The morning light began to unfold as we motored south of town, a pod of whales to our right and the sun dancing in the still water. I am witness to the incredible orchestration of the ocean, the interconnection between everything. This is just the beginning…
At the hunting grounds, we anchor the skiff and pack up our gear. Now we hunt. I follow in my partner’s foot-steps, every step deliberate. We walk slowly with vigilance, our eyes constantly scanning. Every movement is intentional, every sign of deer noted. We push forward and find a spot to hunker down and call in the deer, a sound that can be described as a guttural kazoo.
This is only my second time out on a hunt and I’m somewhat unaware of how this day will unravel. I try to stay present and note how ironic it is to be searching for edibles when so many are underfoot. Cranberries, crowberries, and labrador tea are in abundance but we pass them by, our eyes intent on another prey. Will our goal to find a deer override the pleasure of exploring the wilderness? Will we feel unsuccessful if we have nothing on our backs but the wind?
We keep walking, our steps intersecting existing deer trails. I am aware of my feet and the gentle forgiveness of the sphagnum moss. I look back and see the moss literally bounce back; the land feels uniquely alive. We stop again on the crest of a hill looking below while blowing the deer call. Nothing.
I begin to think I am cursed. The last time I went out we didn’t even see a deer. Maybe I’m slowing my partner down or perhaps I am walking too loudly. But I remind myself that regardless of our intent, this is incredible. The sun plays with the clouds and mountain peaks surround me, I can’t imagine a more perfect place.
We note the time and keep moving, knowing we must inevitably turn back soon before darkness sets. My eyes start to get lazy, my focus less centered but I try to remain attentive. We perch ourselves behind a large rock and try to call in a deer. We wait. We call again. And then out of my peripheral vision I notice movement to the left. A deer! I quickly signaled to my partner holding the rifle. And then…it was over.
We walked up to the buck and paid our respects. A life for a life, gunalchéesh. We quickly set to work, pulling out the organs. I was astounded by the warmth of this creature, its heart beating just minutes ago. I’ve heard of others leaving tobacco or tokens of respect for the life given, so without a tradition of my own, I pulled out a few of my hairs and sprinkled them atop the organs that would soon feed others.
On the return, my step was light (my partner did indeed pack out the deer); I was overcome with a feeling of success. I noticed how the walk back was starkly different then our journey in. The intention and awareness I brought with me began to fade. Our quiet whispers turned into conversation. It is so interesting how our interactions with place can change with context.
We were right on schedule when we returned to the skiff. Still plenty of day light to make the trip home. The air was surprisingly warm and calm for November, everything about today just felt so right. I was at home here.
When we returned to Sitka, my body was numb and tired. The spray from the skiff drenched me completely and the cold bit at every extremity. Exhaustion was setting but the day was just beginning. I watched my partner skillfully skin and quarter the deer, his hands knowing the right placement of his knife. In just a few minutes this beautiful animal transformed. How quickly this happened.
Once the deer was quartered we began to process the deer into cuts that would soon become dinner. I followed my knife along the bone and began to cut away the fat. I was fascinated by every muscle, how it connected to the bone and other muscles. We worked side by side for hours, ensuring every piece of meat was used.
This morning we finished the process by packaging up our roasts, rib meat, stock bones, and sausage. All evidence of our expedition lies in a small chest freezer, but it doesn’t end there for me. The blood has washed off my hands, but I can still see it. It is through this experience that I find myself deeply connected to this place, to the interconnection of life. We are bound in this web and in the cycle of death and creation.
A heartfelt thank you to my partner who was a patient teacher.
For Halloween this year, we asked the Sitka community to look at the Tongass, consider what they love about it, and use Halloween as a way to express the beautiful national forest that surrounds us by wearing Tongass-inspired costumes.
Clicking through the photos below, one can see the diverse ways kids represented the Tongass. Whether it be by dressing up as a Tongass critter, a float plane, or a fishermen, the Tongass supports the livelihoods and maritime culture of Southeast Alaska while inspiring us in creative ways.
Thank you to Old Harbor Books, Harry Race Pharmacy, and the Chocolate Moose for providing goodies, as well as SCS staff members Erin, Tracy, Courtney, and Andrew for handing out candy and smiling a whole bunch!
Helen worked for two summers with SCS on wild salmon education and outreach programs and advocacy. She’s currently pursuing a Masters of Regional Planning at Cornell University, focusing on sustainable food systems, and working for Sitka Salmon Shares.
As a Midwesterner, I enjoy meeting and learning from local farmers committed to producing quality food in sustainable ways. In college I loved crafting meals at home, experimenting with new vegetables from my parents’ Community Supported Agriculture share. Yet for all my excitement, I rarely thought about food systems beyond the Midwest.
That changed when I moved to Sitka, a fishing town build on salmon, nestled within the Tongass National Forest. There I ate pan-seared king salmon—straight from the docks—at the home of a fisherman friend, with sautéed greens harvested from the backyard. I learned quickly that, in this community, the sustainability of local food means something very different than what I knew in the Midwest. The health of the Forest relates intimately to the strength of the wild salmon runs that make Sitka one of the greatest premium ports in the country. Walking through the forest, along the docks, and through the processor, you see how salmon connects the environment, culture, and economy—and the central importance of Alaska’s sustainable fishery management to ensuring these relationships continue.
Returning home to the Midwest, I was excited to share this salmon and its story. From my work with Nic Mink at the Sitka Conservation Society, I helped him establish Sitka Salmon Shares, the first Community Supported Fishery in the Midwest. We link fishermen we knew in Sitka with friends and neighbors in cities like Minneapolis—folks who crave the best salmon, but want the trust, transparency, and quality they currently seek from their farmers.
As part of Sitka Salmon Shares, we collaborated this fall with the Campus Club at the University of Minnesota to hold a Tongass salmon dinner. Chef Beth Jones used produce from the University’s campus farm, crafting a sweet corn succotash and a heirloom tomato relish to accent the unique flavors of coho, king, and sockeye from our fishermen in SE Alaska.
The guests that evening, however, wanted more than a nourishing meal that celebrates small-scale, sustainable food and its producers. They wanted to understand the significance of the wilderness and watersheds that give life to the salmon. Nic gave a talk called “How Alaska’s Salmon Became Wild,” exploring the histories of farmed and wild salmon. Afterwards, we invited guests to join us in asking the U.S. Forest Service to design their budget to reflect the importance of salmon and their habitat within the Tongass. In return, SCS and fisherman Marsh Skeele thanked them with one pound fillets of troll-caught Tongass coho.
The enthusiasm that our guests had to take part in this effort illustrated the important role food can play in forging connections. I support eating locally, but we should not forget the power that emerges when we form strong connections across regions. Our dinner at the Campus Club revealed that by starting with the allure of a boat to plate meal, we can show how the process really begins in the forest. From Sitka to Minneapolis, the value of the Tongass and its salmon holds true.
Chef Rodey Batiza was recently named one of Madison Magazine’s “Best New Chefs.” He’s known in Madison for his culinary creativity and versatility, having mastered regional Italian, Japanese ramen and dumplings, and classical French cuisine. He’s worked at many of Madison’s finest restaurants, including Madison, Club, Johnny Delmonico’s, Magnus, and Ocean Grill. He now is chef at Gotham Bagels, an artisan sandwich and meat shop on the capital square.
I’ve been a chef for over 15 years in Madison, Wisconsin, and what I’ve noticed more and more in the last few years is that my diners increasingly expect not only great ingredients but also ones that are sustainably produced. It’s not enough anymore that food tastes good. It must come from sources that are doing everything in their power to produce food in an environmentally friendly way.
For these reasons, I jumped at the chance to partner with Sitka Salmon Shares and Sitka fisherman Marsh Skeele to host two, four-course salmon dinners this past week at my artisan meat and sandwich shop, Gotham Bagels. I know that Alaska’s fisheries are managed as sustainably as any in the world and I also know that getting fish directly from fishermen in Sitka, Alaska, provides the type of transparency and accountability that I like to have when I source any of my products.
The dinners were an astounding success as both were filled to capacity. Our guests enjoyed coho salmon lox, caught by Marsh Skeele in Sitka Sound. It was dusted with pumpernickel and served with pickled squash. Our second course was seared sockeye salmon, caught on the Taku River by gillnetter F/V Heather Anne. We presented that with pancetta ravioli and pureed peas from our Farmers’ Market. Finally, to cap the night, we created a horseradish-crusted king salmon from Sitka’s Seafood Producers Cooperative. We served that with curried barley and Swiss chard.
All of my guests these evenings knew that we were not only eating the world’s best wild salmon but they also understood that the wise management of natural resources in Alaska should mean that we have these wild salmon on our plates for years to come. To reinforce that point, the Sitka Conservation Society sent everyone home with coho salmon caught by Marsh Skeele and literature to help them get involved in protecting the habitat of wild Alaskan salmon for future generations.
Subsistence fishing has always been a way of life in rural Alaska. Thanks to the foresight of the generation of Alaskans that achieved statehood and wrote our great constitution, the right of subsistence for all people, regardless of ethnicity, has been preserved across Alaska. Alaska Natives have been able to continue the way of life they have lead for 10,000 years, just as the pioneers who settled in this state were allowed to continue living off the land and the resources it provided, and new-comers to the state have been able to live off the land like those who came before them.
The subsistence way of life and traditional subsistence practices are threatened by the privatization of key subsistence areas and resources. One of the most threatened places is Redoubt Falls near Sitka, where Alaskans harvest sockeye and coho salmon to fill their freezers and feed their families throughout the long winter. To really understand how important subsistence is to Alaskans and the Alaskan way of life – and to understand why we need to fight to preserve these rights – listen to the segment from Richard Nelson‘s radio program “Encounters” in which he fishes for sockeye at Redoubt Falls.
Ricky Sablan is a law enforcement ranger with the Sitka National Historical Park. He joined the SCS Wilderness crew on a Community Wilderness Stewardship Project expedition to South Baranof Wilderness in the summer of 2012. Be sure to check out his videos from the trip below.
Walking onto a boat called “The Gust”, we loaded up our kayaks and supplies in preparation for an adventure. I looked backwards to see the orange transport ships from the cruises ship pass by as we set our courses to the open waters. Light grey clouds painted the sky, but the rain was holding back. Off in the distance, a hump back whale shot a burst of air from his blowhole and I realized I was no longer in man’s world.
I was to spend the next five days in the South Baranof Wilderness with three strangers I had only met a few days ago during briefing. Ray Friedlander an intern with the SCS, Jonathan Goff our botanist, and team leader Adam Andis were to be my new friends as we headed into the wild. Our plan was to be dropped off in Whale Bay with a satellite phone, an emergency SPOT gps tracker, and a USFS radio linking us to the rest of the world. Our goal was to assist the USFS in collecting data reports and observations in preserving the wilderness in Whale Bay.
Some hours had past as we came to rest upon a nice bay located near Port Banks. We unloaded all our gear and the kayaks on the shore and watched as The Gust slowly faded away off in the distance. We took our first paddle down to Port Banks and began taking notes of all the planes, jets, and boats that we observed and heard in the wilderness. As we paddled to shore, we observed an old recreational site where people had left some old trash. We packed up the trash and headed back to camp to burn what we could.
It was our duty to take notes on the conditions of these old sites and for the next few days we would paddle up the large arm of whale bay visiting recreational site to recreational site and writing down our observations on the human impacts of the area. Jonathan would collect samples of invasive plants and he would educate us what types of plants were edible and native to the area.
As the days past by, we quickly became immersed into a majestic routine paddling for miles soaking up the wilderness and all it has to offer. Safety was always considered a priority, but having fun was a mandatory part of the trip that we embraced. Taking a dip in the cold clear water felt refreshing after a long paddle on a hot summer day. We had the experience of watching nature at its finest as a brown bear had caught a salmon that was running up one of the creeks. Otters would crack shells on their bellies while a doe and her fawn walked to the shore to observe our brightly colored kayaks pass them by. No need for television, computers, or cellphones to entertain our minds, the wilderness in God’s great country was all we needed. The volunteer experience with the Sitka Conservation Society was something
I’ll always remember.
When I was 21, I headed to the Sierra Nevadas for two months as a part of my forestry degree, studying the scientific and professional dimensions of forest and wildland resource management. I received training in simple field orienteering principles, ran transects, cruised timber, and assessed the ecological conditions around Quincy, California. Being out at Starrigavan this past Friday with SCS’s Scott Harris and Kitty LaBounty and Foresters Chris Leeseberg and Craig Bueler, I felt nostalgic as we also ran transects, assessed forests for deer habitat, and sampled gaps for regeneration of herbaceous layers however there was something quite different about this experience—instead of university peers, we were working with students from Sitka High whose ages ranged from 15 to 19.
The Forest Team emerged unofficially three years ago as an occasional field trip opportunity to Starrigavan and False Island in Kent Bovee’s Field Science course, yet there is talk of having the program adopted into the curriculum for Sitka High’s Life Science course. This would guarantee every 10th grader field-based instruction on forest and wildland resource management topics in the hopes that these students will develop a better understanding of public stewardship and what this stewardship means for the forests that sustain us.
What these students get to learn in the field is an experience many of us do not have until college. I watched the teachers hand off GPSs to the students, while the three stations they visited—the riparian stream station, the gap station, and the quick cruise station—equipped the students with transects, compasses, a plot mapper, and prisms to come up with data needed to assess the health of riparian and forest habitats. The gap vegetation monitoring the students did will eventually turn into a long term study about understory plant regeneration and will be published with the intent to spread awareness on the importance thinned forests have for growing winter deer food.
Streams and forests together determine the health of Tongass watersheds. Sharing knowledge through field-based instruction gives high school students a clearer, scientific understanding of what goes on in the woods and also sheds light on career opportunities they could have as Tongass stewards.
The value of salmon fisheries for ecosystems, industry, personal, sport, and traditional use is unquantifiable in Southeast Alaska. The lakes and streams of the Tongass National Forest contribute the vast majority of this pivotal resource- producing 79% of the annual commercial harvest, about 50 million salmon each year. In its efforts to manage the Tongass for salmon, the US Forest Service invests in a variety of projects that ensure continued high productivity of fisheries and watershed resources. ‘Fish Pass’ installation has proven to be a powerful and effective option- an integral component of the Forest Service’s tool-kit to boost salmon production from Tongass systems.
‘Fish passes’ are constructed to bridge waterfalls that historically restrained salmon from accessing quality upstream spawning and rearing habitat. To protect the natural integrity of this lush national forest, the Forest Service adheres to a ‘minimalistic yet effective’ construction policy- minimizing environmental alteration while maximizing fish access. The vast majority of watersheds in the Tongass remain unaltered with only the most strategic and promising barriers selected for fish pass installation. Passes take many forms varying from nonstructural ‘step pools’ blasted out of natural bedrock to the Alaskan Steeppass ‘fish ladder’ that harnesses water current to push exhausted salmon to the top of barrier falls. Whatever the type, Fish Passes follow the same basic principle- allow more fish access to more area.
Increased spawning and rearing habitat translates into less competition for space and nutrients with more salmon surviving to adulthood. Following this basic principle, the Forest Service has successfully improved production of Tongass fish. Fish Passes have opened access of 443 stream miles and 4,931 lake acres to spawning and rearing steelhead and salmon. Exact fish counts produced by increased area are difficult to calculate and are estimated by projecting the average number of fish produced given particular habitat quality by the amount of increased area. Conservative estimates suggest an average of 86,855 coho and sockeye and 227,500 pink and chum salmon adults added each year as a direct result of this increased area made available by fish passes. At the current rate of a dollar and ten cents per pound for coho and sockeye and forty two cents a pound for pink and chums, fish pass produced salmon add an impressive estimated $8,598,930- over eight and a half million dollars- to Southeast Alaskan economy over a ten year period.
Unfortunately, like everything man-made, structural fish passes require maintenance to remain effective. There are approximately fifty fish passes across the Tongass- about fifteen operating in the Sitka Ranger District alone. The majority being between 20-30 years old, structural fish passes are reaching the point in their lifetime where they require considerable work. Managing this forest and recognizing that salmon are one of the most important outputs that benefit both humans and the overall ecosystem means continued investment in projects like fish pass construction and maintenance.
We are fortunate to have learned from mistakes made across other regions of the world where wild salmon populations were pushed to extinction. We are even more fortunate to boast a talented fisheries staff and a holistic fisheries and watershed program that manage and protect the future of this valuable resource. Fish passes are one of the significant activities within this program that ensure wild Alaskan salmon continue to sustain the communities of Southeast Alaska and that the Tongass continues to rear the salmon that are base of the last remaining sustainable fisheries in the world.
Sitka Conservation Society staffers Natalia Povelite (Tongass salmon organizer), Ray Friedlander (Tongass forest organizer), and Courtney Bobsin (Jesuit Volunteer, Fish-to-Schools) discuss their respective projects, and why they chose to work in Sitka.
Sitka Trail Works provides visitors and residents of Sitka with a series of well managed trail systems- offering outdoor enthusiasts the opportunity to travel at ease through some of the most beautiful and unique habitats on earth. The Sea Lion Cove hike, located on Kruzof Island, winds through an incredible diversity of habitats over a relatively short distance.
Beginning on a rocky shore, hikers scramble across rugged coast terrain stopping to admire bears grazing on distant estuaries. Next, the trail slips past a large forested lake before bending through a misty rainforest stand, streams and small waterfalls. For me, the overwhelming beauty of these areas far surpassed the annoyance of the few slips, trips, and falls I took. Keep in mind however, the importance of wearing shoes with powerful grip when attempting any trail in the Southeast. When the wood planks that make up managed trail systems become wet they become incredibly slippery too. Pack a positive attitude with your rain gear, snacks, water, and camera!
The trail also brings hikers through muskeg, an incredibly unique and almost eerie wetland habitat found throughout Southeast Alaska, before culminating in Sea Lion Cove. The cove boasts a truly breathtaking view- an open sand beach nestled within forest and estuary beside a dramatic ridge line. Littered with drift wood and brilliantly colored seaweeds and shells, hikers could spend hours combing the sand for treasures- pack a ziplock for collecting. Be sure to find a comfortably worn slab of driftwood to relax on and eat your packed lunch before hiking back.
All in all, if you are looking for a day hike that packs the most diversity for your effort, the Sea Lion Cove trail system is a must! Muskeg, mountains, forest, rushing streams, a lake, estuary and a sandy beach (coveted and rare to this area) Sea Lion Cove has it all. Although, finding transportation to Sitka’s brilliant neighbor -Kruzof Island- can sometimes be difficult for those of us without access to a skiff, Sitka Trail Works offers transportation and company once a year on a guided hike. A great way to meet new people with similar interests, enjoy a diversity of habitats, and bring home a few beauties for the beach combing collection, Sitka Trail Work’s guided Sea Lion Cove hike is a no-brainer.
Supporting organizations like Sitka Trail Works is a must for retaining recreation opportunities for a wide demographic. If one were to attempt to traverse the Sea Lion Cove route twenty years ago when the land was transferred from the US Forest Service to the state, they would have experienced impassable, eroded, boot-sucking mud pits through trampled muskeg ecosystems. Three years of hard work combined with private, foundation, and agency grant funds led to the restored beautiful plank trail system you can enjoy today.
Learn more about Sitka Trail Works, Sea Lion Cove, other trail systems, and review a schedule of guided hikes check out: sitkatrailworks.org.