Back to Basics: An Alaskan Wilderness Experience

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 Directorat 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.

Adventure into the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness.

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.

A pink salmon swims upstream to spawn.

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 anarea 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.

Picturesque view of Nakwasina Sound.

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.

A brown bear lurks across the tidal flat.

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 makesmanagement 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.

Holding a Coho at Redoubt weir.
Work station for sampling fish at the Redoubt weir.

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.

View of Crescent Harbor in Sitka, Alaska.

Chris Leeseberg, Scott Harris and I at False Island.

On the 28thof 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.

One of the remarkable inhabitants of the Tongass.

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