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.”
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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?
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.”
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.
Film maker Ben Hamilton has captured the essence of the Sitka Community Use Area in this video. In just two minutes find out what makes the Tongass so remarkable:
The Tongass National Forest is the largest forest in the National Forest System. Weighing in at 17 million acres, it encompasses almost the entire Southeast Alaska Panhandle. The Southeast is sprinkled with small towns that have built economies around the resources that the Tongass provides. As a community, Sitka is no different, and is intrinsically connected to the Tongass National Forest. We rely on its resources and all management decisions have repercussions that resonate within the community socially, economically and ecologically. Once a typical timber pulp town, the community now concentrates on the other assets and experiences the Tongass has to offer. At SCS we focus on an area of the Tongass known as the SCUA, Sitka Community Use Area. Ecosystems are never constrained by manmade boundaries, but the SCUA encompasses what Sitkans consider to be their backyard. The SCUA is important to Sitka for jobs, recreation, subsistence, renewable energy, economic development, clean air, clean water, cultural and traditional uses, and our overall quality of life.
SCS is optimistic with USDA Secretary Vilsack’s recent announcement, reiterating a commitment to the Transition Framework, that there will also be renewed focus on all of the assets the Tongass has to offer. For us, this commitment means prioritizing the health of the forest and supporting local businesses that rely on the Tongass to keep our community afloat. A diverse Forest Service budget that focuses on watershed health, fisheries, recreation and the visitor industry is paramount to preserve the core aspects of a new economy for Sitka and other communities in the Southeast. SCS continues to support and highlight projects that clearly demonstrate attention to the Transition in ways that are lacking in other programs and projects on the Tongass.
This week’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features, Squid Fishing, a poem written and recited by Berett Wilber, who was born and raised in Sitka. Her collection of poems, entitled Lesser Known Marine Mammals Lesser Known Love Songs, won the departmental prize for poetry this year at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she has been a student since 2011. Many of the themes and images in her poems are drawn from her experiences growing up in the Tongass, from the ocean, and from everyday life in Sitka.
To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. Check out our Voices of the Tongass page, under the media tab, to listen to all of our shows.
Don’t forget to tune in to Raven next Thursday during Morning Edition!
it’s snowing fat and white in denver
and i am meeting your mother for the first time.
she is burning the turkey
and the salty steam,
that comes out of the oven rich and wasted,
takes me straight back to the ocean, straight back to
squid fishing in the dark,
heavy nets billowing in the black currents,
until the skipper flips the switch
and every surface of the boat shocks itself alight,
a tiny marble palace bobbing in the sea,
shining steady from across the waves.
and then the searchlights, pouring down into the water,
strike opalescent gold – the first clouds of squid,
pulsing up from the gloom
to where we are silently gripping the slick rails,
waiting for the call, boots glowing on the wet deck.
when your mother
takes her shoes off and pours herself a glass of something
shallow and shimmery to drink,
i float off the coast of california in my mind because
you laugh like a lighthouse searching for a ship to save
and you fan the turkey with your hands,
and in this moment,
it seems love
is not so far from fishing, and we are not
so far from squid -
that breathless search in the inky dark,
and the phosphorescent promise
of rising to
To listen to Berett read her poem, click the play bar below. If you don’t see the play bar, try the link.
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” – US Congress 1964
What is wilderness? It was described legally, albeit vaguely, by Congress in 1964 with the passing of the Wilderness Act. However, it remains something deeply personal, is experienced in a multitude of ways and is not always clearly defined amongst its supporters and defenders. I attempted to define wilderness for myself as I joined one of SCS’ wilderness crews this summer, spending eight days at Red Bluff Bay. While we were there enjoying and exploring, taking full advantage of the opportunity the trip afforded us, we were also conducting Wilderness Monitoring and outreach. Wilderness Monitoring is required by the Wilderness Act, that is, managing agencies (US Forest Service) are responsible for monitoring designated wilderness areas and preserving the ‘wilderness character’. Therein lies the conundrum, how do you monitor something that is not truly defined in the wilderness act? Additionally, both the wilderness character and individual experience are further muddied by the fact that wilderness areas may be adjacent to areas not subject to the same restrictions as a designated wilderness area.
Such is the case with Red Bluff Bay. While the land is part of the wilderness preservation system, managed by the US Forest Service, the bay itself is ocean waters. The Forest Service has no jurisdiction over ocean waters therefore; the bay isn’t bound by preserving the same wilderness character as its land based neighbor. So, how do you define a wilderness, or is it really reduced to a matter of boundaries? Due to its remote location, Red Bluff Bay is most often accessed by boat and sometimes float plane. If it weren’t for the bay and the access it provides to boaters and planes, the number of visits it receives annually would likely be reduced.
We were there, primarily, to monitor wilderness solitude, which entailed counting boats and planes and encounters with other visitors. Given our task, it should be noted that our crew arrived there by floatplane and left by boat. We relieved a few crew members from the previous week and joined the camp that was established on the edge of the Northside of the bay, halfway between the entrance at Chatham Strait and the estuary in the west. We spent our days exploring the landscapes around us including the bluffs that give the bay its name, Falls Lake, an old abandoned cannery site, and the estuary nestled quaintly in the western portion of the bay. Our first night we kayaked into the estuary to explore a little and once back there found nine sail boats and two yachts anchored up for the night. Two more yachts anchored just offshore from our campsite, one of the captains telling us they didn’t want to crowd the other boats. On another day we saw the entrance of the bay brimming with activity as a sailboat parade trickled out, replaced by new yachts and small cruise ships motoring in and jockeying for prime spots in the estuary and near the falls. There were the daily salmon surveys conducted aerially by ADF&G planes and commercial fishing boats that occasionally anchored up for the night, flooding our campsite with light. The busiest day had two yachts coming in along with a small cruise ship (towing a skiff) and a float plane landing all within a few hundred yards of one another. We had spent a quiet evening, just the four of us, paddling around the falls a few days ago, tonight the waters would be filled with kayakers from the cruise ship on a post dinner excursion.
While all of this activity disrupted the quiet or gave the impression that you weren’t far from civilization, I still felt a sense of wilderness. I still felt awe struck and grateful for the experience, even if it came with a little traffic and noise. The people that we met were always friendly, and they certainly thought they were experiencing the wilderness. We had our fair share of wildlife encounters too. I found myself mesmerized, sometimes terrified, by bears and sea lions. Whenever we were hiking or kayaking, I found the landscape to be ‘untrammeled by man’ and felt a sense of peace and solitude, along with a dash of anxiety. But that is what makes defining wilderness so difficult. My perception is likely drastically different from those on the yacht, or the cruise ships, or other members of our crew. One person may need a cabin easily accessible by road or a semi-quiet spot in an estuary to feel they are enjoying something wild, while another may need to find themselves truly lost, engulfed by remote spaces that are rarely visited, if ever, by a human being. It’s these differences that make wilderness so attractive; it is subject to context and open to interpretation. For me, it’s a place (where cell phones don’t work!), a habitat description, a technical classification and a feeling. It’s a place where I can connect and feel lost, even if only for a short time between boat visits and salmon surveys.
Today’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Bailey Brady about growing up on a float house. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Bailey’s stories, read on…
At 20, Bailey Brady has had fewer chances than most to get her feet planted firmly on the ground. A native Southeast Alaskan, Bailey spent her formative early years living on her family’s float house. “It’s your own personal island!” she says. And it has shaped Bailey’s perspective in a unique way: for here, there’s not just one right way to do things, even in terms of a foundation. “It creates different expectations for me, for a house, and what you can do with it,” she says to us. The fact that we are sitting at a reclaimed restaurant booth on the back deck of her family’s current on-shore home, walled in by recycled windows and a salvaged glass door only serves to prove her point.
For many kids (not to mention their parents), a float house might seem like an incredibly limiting perimeter. “To go into town you had to take your skiff in,” Bailey says, “And I was little, so it was just one trip in a day to go to daycare. Then Mom would come pick me up and skiff out again. Other than that, regular life. Just in a house that floats on the water. ” But Bailey says it taught her how to be creative, even if she couldn’t step off her front porch. “You find places to go on your float house,” she says. She recounts the places she would explore: the big deck, her dad’s big troller, which was tied to the float when he wasn’t out fishing. And Bailey was no stranger to fishing herself. Whether it was with her Spiderman rod or just trying to fish her cat Marbles out of the water, she always found a way to stay entertained on the water.
And now, living in Sitka, to Bailey it seems like her space to roam has significantly expanded. And while some people might feel penned up by the very real city limits, Bailey still sees endless possibilities. “You’ve only got fourteen miles of road and so you appreciate it a lot more. You make a lot more out of those fourteen miles. Living on an island is such an amazing experience – you’re a little bit more limited, but you have a lot more opportunities at the same time and I think that really shapes people in a different way.”
Bailey herself is proof of that – her ability to find creative opportunities and possibilities that are often overlooked by others are evidence that the places we grow up shape who we are, from our values to our outlooks on life. And even for kids who didn’t literally grow up on the water, Bailey is a great example of the power of perspective. Your physical boundaries can only restrict you as much as you allow them to – and unlimited adventure can be found in even the smallest quarters.
If you don’t see a play bar below, try using the link to play this week’s show, produced by Caitlin Woolsey and Berett Wilber: LWL_BAILEY_BRADY.