Today’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Carina Nichols about growing up fishing. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Carina’s stories, read on…
Carina Nichols is 26 years old, and is currently working to become an optometrist. Behind the desk of the local vision clinic Carina seems perfectly ordinary. However, she is not like other optometry students. Her career path took took a long detour on her family’s commercial fishing boat. She and her twin brother Ryan were seven weeks old when they started fishing. They eventually became the crew of their family’s freezer-troller, and they spent every summer fishing out of Sitka, Alaska. So how did Carina find herself interested in optometry?
“I have really bad vision,” she says, “And my parents were really struggling with getting me to be excited to go for walks or be out on the boat.” What they didn’t realize was that Carina literally couldn’t see what they were trying to show her. “They would tell me ‘Look at the whales!’ and I would be looking and looking, and I would see a stick float by the boat, and I would think, Wow, that must be a whale, they sure are boring.” When Carina finally got glasses, her whole world changed: “Some humpback whales were jumping by the boat and I went crazy. I couldn’t believe that that was a whale. I had to go wake my mom up and say ‘You gotta come see these! This is just the most amazing thing!’” Carina’s experience gave her a huge appreciation for being able to see the world around her.
When Carina talks about her plans for the future – optometry school, working to help people, spending time outside, probably even fishing – she is calm and collected, unlike many people her age who are struggling to find direction in a gloomy economic climate. When we ask about her positive outlook, she attributes some of her focus to her years on the boat. “I’m definitely am not afraid to work hard for what I want. Fishing is a lot of diligent hard work, and you have to dig in if you want to be successful with it. My parents were really big proponents of working for what you want instead of just getting it.” She laughs. “We had rain gear real young.”
And Carina says she hasn’t left fishing forever. Her ideal future? Work in the winter and spring, go fishing in the summer. Maybe when her twin brother Ryan gets his own boat, so the two of them can finish what they started at seven weeks old. She would love to come back and work in Sitka, she says, and being out on the water has never stopped being important to her; she feels closest to her home when she is out on the boat and away from the lights of town.
Voices of the Tongass premiered this morning on Raven Radio!
This week’s episode was a poem called Physical Love, 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.
Did you miss it? Do you want to hear it again? Just hit play on the track below. All episodes will be available here at the SCS website.
To hear more Voices of the Tongass, tune in to Raven next Thursday during Morning Edition.
we will never touch anything in our whole lives.
our electrons and protons whirring around each other
in a series of missed connections so close
they feel solid -
my palms gripping the splinterless oars,
the sway of the rowboat on the water,
my wet feet close enough to put in your lap,
this is all just sensation.
we will also never hear each other.
the words that you speak
will never come to me as you mean them.
they will be necessarily twisted through their journey
in the internal tunnels of my mind, mere
translations that will account for
the specific friction of your vocal chords
but also, science tells us,
your posture, the shape of your mouth,
and the exchange of the muscles in your back
as you pull us out towards the center of the lake.
sweetheart, i am losing myself in all of this -
but what i’m trying to say to you is:
there is a wilderness between us.
and it is deeper and more vast
than any of the forests and deserts and mountains
that we could cross in this life
or any other.
we will never be able to escape
the bounding boxes of these bodies,
leave ourselves behind
long enough to make the journey
towards that soft pink space
where we are each tucked
safely and separately like
conchs inside our shells.
what I’m trying to tell you is:
this is why
my wet feet are in your lap,
my ice-cold swimming shoulder pressed against
your warm one.
every shiver you shiver
from the chill collected in my skin,
is a path through the wild.
an unlikely victory
for the impossibility
of our proximity.
I wake up groggy, almost hit my head on the fo’c's’le ceiling when I climb up the ladder into the pilot house. When Dad sees me, he says “Hey! Get your rain gear on! We need your help!”
And then ten minutes later, I’m out in the pit, my gloves wrist deep in the belly of a king salmon, no trace of breakfast in sight – not that I would be up for eating it if it was. The fish are pouring in over the side, and I think about my camera, laying abandoned in my bunk. Wasn’t that supposed to be my tool here, not gaff hooks and knives? What was I doing covered in fish blood and salt water, in the exact place that, at the ripe old age of 14, I swore I would never come back to?
My dad has been a commercial salmon troller out of Sitka, our small town in Southeast Alaska, for the last thirty-four years. Other fisherman recognize me around town sometimes, stop me and shake my hand: “You’re Charlie’s daughter,” they say. “Man. Your dad knows how to catch a fish.” The last time he wore a suit was at his own wedding, almost twenty-five years ago: and his tie was shaped like a fish. I did my first stint as a deckhand at age eleven: cleaning and icing before I was actually strong enough to haul a fish aboard myself. My friends from the Lower 48 love this story, impressed by the romance of it all: this makes me feel a lot like I am deceiving them.
I hated fishing. I alternated seasick or bored. And to clarify: there is little romance in being eleven, or setting up a steady rhythm of puking over the side in between cuts. I wanted to escape salmon entirely. I quit fishing, and got a job on dry land. When I left for a college on the other side of the country, I was certain that there was nothing I would miss less than fish, whether spawning in the forest, stacked in the fishold, or cooking on the barbecue.
And then the dreams started. I have always loved the visuals of Southeast Alaska: they’re part of why I became a photographer in the first place, but this was overwhelming. Three or four times a week I would close my eyes and I would find the ocean stretching out from the bow of the boat, salmon swimming through the air around me. I doodled salmon in the margins of my notebooks, wrote poems about salmon running upstream, essays on deckhands and sea lions. When I came home, I found myself photographing spawning salmon; the shape of fishing boats; the different colors of the ocean: it all rattled around in my mind, requiring my attention.
It drove me crazy. What was happening? I hated fishing, so how did I feel such a strong connection to salmon? And how could I feel so attached to a community that was economically and environmentally dependent on salmon, especially when I had left it three thousand miles behind?
That question was the reason I found myself back on the deck of the F/V Alexa K, gutting fish before breakfast, back to the place where my grudge against salmon had been instilled in the first place. After eight days of work – cleaning, icing, photographing, and a lot of thinking – I still didn’t like fishing. But I realized that just because I didn’t want to slay salmon on the high seas, it didn’t mean that I could get away from them. The more I thought about it, the easier it became to justify why salmon were important to me, even if I wasn’t fishing for them: whether or not I had a gaff in hand, I was born locked in to the salmon cycle of Southeast Alaska.
Salmon aren’t just my family’s livelihood. They’re the backbone of our local economy. Southeast Alaska is the world’s most productive and valuable salmon fishery in the world. If you were raised in the Tongass National Forest, chances are you’re a newcomer to what has been the spawning ground of salmon ancestors for 50 million years. The influence of the salmon that die on the banks each year ranges so far it’s impossible to trace them to an end. From fertilizing the forest, to feeding the wildlife, even changing the chemical composition of the soil, dead salmon help create one of the most unique and biodiverse biomes in the world – and they feed everything from Alaska’s tourism industry to new generations of fish in the streams.
As a result, salmon are run deep in my conception of my community and my environment. There’s a connection I have to the forest and the ocean that feels just as strong when I am thousands of miles away as when I am asleep in a bunk that rests below the waterline of the Pacific. So while my dad trolls for bites and poundage, I look for shots and frames. I can’t make anything that would fill a freezer through the winter. But I can still have an affect on the resources on which we both depend: I can share the stories of people who make the Tongass their home, who make fishing their lifestyle. People like my parents. My dad will be the first to tell you – nobody gets rich trolling for salmon. You can only succeed at it if you love it, because otherwise it would drive you insane. But there’s a reason that sustainable fisheries were written into Alaska’s state constitution: not only do we care about catching fish this year, but we care about being able to catch fish twenty or fifty years from now.
The future of my family, and many families like mine, depend on the fisheries, which depend on the salmon, which depend on the forest. And it’s only by making these connections visible to the rest of the world that we can help protect them – to sway federal management of public lands, to make sure logging doesn’t ruin salmon habitat, to ensure sustainable catch practices. We’re one piece in an environment that has been raising salmon, trees, and people in conjunction for longer than anyone can remember. And even if we seem small in the face of all that ecological history, the importance that comes with being a link in that chain is not one we can take lightly. If everyone made the mistake that I made, if we considered the forest, the fisheries, even our families, disparate parts, each part would suffer the consequences.
Which is why instead of struggling to get away from salmon, I now find myself arguing for them. I don’t need to spend all my days on a boat to know that any chance we have to show the connection between the economy and the environment, the fisheries and the forest, is a chance to preserve the place that has always been home. In Southeast Alaska, the people, the fish, and the forest share a future. Just because I’m the world’s worst deckhand doesn’t mean that I can’t help shape it.
Out on the ocean, where we’re trolling past cliffs covered in trees, whose roots reach down to the rivers where the salmon spawn each summer, the sun is finally coming up. It’s likely that no one has ever set a foot on land here, but it doesn’t matter. Even without breakfast, even slightly nauseous, with water stretching to the horizon on three sides – it’s impossible to feel isolated. Because that’s what salmon do for the people of the Tongass: they make one the planet’s most remote corners feel like a home.
Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is the largest species of Spruce and takes its name from our community; Sitka, Alaska. Sitka spruce is prized worldwide for a high strength-to-weight ratio and unique characteristics. Its uses have ranged from seagoing canoes to ceremonial masks to housing structures for the Native communities of Southeast Alaska. In the more recent past it was used to manufacture a multitude of items such as ladders, building frames, paddles and windmill slats. Its light weight, combined with strength, that makes it so versatile have also made it the gold standard in the construction of instruments and wooden airplanes. Its resiliency and feathery weight led to it being used for wing structures and the fuselage of early airplanes. Sitka spruce also possesses a highly uniform fiber structure, leading to high quality sound resonance. This means it is sought out for use as sound boards in high end pianos, guitars and other instruments.
The rich and diverse history of the Sitka spruce is so important to remember. It wasn’t long ago that vast stands were liquidated and entire watersheds became massive clear-cut wastelands. The trees were ground into industrial dissolving pulp and exported to foreign markets as a commodity product. That was the past. Earlier this month, USDA Secretary Vilsack outlined the future: he reaffirmed his commitment to conserving the remaining old growth temperate rainforests on the Tongass National Forest. He stated that this will be accomplished with a transition out of old growth and to the harvesting of second growth timber. Old growth will only be used for small scale, specialty value-added uses— like musical instruments. With a renewed focus on creating a sustainable forest industry, and providing jobs and opportunities in Southeast Alaska, the plight of the Sitka spruce may well be coming full circle.
Enter the Sitka Summer Music Festival, currently in its 42nd year. The Festival now supports events in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but Sitka is where it began and is the home of the festival. World renowned classical musicians trek to Sitka every summer for the festival with their cellos and violins, adding to the forest’s own beautiful repertoire of sounds. The festival’s location in Sitka, in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, also allows musicians to connect with the original source of their craft and instruments. One of this summer’s featured musicians is pianist Natasha Paremski who plays in Sitka on Steinway pianos that feature a Sitka Spruce soundboard. Natasha took time out of her trip to visit with SCS media intern Gleb Mikhalev and describes her connections to Sitka and the forest.
Link to the video: https://vimeo.com/70652583
Alaska Conservation Foundation supported intern Alex Crook created this video that tells the story of SCS’s 2nd growth bike shelter project.
On July 3rd, 2013, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack announced a commitment to conserving the remaining old growth temperate rainforests on the Tongass National Forest. He stated that this will be accomplished by transitioning timber harvest out of old growth harvest and shift to 2nd growth forest resources. This announcement comes on the heels of announcements by President Obama regarding the need to take action on climate change and to conserve, restore, and protect forest resources as a carbon bank to mitigate climate change. The Sitka Conservation Society applauds this announcement and feels that the time is past due for conserving what remains of our globally rare temperate rainforest, old-growth ecosystems.
As part of the Sitka Conservation Society’s efforts, we have partnered with the Forest Service, PNW Research Labs, Sitka High School, local carpenters and millers, the National Forest Foundation, and many more, to determine effective and sustainable applications of Tongass 2nd growth resources that promotes conservation of the Tongass while also providing opportunities to use Tongass wood products. With support from the National Forest Foundation’s Community Capacity and Land Stewardship Program, SCS has initiated projects with local partners that build community assets using locally milled timber products. These projects promote sustainable harvesting of second growth timber and micro timber sales that support small, local mills. SCS tries to design projects that provide vocational opportunities for the harvest, milling, processing, and utilization of these local timber products. One such project partnered with the local high school construction course to build a bike shelter. The shelter serves as a demonstration project that will be set up in a highly visible location and educate Sitkans and visitors on the story of the Tongass and second growth timber.
“I love how Fred’s Creek comes into focus.” My dad is talking about the way the blurred contours of Kruzof Island have shifted into misty green coastline, and, as we motor into the anchorage, the warm honey timber of the cabin appears out of the trees. It’s the Fourth of July and my dad, our dog, and I are pulling up to the beach, ready to relax around a campfire with our plethora of nose flutes and a cooler full of black cod collars.
Over the years I’ve found that it’s not just the shore that comes into focus when we pack up the boat and head out of town for the weekend. There is a clarity that comes with camping in Southeast Alaska. A repeated realization; remembering again and again why we live here. It’s probably different for everybody, but for me it’s the ability to walk out my door and into the heart of the Tongass whenever I feel like it. There are so many mountains I haven’t climbed yet, and miles of water left to travel. Every day holds that celebrated promise of adventure. There is something about Southeast Alaska that gets to me, and it’s not just the wilderness; I think it’s the people. It’s amazing what a little isolation and rainforest can do for a community. I feel so lucky to share my love of this place with a whole 14 miles of small town hospitality and charm. That “love thy neighbor” goodwill I’ve grown up with also comes into focus when we get to Fred’s Creek. Later, my stomach full of black cod collars grilled over the campfire, I’ll begin to think of it as “cabin culture.”
Cabin culture, unlike the better known “cabin fever,” does not have me itching to get out and gallop full speed into the nearest wide open alpine. Cabin culture is what keeps us grounded. It is the silent nod of freshly chopped wood piled next to the stove. It is the knowing smile of the cabin floor swept clean of sand and the sticky table wiped down and tidily tucked over its benches. It is the conspiratorial wink of a new rope swing tied up to replace a retired buoy. Cabin culture is our shared respect for the next boat load of escapees that will land on this beach and eat dinner around this fire. It’s our quiet understanding of our common love of living with the land here in Southeast Alaska, and I think it deserves to be recognized every once in a while.
As my dad pulls off the beach to tie our boat to the buoy, a full and brilliant rainbow breaks out, stretching from one end of Sitka Sound to the other. It hangs above the water where a few minutes earlier we had driven through a sheet of rain. Now, drying out under the warm sunshine of a textbook suckerhole, I lift my camera and bring the moment into focus.
Every summer the Sitka Conservation Society lures a handful of unsuspecting, environmentally minded, intrepid folk into the Tongass. They come from all over the world, hoping to experience Alaska. Little do they know that upon arrival they will be introduced to a wilderness so vast they could not hope to grasp it in one summer, and a town so welcoming that they will be taken into stranger’s homes and offered homemade rhubarb crisp. This summer our media interns are a mix of local and imported young people who love storytelling and adventure.
Alex Crook flew to Alaska straight from Cambodia, where he has spent the past 10 months working as a photojournalist and freelance photographer. So far he has accomplished his subsistence goals by catching his first King and making his first salmonberry pie. Alex’s other goals include using photography to give a face to the alternative energy movement in Southeast Alaska. (photo by Gleb Mikhalev)
Berett Wilber grew up fishing with her family and photographing her Southeast Alaska home. Berett’s focus this summer will be collecting stories from locals about the places they love. She’s interested in how the people of Southeast benefit from conservation in the Tongass. (photo by Gleb Mikhalev)
Caitlin Woolsey, another lifelong Sitkan, is excited to be back on the trails. She hopes to spend the summer hiking and writing stories that illustrate the importance of a well-preserved Tongass in the lives of Sitkans and Alaskans in general. (photo by Alex Crook)
Gleb Mikhalev has lived all over, from the midwest, to Russia, British Columbia, and New York City, and he says Sitkans are some of the most welcoming people he’s ever met. Last summer Gleb crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a 32 ft. steel sailboat. This summer he’s found his way to the Pacific, and hopes to spend the summer getting to know the people of Southeast Alaska. (photo by Alex Crook)
Kari Paustian was born and raised in Sitka and has spent the last few summers working on the Forest Service Trail Crew. This summer she will be the SCS liaison with the Forest Service, managing projects and writing stories on restoration in the Tongass. (photo by Alex Crook)
Lione Clare, another Sitkan, joins the intern team as a photographer. She has loved growing up in Sitka, and feels lucky to have had the opportunity to explore and get to know her environment. She wants to work to conserve the Tongass by documenting the beauty that she sees all around her and sharing it with others. (photo by Ray Pfortner)
By the end of the summer, the interns hope to cover a variety of stories, from subsistence living on Prince of Wales to the Blue Lake Dam construction here in Sitka. Stay tuned for this team’s photos, stories, and films about living with the land and building community here in the Tongass.
As you may recall from a previous post by Ray, a bike shelter is being built locally, using Tongass wood and will be landing at the Sitka Sound Science Center soon. I say landing, because it has been constructed at Sitka High School and will actually be transported courtesy of a sizeable fork lift and truck, thanks to S&S contractors, and placed at its final home.
The shelter is a beautiful timber framed structure made of young growth Sitka spruce and old growth red cedar. Timber framing is a traditional style of building that uses non-dimensional lumber, that is, no 2”x4”s or other standard timber sizes are used in the construction of the frame. Instead, timber framed construction uses large, squared timbers and relies on carefully designed and fitted joints using wooden pegs to hold the frame in place. Not only is the bike shelter a much needed asset, it is charming in its execution thanks to the vision of Randy Hughey and newly transplanted Dan Sheehan. Randy, who has just retired after 30 years, has been running the Sitka High Construction and Industrial Arts courses, and Dan is an experienced timber framer. The two partnered up for this project and have since poured countless hours of their personal time into the construction of the shelter along with the help of SHS students and local volunteers.
The shelter will temporarily have four U-shape racks, until the final rack is designed and installed. Mike Litman, of Precision Boatworks, will be designing the racks for the shelter. The structure joins a growing network of bike shelters around Sitka, including one being built for Pacific High School by Pat Hughes (UAS) and Pacific High students. This shelter will serve as a demonstration project, highlighting the importance of local products, local craftsmanship and knowledge, the strength of community and contributing to local economy. SCS was able to fund this project through the Community Capacity and Land Stewardship (CCLS) program with the National Forest Foundation (NFF). The goal is to share local knowledge, connect local processors with local builders, and influence resource managers to make decisions on the Tongass that benefit local communities. A sustainably managed forest will support a more resilient community.
Look for the Shelter to arrive later this summer!
Special thanks to the ‘Village’ that made it possible:
SHS Contruction Students
Lisa Busch, Lon Garrison and the SSSC
Mike Litman, Precision Boatworks
Parks and Recreation, City and Borough of Sitka
Mel Cooke & Bill Thompson
National Forest Foundation, CCLS program
The Sitka Community
SCS was recently awarded another Community Capacity and Land Stewardship (CCLS) Grant from the National Forest Foundation. The CCLS grant focuses on the use of local, young growth timber and habitat restoration. This grant will sustain and further develop the capacity-building momentum generated from last year’s grant. One of the components of the previous grant was to provide local, young growth timber to the Sitka High School industrial arts classes. Students were provided with red alder for building bed side tables, as well as Sitka spruce to construct a bike shelter. The bike shelter will be finalized this summer and placed at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
Through the current grant, SCS will continue to promote regional young growth markets, incentivize forest restoration and further the Transition Framework by creating an educational opportunity for local youth that focuses on young growth timber for structural and building applications. Currently, SCS will work with a local miller to process local red alder. Red alder has been historically considered a ‘weed species’, however due to its abundance it is quickly becoming valued for use in specialty wood products, cabinetry, furniture and architectural millwork such as wainscoting or molding. SCS is encouraging regional industry integration by building relationships between producers and users. The red alder will become part of the Allen Auditorium renovation project on the Sheldon Jackson campus. This partnership will also allow for SCS to sponsor several local high school students to work under the supervision of local builder Pete Weiland on the renovation project this summer. Students will be given the opportunity to spend approximately one month working on the Auditorium renovation project and will be partnered with a college mentor. The wood will be provided to the renovation project to produce an installation and demonstration project that highlights red alder as a viable material. SCS is now accepting applications from local high school students who are interested in participating in this project. Applications are due by July 1 and can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .
As recreationists we put on our hiking shoes, as fishermen we sport xtra tufs, and for Sitkans Against Family Violence (SAFV)’s Girls on the Run program, we learn and run in sneakers.
This was SAFV’s fifth year participating in the Girls on the Run program and the Sitka Conservation Society’s first. Our mission at SCS ties us to protecting the beautiful Tongass National Forest that surrounds us and also connects us to the development of sustainable communities. We also use the triple bottom line as one of our guiding principles, meaning that healthy communities, protection of the natural environment, and economic vitality have to be balanced for a sustainable earth.
Twice a week throughout this past fall and spring, I would join other volunteer coaches at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School to learn with young women about topics like peer pressure, bullying, and self-reflection. Activities would range from circling up and collectively trying to keep a beach ball up in the air to running laps forwards and backwards in pairs to even making dream catchers for patients at the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC)’s hospital. We asked each other questions, smiled and laughed while going over the days lessons, and simply had fun.
Programs like Girls on the Run help us create space for young women to come together as a team, work through topics that discuss the meaning of community and positive thinking, all the while creating relationships to support one another. These are seeds that overtime will bloom into the sustainable community we work hard to have. Community is not a dream although it is quite often idealized—a community is people and the relationships that hold them together. Having programs like Girls on the Run are preventative measures for our young women here in Sitka. The Sitka Conservation Society would like to thank SAFV for their commitment to community empowerment and prevention. Preventative work makes it so that we are not treating hardships or mistakes after they have already happened but instead working to avoid them all together through education, mentorship, and teamwork.
“Girls on the Run is so much FUN!” A team-building exercise, we all circled up and tried to keep this beach ball in the air as long as possible.
“1, 2, 3-GO!” Closing this year’s Girls on the Run program was our 5K run, where members of the community joined our girls for their big day!