experience that I have longed for. Within the past three months, I learned so much about the importance of conservation methods, and my internship gave me a chance to work with land managers who are working on making important conservation decisions. I learned new research and conservation approaches and methods as well as the importance of social outreach to the community for our conservation works. Overall, this internship has given me invaluable knowledge and taught me to have even more respect for the beautiful wilderness and the natural wonders of the earth. This was truly an eye opening experience and certainly, one that I will never forget.
My internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake, where the top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makes management decisions based on the data collected each season.
Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before in Sitka. Not only was it the longest trip of my internship (a total of 6 days out in the field), it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake and to have a chance to work with the Forest Service. Throughout the entire trip, we lived in a small cozy cabin that is built on an island completely surrounded by water. Every morning, I was up by 6:30 and the day officially started off at 7:00. Through the quiet serene waters, we boated towards the weir, the morning silence broken by the Forest Service employees yelling, “Hey Bear” and the sound of the blow horn. The Forest Service runs a mark and recapture study of sockeye returning to the stream. In addition we sampled the fish, which entailed weighing, measuring and collecting a scale sample.
Sitting at the weir and counting fish as they pass through was quite an experience. It was fascinating to see thousands of salmon swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water as they fought against the downstream currents. While there was a feast of action packed beneath the waters, the above grounds were active with local dip netters at the outlet of the lake and hungry bears that roamed around the surroundings. One day, as I was sitting at the weir and counting fish with Janelle Horstman, a Forest Service employee, a bear snuck up to the end of the weir. It was a chilling experience, yet quite incredible to see a wild bear within 20 feet. With the gush of rapids pouring out at the outlet, I barely heard the bear coming down from the island. It made me appreciate the rugged beauty and graceful movement of these magnificent grizzly bears.
Once the fish pass through the weir, they headed up to the northern tip of the lake and traveled up-stream to spawn. Throughout the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies became bright red and the male sockeyes’ heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It was definitely a biological process worth observing.
The scenes at Redoubt Lake were pretty mesmerizing. The sight of glassy black pearly water reflecting the clouds above and nearby mountains created a dreamy ambiance. The sounds of nature and refreshing ocean breeze swirled around the lake, creating a perfect blend of serenity. With its picturesque landscape and its importance to the subsistence fishery of Alaska, Redoubt Lake is definitely one of the most precious landmarks of the Tongass National Forest.
The soft morning sunlight shined upon as I rode my bike to the Crescent Harbor, making my way towards Scott’s Boat. Today was the very first overnight camping trip of my internship, and that fact alone had already made the trip exciting. As I got to the boat, Scott was already there, making sure that the boat was ready for the journey to Kruzof Island. A few minutes later, Mary Wood showed up to the boat. Mary is the Living with the Land Jesuit Volunteer, and since she has had a lot of camping/ backpacking experience, she will be my guide for the overnight trip. I was glad to have such a reliable guide as I felt nervous at the thought of my first, real camping experience. The only time I camped was my first year at Knox College where we went to a forest reserve and spent the night in a cabin with bunk beds. I was psyched about spending the night in a tent since it was something I had never done before.
At about 11:00 in the morning, we departed from the harbor and ambled our way to Kruzof Island. With each coming wave, we headed out to sea; the boat hurdled up and down, dancing along the rhythm of the waters. Forty-five minutes into the trip, our boat approached the island. With a gush of excitement, I set my foot on the Kruzof Island for the very first time. The salty soothing ocean breeze rippled across my face as I took my first breath of cool gentle air of this uninhabited nature. It was a stunning panorama, with trees that danced along to the wind and rhythmic ocean waves. After taking it all in, we unloaded our camping gear from the boat and headed to the campsite. Two graduate students from University of Michigan greeted me. They had been conducting surveys regarding resource management and social dynamics on the island, and were creating a monitoring plan for a section of Shelikof Creek. That night, we sat next to the warm fire, and as the sun slowly disappeared into the horizon, the excitement of the first day faded away as well.
The next day, we woke up at around six in the morning to get ready for work. Our morning fuel consisted of a warm bowl of oatmeal, topped with a generous squirt of honey and fruits and by 6:30 we were ready for work. In order for us to get to the work site, we had to drive ATVs and since Mary knew how to drive one, I went along with her. Riding the ATV was like a thrilling roller coaster ride as it tense over the uneven rocky trails. After 30 minutes of the ATV ride and another hour of bushwhacking through the dense forest, we finally reached our destination.
It was a serene beautiful sight, surrounded by trees while a meandering river cruises across the landscape. The United States Forest Service (USFS) was performing salmon habitat restoration work in the stream. In the past, forest management practices allowed logging all the way to the stream banks. Now we know that was a mistake because large-tree riparian forest provide valuable benefits for salmon and other wildlife. So now we’re putting logs back in the stream to provide rearing and spawning habitat for salmon. While assisting, I had the opportunity to be control of the wench, a tool used to pull in logs from the banks. These logs would provide hiding places for the salmon from natural predators such as bears and eagles. It was a magnificent sight to see these huge timeworn logs getting pulled into the waters.
Meanwhile, Chris Leeseberg, Fisheries and Wildlife Biologist at the USFS, was trimming down the forest near the river to prevent overcrowding of the second-generation growth. This would allow trees to grow without any competition and will allow shrubs to grow on the bottom of the forest floor. By the time we finished with placing the logs into stream, it was about five in the evening thus we headed back to our base camp.
Although this was only a two-day trip, this experience further enhanced my knowledge regarding salmon habitat restoration work. Salmon plays a major role in the lives of the people of Alaska in both industrial and subsistence fishing. Organizations such as the USFS and SCS implement restoration projects in an effort to protect the salmon, a reminder of the important and highly valued fish. Many respect and appreciate the importance of the work done by the Forest Service and I am glad to be have been apart of this restoration work.
It was a fine cloudy morning with a touch of fresh breeze on June 11th; just another typical morning here in Sitka. My supervisor, Conservation Science Director for the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), Scott Harris arrived at the Forest Service Bunk house (where I live) at 6:45 a.m. to pick me up. All I was told is that we will be setting traps to look for an invasive crab species that could potentially reach the waters of Alaska. I was super excited since I am not at all familiar with trapping crabs. On our way, we stopped to pick up Bethany Goodrich, SCS’s Tongass Policy and Communications Resident. Our first stop was at the Sitka Sound Science Center and Taylor White, the aquarium manager, greeted us. We loaded small containers with dead herring fish as bait before placing these containers into the six crab pots.
At 7:30 am in the morning, members of the Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka Sound Science Center were already busy, loading the boat with crab pots, and getting ready to take off to Sitka Sound to monitor the waters of the invasive crab species, the European Green Crab. As SCS’s Salmon Conservation Intern, I was eager to learn about the methods of monitoring invasive species in Alaska.
Currently, the European Green Crab is not known to occur in Alaska, but are currently found as far north as British Columbia. European Green Crabs first entered the United States in the mid 1800’s, coming by sailing ship to the Cape Cod region.Since then, the crabs have become well adapted to the environment and flourish in the waters of United States. However, with the increase in numbers, European Green Crabs have created negative impacts on local commercial and personal fishing and caused habitat disturbance thus affecting other native species. These crabs heavily prey on tubeworms, juvenile claims and juvenile crabs. In recent years, with the increase in the European crab population, there has been a strong decline in the populations of young oysters and other smaller native shore crabs. With its increasing population European Green Crabs have the potential to outcompete the native Dungeness crab for food and habitat. Thus, our mission of setting up the crab pots is to capture and halt the invasive European Green Crabs as early as possible in their invasion.
Shortly after we finished placing the bait, we headed towards Scott’s boat, Alacrity and placed the baits while waiting for Lynn Wilber, a PHD student from the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom. Once Lynn showed up, we headed out to the sea. As we headed out to sea, the panorama before me reminded me of the scenes from the discovery channel’s series “Deadliest Catch”, except for the fact that the water that we were in was a lot calmer.
We went out to where the water depth was about 30 ft and Scott plunged the first metal anchor that was attached to a marker buoy into the water. Attached to the buoy was a long heavy rope line and on that line we attached the crab pots using metal clippers. Each crab pot has to be 5-arm length apart from the other. One by one, we deployed the crab pots in to the water and at the end of the line, we attached another anchor with a marker buoy attached to it.
The next day, around the same time, we headed out to the sea to see if we had captured any European crabs in our crab pots. Keeping with the protocol, we had left the traps for the whole 24 hours. As we pulled in each trap, we discovered a bunch of sea stars, 1 rockfish and a male and a female Kelp Greenling and luckily no European Green Crabs. As part of the protocol, we also measured the salinity of the water because this is an area where the freshwater from Indian River fuse with the ocean and thus the salinity can fluctuate from time to time. Another reason for measuring the salinity is that the European Green Crabs are known to be tolerant of freshwater. Thus it is important to monitor the water chemistry, to determine if it is suitable environment for European Green Crabs to become established.
This process of monitoring happens every month in an effort by the staff of Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka Sound Science Center to protect that valuable native species of Alaska and to stop the invasion of the European Crab species as soon as possible. Forests, streams and the ocean all combine to provide a favorable habitat for salmon. To keep our fisheries healthy, we must continue to monitor and implement restoration projects in all of these three areas.