This week on Voices of the Tongass, John Straley talks about what it means to succeed in the Last Frontier, from building a career to building a family. To hear the show, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
John Straley’s father could not have predicted that moving to the Last Frontier would turn his horse-shoeing son into an intellectual. “He always thought I was better suited to be running a chainsaw,” John says. “He was very proud when I became a writer, but he thought it was good that I had a back-up career as a laborer.” John’s father needn’t have worried. While John didn’t take the most traditional path to being one of Alaska’s most celebrated modern authors, he certainly took an effective one. “Being a horseshoer turns out to be a good motivation to be an intellectual. Your back motivates you to read books.” While it also might have helped that there weren’t many horses around, any way you look at it, he seems to have subverted his father’s expectations. From being a private eye to a youth conservation leader, there are few corners of the community that John has not have a presence in. And of course, his experience means has led to a life as no literary slouch: he has been published many times in many genres, serving as Alaska’s writer laureate between 2006 and 2008.
But, like any reputable laborer, John isn’t one to dwell on success. After almost forty years living in Alaska, he’s come to value his work not by the quantity of his audience, but by it’s quality. “I’ve been in a fancy hotel. And waited in the lobby for my driver and a Lincoln Town car to take me to a bookstore,” he says. “I didn’t make enough money that day to change anything. If I can give a reading at the library here, I’m happy. That’s as much audience as I need. if I can go to a friend’s house and read their kids to sleep, that’s as much as I need.”
And like his own father, John has learned to have his own expectations about being a father subverted. Attention to accurate description, necessary qualities for a writer and a poet, had some different effects when it came to fatherhood. He tells a story about teaching his son Finn some of the everyday joys of the Alaskan experience with his wife, Jan. “When we lived in Fairbanks,” he tells us, “she got a hand lens, and when a mosquito landed on Finn’s arm, she showed him what happens when a mosquito lands on him. Vividly. And when he steps outside the next day, and the screen door is just black with mosquitos, he starts screaming because the air is filled with monsters that suck his blood.” There is a significant pause while John reflects. “This was a mistake,” he admits.
But for any listener who has the opportunity to hear even a few of John’s stories, it’s impossible to believe that parenthood in Alaska was all tribulation – far from it. Near the end of his interview, John says something about the life he has built in the Alaska that rings true, even for those of us who have not spent nearly as much time in the wilderness as John has. “We’ve stayed here for now, jeez, almost 35 years or more,” he says. “It’s just become a fabulous part of our family. It changed all the stories I’ve written, the poems I’ve written. I’m sixty years old. I’m just happy to be alive. I can’t imagine living any place else.”
Listen to the show: 9_LWL_JOHN_STRALEY
This week’s show takes us under the breaking waves for a night dive with Taylor White. To hear more about Taylor’s relationship with the ocean, read on. To hear her episode of Voices of the Tongass, scroll to the bottom of this post.
photo by Berett Wilber
Taylor White is 22 years old and she shares her office with a killer whale skeleton. She is the Aquarium Manager at the Sitka Sound Science Center. Whether it’s describing a night dive off the coast of Baranof Island or a kayak trip launched from her front yard, Taylor talks about the ocean like it’s a member of her family. It has drawn Taylor back each year to dive and snorkel her way into a job. “Leaving the ocean made me realize how much I wanted it in my life,” she says about her four years spent studying marine biology in the frustratingly landlocked Eastern Washington.
“I always wonder about how I would be if I grew up in a suburb,” Taylor says. She wouldn’t call herself a hard core crazy outdoors person, but because nature is literally at her doorstep it has become an integral part of her life. “I think any place where you grow up shapes who you are.” More specifically, Taylor feels that growing up in Sitka, Alaska, has grounded her and given meaning to the way she lives her life. “I’m appreciative for the perspective that Alaska gives you…you’re more a part of it, and more a part of the natural process than you would be in other places…Those sorts of experiences that don’t happen in other places.” Like the summer her friend got attacked by a bear while biking. “They make you stop and think about the place in the wider picture….it just makes you think more.”
When Taylor thinks about her four years in Washington, she remembers feeling pressed to meet deadlines and “living life not necessarily day by day.” One of Taylor’s favorite things is landing in Sitka on the narrow runway that juts out into the water. Her first stop in town is at Sandy Beach, where she loves to run into the water, no matter the season. “When I come back here it’s kind of nice to just stop and find my place again, instead of getting wound up with what I might call less of living and more of just doing.” She adds, here I think I live with more of a purpose and I understand better where I belong in my community, and in my surroundings, and that’s because of all those experiences of growing up and going away and coming back.”
If the play bar doesn’t pop up below, try clicking the link.
Tenders may only fulfill one or a few parts of the salmon commodity chain yet their hard labor and work ethic is what keeps our fishermen fishing and eventually our plates full of fish. To keep fishermen fishing, yet another amenity often provided by tenders is conversation.
This is where my role as a community organizer came in.
There are all sorts of approaches to packing Coho bellies with ice–I got a little ridiculous and acrobatic.
While on the tender boats, I both worked as a crew member, and an organizer. While working on the tender boats, I talked with fishermen and deckhands about the US Forest Service’s Tongass Transition and how the transition should be focused on protecting the salmon they depend on.
It is very important that fishermen and tender operators voice their concerns with the people and agencies responsible for managing our Tongass National Forest because the salmon these fishermen depend on come directly from the Tongass. Salmon fishing accounts for over 7,000 jobs, hundreds of millions in revenue, and are a sent out as food to people from all over the country.
A Sitka fishermen offloads his catch to the Shoreline Scow in Pelican, AK.
It wasn’t surprising thing I found that most fishermen catching salmon had not heard about the Tongass Transition because the Forest Service is still only focusing on timber.
The very Coho that I helped process spent anywhere from one to five years in the rivers, streams, tributaries, sloughs, and back-pools of Tongass watersheds. Now here they were: supporting the livelihoods of these fishermen while generating thousands of jobs in our Southeast economy by the many hands that catch, weigh, stuff, and ship these fish all over the world.
Rows and rows of Coho with ice-stuffed bellies are lined up in totes that can hold from 1,000-1,500 pounds of fish and ice.
It is the Forest Service’s job to manage the Tongass, our forest and resources, in a way that reflects the people of Southeast Alaska’s priorities. If you look at the economic stats and use common sense, Salmon is the most sustainable and valuable resource that the Tongass produces.
After discussing the Tongass Transition with the large number of fishermen I worked with this summer, they want the Forest Service to start implementing the Transition, and make sure that salmon are a big focus of the Forest Service’s work. They have written messages to the Forest Service that include “I have been trolling in SE for the last 9 years and will for many more to come. Every salmon is important to me. It is my livelihood so every fish counts.” They are telling the Forest Service to prioritize restoring salmon habitat damaged by historic logging as the main focus of the Transition.
As my friend Kai on the Shoreline scow said about fishermen and deckhands respectively, “You slice um, we ice ‘um,” we Sitkans, fishermen, and users of the Tongass can say to our Forest Service respectively, “you manage ‘um, we live off of ‘um.”
If you haven’t already done so, type up a quick email to Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell asking him to implement the Tongass Transition and to focus management effort on salmon for the benefit of the fishermen, the multitude of jobs created by the fishing industry (such as our beloved tender operators), and the delicious taste of salmon for super. It takes 5 minutes, yet helps keep the people who depend on the Tongass.
The chief’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you need more information for your email, click here. You just gotta clearly state “Implement the Tongass Transition and move beyond Old Grown timber harvest, Chief Tidwell.”
Over the course of the summer, I had a chance to talk to a huge number of fishermen, but our conversations did not happen just at the harbors, docks, or in Sitka’s Pbar. Instead, they occurred on tenders.
Tenders are a very important component of Southeast Alaska’s fishing industry and serve fishing boats that are far from their home harbors.
Either stationary like the Shoreline Scow by Pelican or mobile like Sitka’s Ginny C or Deer Harbor II, tenders serve our fishermen with paychecks, ice, and at times with rare amenities like hot showers and right-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. The job of tender boats is to unload the catch from fishing boats on the fishing grounds. On the tender boats, the fishermen’s catch gets sorted, weighed, iced up, and packed away in a matter of minutes. During those minutes, there is a lot of physical and mental endurance by people who are typically behind the scenes in the fishing industry.
As a community organizer, I saw working on tenders as not only a way to reach out to fishermen about the Tongass Transition during the busy fishing season, but also as a way to get some sort of experience in the lifestyle and hard work that most people in Southeast commit to in order to make their living.
Picture the King salmon opening in July, which is one of the busiest times for salmon trollers and consequently for the tenders. A typical day for tender deckhands begins at 6 or 7 in the morning with greetings from fishermen that have been waiting to sell their fish since 3 am. There is not just one boat waiting to offload, but a line of 5 boats with more lingering close by. The hydraulics are turned on, the crane is in motion, and bags of fish are hauled one at a time from the fishermen’s boat to a tray on the tender where the deckhands sort the fish for quality and weight.
Once weighed these often heavy and large fish are grasped by the gills and neck, one in each hand, by deckhands that then simultaneously toss both fish into a tote with a repetition that fills the tote with layers of fish and ice in a matter of seconds. These deckhands have to be quick, to operate under pressure, to persevere with numb hands and hungry bellies as each fishermen offloads thousands of pounds of their livelihood onboard in the hopes to catch more in the next few days.
With troll caught Coho aboard, deckhands of the Ginny C and myself removed the ice from salmon bellies, weighed the fish, placed them in totes, and then stuffed their bellies again with ice.
After working on their feet for hours, moving around totes of around 1000 pounds of fish and ice, breaking apart new totes of ice with metal shovels, tossing around 12 pound fish with sore muscles and wrists, stuffing salmon bellies with ice, and then scrubbing the whole operation down with bleach, Joy soap, and water, the deckhands yawn themselves to bed around 2 am, quite possibly still covered in fish slime. Then they will sleep for 4 or 5 hours, wake up, and do it all over again.
The Shoreline in Pelican, AK has been a woman-run operation for decades, and I was fortunate to join them for a few days and share in their hard, hard work, which helps our fishermen keep fishing.
Stay tuned! I will be posting a blog piece focused on the advocacy work I did on tenders entitled “You slay ‘um, we weigh ‘um”: a mix of tendering and Tongass Transition advocacy in Southeast Take Two. A big thank you to KaiLea Wallin who coined the two slogans I have used as titles for these blog pieces.
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?
THE TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST AND THE COHO SALMON:
Alaska’s coho fisheries and the Tongass National Forest are closely related. Shot in Sitka over the fishing season of 2013 by Berett Wilber, this photo essay illustrates how conservation and restoration matter to local fisherman, and why it should matter to you.
By. Nora McGinn, Sitka Salmon Shares Organizer
The Sitka Salmon Shares office sits on Main Street in Galesburg, Illinois, approximately 3,000 miles from the Tongass National Forest and the communities of Southeast Alaska. Despite this distance, we share a commitment to the salmon, fishermen and public lands that make up the Tongass National Forest.
As we at Sitka Salmon Shares navigate connecting socially and environmentally conscious consumers in the Midwest with small boat fishermen in Sitka and Juneau we have continued to return to the story of the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass poses a particularly compelling connection for many people out here in the Midwest.
In the conversations I’ve had and the advocacy letters I’ve read I have learned that, as proud Midwesterners, our members understand they need to support their fellow citizens and public lands beyond their regional borders. They identify with the inextricable connection between place, culture and livelihood. They can relate to the fine balance between stewardship and reliance on resources. And just as they enjoy supporting their local farms, dairies and breweries, they appreciate supporting their fisherman, who although not as local is just as fundamental to their food system.
But, for most of our members, their growing reverence for the Tongass National Forest comes down to something much simpler: the taste and quality of the wild salmon we deliver to their doorstep during the summer months. They know that the bountiful streams and rivers of the Tongass National Forest reared their wild salmon. They understand that the delicious and nourishing salmon that ends up on their dinner tables had a long journey — a journey that connects them to their fishermen and to the Tongass as a whole.
When Midwesterners join Sitka Salmon Shares, we help them become aware of the Tongass National Forest as a national treasure. And for these reasons, they feel a responsibility to safeguard it for both those that rely on the Tongass for their livelihood locally, and for folks like them, thousands of miles away, fortunate enough to share in its bounty.
Therefore our members in Minnesota have been writing to Senator Al Franken, our members in Wisconsin have been communicating with Senator Tammy Baldwin, and our members in Illinois, Iowa and Indiana have been contacting the Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell in order to advocate for the Tongass and the Tongass Transition. They all write to share their hopes for a healthy, sustainable future in the Tongass by prioritizing funding for watershed restoration, caring for salmon habitat and making sure fisheries remain strong so that communities, near and far, can thrive.
Today’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Ben Hamilton about becoming a filmmaker in Southeast Alaska. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Ben, read on…
Ben Hamilton, a native Texan, never thought of himself as someone who lived in Alaska. But recently when a stranger asked if he spent the summers here, he had to stop and think about it. He was living here this summer. And lived here the summer before. And, as it turns out, Ben realized that he is a 24-year old filmmaker who has spent the last six summers living in Southeast Alaska, very far from both Texas and from what the average person would think of as a thriving cinema industry. But getting into the wild has given him opportunities he couldn’t have found anywhere else. He talks about his first film, Echoes in the Tongass, as his second film school. “I spent more hours on that movie than I did in classes,” he says. “The Tongass is definitely a media resource for me. There’s so much that I’ve filmed here that it’s been a huge resource. Financially, without the Tongass, I don’t think that I would have worked here, without question. For most films you need a subject with conflict and a narrative. Wilderness area doesn’t necessarily have a story, unless there’s a human story behind it. Humans working to protect a conservation area from a threat? It seemed like a story worth telling.”
Not only did his work help spread a message of conservation for the Tongass, but the Tongass also helped spread the message of Ben: in particularly, the quality of his work. “Now with National Geographic, I’m considered an Alaskan contact. I’m currently in talks with the BBC to help coordinate Southeast Alaska shoots,” he says. “Which is crazy. But if you spend enough time in a place, you get to know it.”
Ben represents a new type of subsistence lifestyle in Alaska. He makes his living from the land, and what he shoots out in the wilderness he still has to pack to town on his back. But what Ben can bring home are not anything that could fill his freezer. Instead, they’re the stories of the land that he has grown to love, stories that are shared with people all over the world in order to show them what a temperate rainforest or a calving glacier looks like, and why they’re worth protecting. And getting to see more wilderness than 90% of the residents of Southeast isn’t just nice for Ben’s viewers. “I have no doubt that living in Sitka has changed who I am,” Ben says. “There are definitely moments where I just think this is the most beautiful place in the world. I’ve been so lucky. On one of the most incredible sunset nights I’ve ever seen, we saw aurora borealis and the Milky Way. Before that I had never seen stars in Sitka.” How did he find the secret to stargazing in cloudy Southeast? “You just have to stay late enough until it gets dark. To wake up in the middle of the night to see the sky filled with stars? That was a magical night.”
The signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964 legally mandated the preservation of designated wilderness areas throughout the United States. Section 2 (c) elegantly defined wilderness to be “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” as well as “…an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” In regards to managing these wilderness areas, two contradictory phrases emerge from this definition: “untrammeled by man” and “natural conditions.” They may not seem to be inherently contradictory, but even with minimal human activity, over time the idea of “wild” and “natural” have begun to clash.
In order for an area to be wild, it must be unfettered by human control and manipulation. Wilderness areas, however, are frequented by visitors whose visits, sometimes quite negatively, impact the area. As a result of all this human interaction with wilderness, native species, patterns and ecological processes change. So the question arises, in these circumstances, where the natural conditions of the wilderness have been unsuccessfully preserved, should people enter these areas and attempt to restore them to their natural condition?
Ecological restoration is defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration as an “intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability.” Thus, restoration with its innate quality will bring conservationists into wilderness areas, compromising the wild aspect of the wilderness. Still, if restoration is not pursued, the naturalness of the area may be further diminished, as native ecosystems degrade. So, herein lies the management dilemma for restoring wilderness—striking the balance between wild and natural. The vague definition of wilderness adds to the management conundrum, as what aspect of wilderness takes priority (being “wild” or “natural) is up for interpretation.
The Tongass, with 18 wilderness areas spanning 5,746,000 acres, presents a unique vignette of this dilemma. Recently, a group consisting of Scott Harris (SCS’s Conservation Science Director), Kitty Labounty (SCS board member and Botany Professor at University of Alaska Southeast), Jen McNew (Botany Intern) and myself ventured to Rust Lake, located in the West Chichigof Wilderness area, to take our stab at wilderness restoration. Our task was to locate and eradicate non-native dandelions (Taraxacum officnale).
This recent trip was the second time that Kitty had been to Rust Lake this summer. The dandelion population was present but not overwhelmingly so. During our three days at Rust Lake we pulled over 1,000 dandelions from gravel bars along the Rust Lake stream. One thousand plants may seem like a lot, but it is likely that your backyard has over 100 individual dandelion plants. Still, dandelions are well adapted to distribute hundreds of seeds great distances and are capable of outcompeting the native plants at Rust Lake. This is why we were motivated to manage the population. That being said, the native flora, including monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) and alpine bog swertia (Swertia perennis), currently appear unharmed. Thus, with two trips per year to Rust Lake to pull dandelions, the native ecosystem will likely flourish.
Rust Lake offers another possible wilderness restoration project, because it has a “tap” for a hydroelectric plant that used to provide power to the historic Chichagof mine. The hydroelectric plant and mine are both inoperative, but the tap continues to function, significantly lowering the Lake’s water level below its natural level. In fact, the water level is so low that our floatplane pilot remarked that landing in Rust Lake is “always an experiment.” Plugging this spigot appears to be a straightforward project that would not be too difficult, but go a long way in restoring Rust Lake to its natural condition. This brings me back to my original point, what takes priority? Restoring the lake to its natural condition? Or keeping it “untrammeled” by human activity?
The majority of my knowledge stems from learning about and working to restore highly degraded environments. Here in Southeast Alaska, I have spent the bulk of my time monitoring restoration of forests and streams in areas that were once clear-cut. The idea of restoring wilderness vastly differs from these kinds of restoration projects. These areas are not completely degraded by the interruptions of humans. These areas are the last stronghold of what once covered the earth—natural and unhampered ecosystems. The unique habitats found at Rust Lake include many magnificent sub-alpine wildflowers that must be protected from weed invasion. Wilderness areas are the last refuge for countless species and ecosystems and in order to best protect these areas, managers must work to find that balance between wild and natural. The fact that these areas are so extraordinarily sparse is exactly why I think we should cautiously pursue wilderness restoration.
If you had asked me a few years ago what I thought about hunting I probably would have said I didn’t like it. I appreciated the whole wild food thing but hunting = killing. And that was bad. Or wrong. Or something. But today I was called a huntress…let me explain.
Saturday was the day of the hunt but we woke to heavy raindrops and mountains hidden behind thick clouds. We weren’t going anywhere. So we snuggled deeper into our sleeping bags and let our heavy eyelids close. After a bit more sleep, we had pancakes smothered in peanut butter and homemade jam, a gooey blend of rhubarb and wild blueberries. We spent the next few hours playing cards and reading aloud from the “Princess Bride.” Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon.
The rain eventually let up enough for a little peak outside, so we pulled on our rain gear; my partner grabbed his rifle and I slung a pair of binoculars around my neck. I was the designated scout. We trudged through wet muskeg and noted fresh deer sign. We walked slowly scanning our surroundings, pausing occasionally at the edge of an opening or on a small rise for a better look. We saw plenty of sign but no deer–we would try again in the morning.
The four of us woke before sunrise and stumbled sleepily outside. We made a quick scan of the muskeg before climbing up a series of muddy deer trails, bushwhacking our way into the alpine. After a slippery few miles, the forest opened up into a rolling alpine. We fell silent. Silent because it was so beautiful and silent because we were hunting. I got flustered when we saw our first deer, how exciting it was! She was the first of many does we admired from afar (it’s buck season).
Is this how people used to interact with the land? Quiet, attentive, searching… hungry? I was different out there or perhaps more fully aware of myself. I was in tune with my surroundings, each step thoughtfully placed. My eyes active. Instead of taking up space, I became a part of it.
We never did see a buck but it didn’t take away from the trip. Hunting creates a space for deeper connection to place and that is enough. I kind of like being called a huntress because for me hunting is a process–an experience. It’s exploration and adventure. It’s intentional and fun.
Ask me now what I think about hunting and I’ll tell you I like it. Ask me again when I get a deer.