In July of 2012, thirteen undergraduate students from Knox College embarked on a 15-day wilderness expedition into the wilds of Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The trip was part of a semester long course entitled “Alaska: Forest, Fisheries, and the Politics of Wilderness”. The course entailed an in-depth study of the history of natural resource management in Southeast Alaska. The first part of the course took place on the Knox College campus in Galesburg, IL with a thorough exploration of the literature regarding natural resource extraction in Southeast Alaska. This classroom based study of Alaskan resource management was complimented with a 15-day field expedition to the region the following summer. This was the “hands on” component to what they had learned in the classroom.
The students arrived in Sitka, Alaska on June 27th, 2012. After a few days of preparation they embarked on a 100 mile kayaking expedition guided by Latitude Adventures, a local kayak guiding operation. For many of these students, this was their first experience camping, not to mention their first experiences in the great Alaskan wilderness. After ten days on the water, exploring the intertidal zone, watching bears, eagles, and whales; the students arrive at False Island on Chichagof Island. There the students then spent five days working side by side with the United States Forest Service restoring salmon streams that had been degraded by industrial logging. They also had the opportunity to participate in a variety of scientific surveys aimed at understanding the complexities of young growth forests.
This expedition was so unique because it allowed the students to experience the places that they had learned about in the classroom, first hand. For many, this was a trip of a lifetime.
Opportunities like Knox College’s course are available for colleges and universities throughout the nation. It is the goal of the Sitka Conservation Society and the Sitka Sound Science Center to connect courses like these with our local assets. We can connect you and your students with our local experts, guides, interpreters, and organizations to facilitate your course’s Alaskan education.
The hatchery employees at the Medvejie Hatchery located south of Sitka exemplify what it means to be “living with the land and building community in Southeast Alaska.” They are the living link between the community of Sitka and the robust salmon fishery that supports the community. Their good work helps sustain healthy wild runs of salmon and healthy Alaskan communities. Without hatcheries like Medvejie, the Alaskan salmon industry would not be what it is today.
By the 1970’s, the state’s wild stock of salmon had been severely damaged by overfishing. In response to this crisis, the state developed a hatchery program intended to supplement, not supplant, the wild stocks of salmon. For this reason, there is a litany of policies and regulations that guide the state’s hatcheries in order to protect the wild runs of salmon.
One of the policies developed to protect the wild runs of salmon was the mandated use of local brood stock. “Brood stock” are the fish a hatchery uses for breeding. Requiring that the “brood stock” be “local” means that the fish used for breeding must be naturally occurring in the area versus fish from outside the region. This requirement is designed to help maintain the natural genetic diversity of the run.
This August I had the opportunity to participate in Medvejie’s brood stock propogation of Chinook Salmon (i.e., King Salmon). This involved the physical mixing of a male Chinook salmon’s sperm with a female’s row. We were, quite literally, making salmon.
However, it wasn’t just salmon that was being cultivated that day, but a resource to sustain the local community. In recent years, Medvejie has had the most successful Chinook program in Southeast Alaska. In the last ten years, the hatchery’s runs of Chinook have averaged 34,000 fish. Most of these fish, an average of 9,500 over the last ten years, are harvested in May and June by Sitka’s commercial trolling fleet. The sportfishing fleet benefits as well, reaping an average of nearly 1,950 fish in this same period. While the associated economic impacts from these fish are beyond measure, it is safe to say that they are essential to the health of the local economy.
My experience taking brood stock at Medvejie taught me how fortunate we are to have such a well-managed fishery in the state of Alaska. I also learned about the fragility of this resource. Without such strict policies regulating the fishing industry, we would not have a resource that provides so much for our community. Salmon fishing is the cultural and economic backbone for many communities in Southeast Alaska. In the future, we must remember this fact to protect the resource that makes the community whole.
Much has changed at Sitkoh Lake since the late 1970’s. What was once an epicenter for industrial logging is now a center of activity for forest and watershed restoration. During the summer of 2012, the Sitka District of the United States Forest Service (USFS) went into the Sitkoh Lake Watershed to restore tributary streams and repair some of the damage that was caused by industrial logging. This logging occurred at a time when we didn’t understand the value of the yearly returns of salmon compared to the short-term gains of clear-cut logging.
In the late 1970’s the area around Sitkoh Lake was heavily logged and many roads were constructed in close proximity to the nearby streams. Unfortunately, the resulting degradation in wildlife and stream habitat made survival more difficult for the area’s Sockeye, Coho, Pink, and Chum salmon. To rectify this issue, the Sitka Ranger District of the USFS has invested resources to restore and monitor these important streams.
Rivers and streams in old growth forest naturally have large logs and other root masses that create ideal habitat for juvenile salmon that spend the first years of their lives in this slow moving, deep water. These natural structures help to create deep pools, oxygenate the water, and provide cover from predators. When the area around a stream is heavily logged, the natural material that can create this salmon habitat is lost. As a result the stream becomes straighter, shallower and less ideal for juvenile salmon.
To fix this problem the crew from the US Forest Service installed a number of man-made structures called “upstream V’s” that replicate these natural structures. These upstream V’s help channel the stream’s flow and create deeper, slower moving water ideal for juvenile salmon. However, these are temporary fixes that will hold the stream bank together until the trees along the stream grow large enough to naturally create this habitat diversity for spawning salmon.
This project in the Sitkoh Lake Watershed is important because these salmon runs help support many of our local communities. Many commercial seine and troll fishermen depend on these fish for their livelihoods. These runs also support our local subsistence fishery that so many residents depend upon for their sustenance. Considering these qualities, it’s fair to say that these streams are the lifeblood for the nearby communities of Angoon and Sitka.
Forest Service projects like this that “manage the Tongass for Salmon” are extremely important investments in both the ecosystems of the Tongass as well as the economy of Southeast Alaska. But this project is just a start. There are still hundreds of miles of salmon streams that have been impacted by historic clear-cut logging that still need restoration.
SCS is working to make sure that this project is only the beginning of a long-term focus of Tongass management that focuses on our Wild Alaska Salmon Resource.
Have you ever wanted to can salmon but haven’t been able to find good instructions?
Brian Hamilton, a local fisherman and connoisseur of wild foods, is here to help. He has put together a very detailed explanation of the process he goes through when catching, cleaning, brining, smoking, and canning salmon.
My hope is that these instructions help others in their quest to preserve some of our local delicacies.
Here are Brian’s instructions:
“A Brief Outline of Catching, Cleaning, Brining, Smoking, and Canning Salmon.
- Once fish is caught (and killed), cut or remove gills to allow blood to drain from fish.
- Keep fish cold. ( I run a stringer through their gill flap and tie them to a rock making sure their bodies stay submerged in water).
- Once fish are caught, clean them as soon as possible.
* Try not to let fish get discolored which usually results from letting them sit to warm and too long before cleaning.
Cleaning: (this is done easily in a double sink with a large counter space next to it)
- Rinse each fish in cold water removing any large external debris.
- Place fish on counter. Hold tail with non-dominant hand and use a sharp fillet knife to cut a shallow incision from the anus to the fish’s bottom lip.
- Gently remove all organs from stomach cavity, being careful not to rupture the intestines or rectum (they contain green waste that spreads quickly and could damage the quality of the fish meat).
- Use the tip of the fillet knife to cut open the thin membrane that covers the spinal fluid. (Spinal fluid resembles thick, coagulated blood).
- Rinse out spine and stomach cavities thoroughly with cold water.
- Cut two spine deep slits on each side of fish: 1 behind the gills and the other just in front of the tail
- Cut fillets off each side (I hold the tail with my non-dominant hand and run the fillet knife from tail slit to gill slit, keeping knife lightly pressed against the spine. Try to remove as much meat as possible. Bones are ok.)
- Cut fillets in half and rinse thoroughly. Dry scale side down with a paper towel, removing as much slime as possible.
- Place fillet halves into brine (see recipe) and discard fish carcasses. *
*For bear safety it is strongly recommended that the fish carcasses and organs are bagged and frozen then dumped in your street garbage the morning it is picked up.
Brining- water, sugar, salt
- In 2 quarts cold water, add just enough salt to float and uncooked egg and then thoroughly mix.
- Then add 2 cups brown sugar and thoroughly mix again.
- Add fish and let fish sit in fridge for 12 hours.
Smoking- (plug in smoker 30 minutes before smoking)
- After fish has set in brine for 12 hours, remove from brine and thoroughly rinse. Set rinsed fillets, scales down, on clean smoker racks (leaving about 1 inch between fillets helps smoke rise).
- Pat fillets with paper towels and then let them sit for 30 min in a cold, dry, clean place.
- Load fillets into smoker, starting with the top rack.
- Fill the wood chip pan with wood chips.
- After about 2.5 hours, check wood chip pan. DO NOT REMOVE THE ENTIRE FRONT COVER. If chips are exhausted, discard and refill wood chip pan.
- After another 2.5 hours, unplug smoker.
Supplies- Mason jars w/ lids and rings, pressure cooker.
- Thoroughly wash and rinse mason jars, rings, and lids and set them out to dry. (It takes about 1 jar per 2 fillet halves, but have extras just in case).
- Remove lowest tray of smoked salmon fillets from smoker and set on counter.
- Remove as much skin as possible from each fillet, then pack fish into jars. Bones are okay!
- Fish can be lightly stuffed into jars but make sure there is at least 1 inch of empty space between top lip of jar and the highest point of fish in jar.
- Place seal lid and ring onto each jar and lightly tighten each ring. Rings should just barely “catch” before you stop tightening. This will allow heat to escape jars during pressure cooking.
- Place jars into pressure cooker and stack if your pressure cooker is large enough. Make sure a rack is in place (included with pressure cooker) so jars aren’t sitting directly on the bottom of the cooker.
- Fit as many jars as possible in the pressure cooker.
- Follow instruction manual for pressure cooker for amount of water and vinegar to add.
- Run a paper towel along the top rim of the jar to thoroughly clean off any debris.
- Place lid on pressure cooker and latch close, heat escape vent should be open and/or uncovered.
- Put pressure cooker on a stove and heat on highest setting.
- Once water boils, steam will emit from the heat vent. Once steam is emitted in a strong, steady stream place cover on heat vent. Once pressure builds up, the pressure stop will rattle around and eventually pop up.
- Pressure will slowly build on the pressure gauge. Once 11 psi is reached, turn down heat setting and try not to allow pressure to exceed 11 PSI.
- Start a timer for 100 minutes and constantly adjust stove heat up and down to keep pressure at 11PSI.
- After 100 minutes, turn off stove heat and move pressure cooker to a non-heated stove surface. Pressure will slowly decrease.
- After about 30 minutes, pressure will reach zero and the pressure stop will drop, carefully remove lid from canner making sure to keep the steam away from your face and arms.
- Jars are extremely hot. Using hot gloves or a folded towel, remove each jar slowly and place on a towel or heat resistant surface. The fat from the fish will be built up in the jars and still boiling. Some jars may be broken, so carefully remove those jars from the bottom with a metal spatula or similar tool. (As long as shards of glass are not present and jar breakage looks clean, the fish should be safe to consume.) Leave jars to cool for a couple of hours at room temperature.
- As jars cool, the lids will compress and seal with popping sounds, which completes the sealing of the jar. If any jar is cooled and not sealed, they are not safe for storage and should be refrigerated and consumed soon. Sealed jars are usually safe at room temperature for at least a year or two.
- Store jars in a cool, dry place.
- Eat often.
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.
Dustin Hack is not your typical entrepreneur. Instead of making his living by sipping lattes, yapping on cell phones, and playing the stock exchange, Hack makes his living the old-fashioned way, with his own two hands.
Hack, 31, originally from Plainfield, IL, recently started a new business in Sitka entitled the Alaska Beam Company. The business utilizes dead and downed yellow cedar from the Sitka Ranger District in the construction of local buildings, fencing, boat interiors, and other hand-crafted products. It’s a business model that, as Hack explains, “just makes so much sense!”
We’re married! I can’t believe it! Both Kate and I agree that we will someday look back on these last few weeks as the happiest in our lives.
We got hitched on June 2nd in Sonoma, CA. After two days collecting ourselves in Nor Cal, from one of the biggest events of our lives, we packed our truck and steered north to Alaska. This summer we are working with the Sitka Conservation Society in Sitka, AK. We couldn’t think of a better place to spend our first months together as a married pair.
Sitka is located on Baranof Island. To get there you have to either fly or take a ferry. Kate and I caught the ferry in Prince Rupert, BC on June 10th. The trip on the Alaska State Ferry was something that I had been looking forward to for a long time. For me, the ferry marked the beginning of our Alaskan adventures and one step closer to the wild North.
Since I was a kid there’s been something pulling me to this landscape. It’s hard to explain why I’m drawn here, to a place that we perceive as cold, wet, and generally unwelcoming. But for me, and maybe you too, there’s a desire to find something here, achieve something, a metaphysical search of sorts. Anyways, I’m still searching.
I couldn’t have been happier to arrive in Sitka on June 12. It’s been 5 years since I last lived here, but nothing seems to have changed much… at least in town. We haven’t yet had the chance to escape into the mountains. We plan to take our first hike later this afternoon. I can’t wait to step into the forest and introduce Kate to the Tongass, and the Tongass to Kate. I wonder if it has changed as much as I have? I guess there’s only one way to find out…
In June of 2012, members of Wrangell’s Boy Scout Troop 40 joined forces with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), the United States Forest Service and local volunteers to help remove invasive plants from the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area. The objective of the trip was to remove the aggressive reed cannery grass from the banks of the Twin Lakes by hand pulling the plants as well as covering areas with sheets of black plastic. The group also helped remove an enormous amount of buttercups and dandelions from the lakes’ shoreline.
However, the ultimate goal of the trip was to teach the Boy Scouts what it means to be good stewards of the land and the value of Wilderness areas like the Stikine. What better way is there to teach this lesson then to spend five days in the Wilderness learning these lessons first hand from the land and from each other?
After five days in the field, Troop 40 decided to adopt the Twin Lakes area as their ongoing stewardship project. They plan to return in the coming years to continue the work that they’ve started. It is community dedication like this that the Stikine and other wilderness areas require in order to remain pristine for future generations.