Almost three months have already gone by since I started my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society, under the supervision of Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Director at SCS. It is now the start of September and I cannot believe how fast time flies by when I am truly enjoying my eye-opening opportunity. It still feels as though only yesterday I landed in Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Nowadays waking up every morning to rhythmic pulses of the rain droplets and the fresh aroma of the soothing ocean breeze has become a part of my daily life.
Along with the overwhelming invasion of nature in my life, I also get a chance to spend the majority of my time here in the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. The Tongass is one of the last few forests untouched by industrialization and remains as the largest temperate rainforest on earth. The forest encompasses part of the Northern Pacific coastal forests along with the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia. Due to its vast size, the forest hosts a number of various types of trees: western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock. The forest is also home to five species of salmon, brown and black bears, and Bald Eagles.
My days at Sitka are often filled with a variety of outdoor activities- all of which have constantly kept me marveling at the great nature I am surrounded by. From hiking up mountain trails to kayaking upstream against the swift tides, my internship projects have led me to explore different parts of the Tongass while having the opportunity to meet other biologists, conservationists, and interns. One of my projects involved monitoring a conservation and restoration project implemented by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) in the Starrigavan Recreational Area. I am conducting vegetation surveys in these forest gaps and collecting data from trail cams to monitor deer activity within the gaps for tagging purposes. The workers of the USFS cut oval forest gaps with an area of 100 ft in diameter to mimic natural disturbances in the forest. The purpose of this is to encourage the growth of shrubs and ferns, which are another type of food sources for deer and bears. Starting since the 1950s, a significant percentage of the big trees (old growth) in the Tongass were logged and when the second generation of trees grew, they left little space for sunlight to reach to the ground. Thus, without these gaps, the growth of shrubs and ferns will decrease, thereby lowering the food sources for the deer, which may lead to a decline in the deer population in the future. Within the gaps, there are also deer enclosures to monitor how deer foraging affects vegetation growth.
From the peaks of the mountains to where streams meander across the landscape, my weekly duty takes me to a stream that flows through the community of Sitka. Once a week I would ride my bike down to Indian River to collect water samples from the river. According to the protocol, I would filter the water from the river and pour them into two sampling bottles. The Sitka Conservation Society is a part of SALMoN (Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network) and participates in the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO). GRO documents water chemistry from rivers around the world in order to understand long-term ecological changes to freshwater ecosystems. To document the water chemistry, GRO analyzes nutrient concentrations, dissolved organic carbon, and the isotope ratio of strontium. Local streams such as Indian River will be studied alongside the great rivers such as Amazon, Yangtze and others. The program started when Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the founders of GRO was a Scientist in Residence at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
My days often began with journeys packed with wilderness adventures. I went on a five day camping trip to West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness which is located about 55 miles away from Sitka and it takes around 3 hours to get there by boat. This trip by far is the longest period of time that I’ve been out camping. The purpose of this project is to install temperature loggers into five different streams in order to monitor the health and the quality of the stream waters. To arrive at some of these streams, we had to bushwhack through the forest while making noises to alert the bears. Some trails were challenging and tedious with rugged and slippery mud-covered grounds but they were all fun. Once we’ve reached the streams, we conducted a variety of analyses such as installing temperature loggers and recording the stream width. We also measured the flow of the streams and noted down the dissolved oxygen levels. While performing these tasks, it was fascinating to see thousands of salmon fish swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water. The end of each day was an even bigger adventure for me since we would move from one campsite to the next. Before the sun sets, we would spend about 30 minutes, cruising around the ocean in our boat, searching for a safe spot to camp. We camped on different parts of the forest each night and got to explore the wonders of the old growth wilderness in the dark, quiet night.
From sampling streams, my internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake where its top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake. Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before at Sitka. Not only was it the longest camp trip, it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake where I had a chance to work with the Forest Service. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makes management decisions based on the data collected each season. Once the fish pass through the weir, they head up to the northern tip of the lake and travel up streams to spawn. Through out the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies become bright red and the male sockeyes’ heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time, before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It definitely was a biological process worth observing.
With large amount of ocean surrounding the island comes the freshest seafood. The most important resource of Southeast Alaska is salmon. There are five different types of salmon here: king, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon. Here, salmon is fished for industrial purposes and plays a major role in sustainable fishing as well. Out of the five different types of Salmon, I have already tried three of them, which are King, Sockeye and Pink. The two that I haven’t tasted yet are Coho and Chum. Most people here prefer the King and I have to agree with them on that. I also got a chance to try deer meat, which tasted like beef but leaves a trace of gamey palate in your mouth.
Despite the nature explorations that were required for work, I also had a chance to enjoy the beautiful picturesque landscape of Alaska. The town of Sitka is small with a population of 9000 people, yet it is lively and vibrant with esthetically decorated small vendor shops. Sitka is surrounded by the sounds of clashing waves and mountains varying in heights. During my leisure time from work, I went on hikes on the mountains with friends and enjoyed stunning landscapes from the peaks of the mountains. Along the way, I met other interns and co-workers who were passionate about conserving the natural beauty that the Tongass has to offer.
On the 28th of August, I completed my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society and had the opportunity to gain hands on conservation experience that I have longed for. Within the past three months, I learned so much about the importance of conservation methods, and my internship gave me a chance to work with land managers who are working on making important conservation decisions. I learned new research and conservation approaches and methods as well as the importance of social outreach to the community for our conservation works. Overall, this internship has given me invaluable knowledge and taught me to have even more respect for the beautiful wilderness and the natural wonders of the earth. This was truly an eye opening experience and certainly, one that I will never forget.
When Southeast Alaskans think of local food, we usually think of foraging, fishing and hunting. In the realm of produce, however, we have become accustomed to eating fruits and vegetables shipped in from the lower 48 and around the globe. But a gardening movement is on the rise around the islands. In Sitka, a city with no agricultural property, people have been working with the city to create ways to grow and sell local produce. Like all southeast towns, Sitka has a small and strong community, which makes negotiating with local lawmakers to change the structure of land and food policy more direct and personal. With the farmer’s markets gaining steam and gardens springing up all over town, the future of the local food movement in Sitka is bright. But it has taken many pioneers to get it on its feet.
One of those leaders is Lori Adams, owner and operator of Down-to-Earth You-Pick garden. She was raised on a farm in Oregon and moved to Sitka to fish with her husband in the 80s. With no dirt to play in, living on a fishing boat was a rough adjustment. Once she and her husband bought property of their own, however, Lori began scheming up plans to get back to veggie production. “I just have farming in my roots and dirt under my fingernails,” she told me, “and it won’t go away. And I always wanted to farm, and we moved up here and I just decided that I would farm where I went.”
Lori wanted to create her own You-Pick garden where she could sell her produce to customers who came to her house to harvest it directly from her front yard. “Where I grew up a You-Pick garden was a common thing,” she explained, “… So, I feel like it’s really important to grow my own food and teach other people how to grow their own food. And many of the children who grow up here have never seen a carrot in the ground, have never picked a pea off the vine, and so they just don’t have a connection like that with their food.” With a You-Pick garden, she could satisfy her farming itch, while also giving Sitkans the opportunity to learn about gardening and create a more intimate relationship with how their food is grown.
Immediately she called the planning department to ask for a permit to start a You-Pick garden. “They looked at me with a blank look and said, ‘You want to do what?’” As the law stood in 2007, it was illegal to sell produce directly off of private property and to allow people to harvest their own vegetables. Luckily, the people at the planning department were willing and excited to work with Lori. They thought it was such a good idea that they wanted to help her make it legal. “So we spent 6 months changing the zoning laws and going to the assembly meetings, and once it was worked out it turned out that anyone in Sitka could have a you-pick garden if they applied for a special use permit.” Now, any one in Sitka who applies for a special use permit can start a You-Pick garden right on their property.
Today, Lori has a whole community of return customers. They love coming up to her property, picking her brain about gardening, greeting the ducks, and harvesting their own kohlrabi, kale, leeks, onions, sorrel, lettuce and other cold-weather-loving vegetables. But Lori is just as excited to sell her produce as she is to teach others how to garden, or even how to create their own You-Pick. “That’s my hope,” she told me, “that they’ll sprout up all over and it will just become a common thing.”
Whether or not her story inspires others to create a You-Pick, her collaboration with the planning department is certainly a testament to the responsiveness of Sitka’s local government to new ideas addressing issues of local food. Property may be expensive and limited, but there is plenty of room for innovation, and stories like Lori’s certainly aren’t in short supply! Go to sitkawild.org to hear more stories or to share a story about building sustainable communities in Southeast. You can also learn more about Lori on her blog. If you are interested in getting involved in the local food movement, visit the Sitka local food network’s website.
by Sarah Stockdale
I am in a land of light. Alaska is alive in the summer, and in southeast, the rainforest is abundant with green foliage. As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation Summer internship program, I have been blessed with the opportunity to spend three months here in Sitka as a media and storytelling intern with SCS. And in the three weeks since I arrived here, I’ve found Alaskans themselves to be not unlike the native flora and fauna that surround them in the summer. They take advantage of their daylight hours, knowing that winter will bring plenty of time for hibernation. The fisherwomen from whom I rent sleep only three hours a night, especially when they’re on their boat and alert for King salmon snapping at the line. Karen Schmidt, an attorney who hosted me in Anchorage for the ACF intern orientation, was the same way. She worked tirelessly during the day, but was still happy to spend the late evening down at the beach until midnight, treasuring every last glimpse of light that bounced across the Cook Inlet mudflats.
As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation internship program, I attended a weeklong orientation in Anchorage before heading off to my internship placement site. There, I met with young folks interning with conservation organizations across the state. We heard from conservation leaders on a variety of topics, from organizing to Alaskan history and GIS. While in Sitka, it’s easy to feel like one of only a handful of groups concerned with issues of conservation. In Anchorage, however, I was able to experience the interconnectedness of all the conservation movements across this enormous state. We certainly need one another.
In my first three weeks in Sitka, I’ve been able to sit back and breath in the Tongass, orienting myself to the sites, smells and culture. And when I look around me I see… green!!! For a New Mexican like me, you can’t imagine my awe at the density of life that the rain brings to this unique and hidden corner of the world. As one of the Alaska native speakers commented during the orientation, it’s less like subsistence out here, and more like abundance. And the Tongass is certainly abundant. Food prices may be high, but looking around, I see nourishment on ever corner from the salmonberry bushes to king salmon coming into the harbor on trollers.
I couldn’t feel further away from the suburban desert where I grew up. Yet it’s clear to me that maintaining and protecting the future of these natural resources is an issue that is not just important to Alaskans. With almost 80% of wild-caught salmon in North America coming from Alaskan fishermen, campaigns like the fight to protect Bristol Bay impact people all over the United States. Recently, New Mexico senator and congressman Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich spoke out against the Pebble mine. People are concerned, even down south.
And while a lot of people have a stake in the future of these lands, the people in southeast who have the time and energy to work on these issues are few. This is both overwhelming and deeply hopeful. It reminds me of the way a friend from Southern Colorado once described ranch culture. On a ranch, everyone’s help is needed. Nobody is turned away and everyone’s contribution is welcome. When there is a job to be done, you need all the hands you can get. Southeast Alaska feels similar to me. Every person’s energy adds to the greater goal. It’s nice to feel that you can really make a difference.
As a Media and Storytelling Intern, my job is to capture the ways that people in Sitka live in relationship with their natural environment. By sharing these stories, SCS hopes to connect people with their own sense of place in the Tongass, and their personal reasons for contributing to the fight to protect it from abusive extraction practices. There is certainly no shortage of stories here in Sitka. Every person I have spoken with has a relationship with the rhythms of the rainforest, whether through fishing, hunting, foraging, hiking, wood-work, etc. From artists, students, carvers, fishermen, elders to avid gardener, everyone has an appreciation for their home. And I’m falling in love more quickly than I’d imagined.
While my job here is to inspire others to recognize the singularity of the Tongass and the importance of protecting it, I’m not surprised to find that I’m the one being inspired. As the intern coordinator for ACF, Claire Pywell, commented: people come to Alaska for the landscape, but they stay for the people. And I’m starting to believe her.
Tommy Joseph is a Tlingit master carver in Sitka. He teaches and carves what he is commissioned to do and what he feels inspired to create.
His apprentice, Kristina Cranston, says of him: “I think (Tommy) could recall probably where each tree came for probably if not most, all of his jobs. This tree came from this, and the other half of it went to this job. And so it becomes personal. It’s like when you go into a grocery store and you see all these fruits and vegetables, you’re really just getting the final product. You don’t know where it was planted and who grew it and how it was harvested and cared for and transported. Whereas with his trees he’s usually part of most of the process and knows where it comes from…And I think when you have that experience it’s not a commodity, it’s really the entire process, this whole cycle. And the end result is this beautiful totem pole, and usually somebody really happy.”
Continue reading to see some of Tommy’s work and how it relates to the community!
Greg Killinger fell in love with Southeast Alaska when he volunteered with the US Forest Service in 1983. During that first summer, he worked in fisheries surveying dozens of streams on Baranof and Chichagof Islands and other places on the Northern Tongass. This first summer was enough to convince him that this was where he wanted to be. He spent his next 30 years on the Tongass doing great things for our public lands and the natural world. Greg grew up in western Oregon. He graduated from Oregon State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Science. He went on to complete a master’s degree in Natural Resource Management. Greg married his wife Lisa Petro, a local Sitkan, in 1990.
We worked very close with Greg in his position as the Tongass lead staff officer for Fisheries, Wildlife, Watershed, Ecology, Soils, and Subsistence. Greg held that post and worked under the Forest Supervisor from the Sitka Forest Service office. In that position, he oversaw and helped with all the programs across the Tongass for fisheries and watersheds. Greg was a key partner and helped build important relationships between the Sitka Conservation Society and the Forest Service. With him, we worked together on salmon habitat restoration projects like the Sitkoh River Restoration, restoration projects on Kruzof Island, and many other salmon-related projects across the entire Tongass.
Our working relationship with Greg and his employees was so close that we even shared staff. In 2011, SCS and Greg developed a position we called the Tongass Salmon Forest Resident. SCS funded the position and they worked under Greg. The position’s goal was to “tell-the-story” of all the innovative and important programs that Greg managed on the Tongass that protected, enhanced, and restored salmon habitat. When SCS created the position, our goal was to shine the light on this great work. Greg put the spotlight on his staff and the partners that he worked with to make the Tongass’s Fisheries and Watershed programs successful. That was the kind of leader that he was: he never wanted to take credit but always wanted to empower others and build more leadership and capacity.
That initial project led to two similar positions in 2012 and 2013. Greg worked with SCS staff to make two beautiful short films that shared the story of important fisheries management programs. One, called “Restoring America’s Salmon Forest”, illustrated a project Greg helped orchestrate that improved the health of the Sitkoh River—a major salmon producer damaged by past logging. The other, “Subsistence in Southeast Alaska: The Tongass National Forest’s Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program”, showcases the importance of Tongass salmon for subsistence use. This film also highlights important joint fisheries projects that Greg’s program created with various Tribes across the Tongass. These programs continue to empower Native Alaskans to monitor important salmon runs across the region. Greg understood the importance of sharing the story of Tongass programs with the larger public. He was driven to showcase the importance of this forest in producing salmon and share how the Forest Service’s staff cares for salmon, fisheries, and wildlife habitat. These films—and the many additional products that came from these partnerships—were catalyzed by Greg. Despite his heavy involvement, few recognized it was he who made them happen. Again, that was just the type of leader he was. He empowered and inspired us as a key catalyst that made things happen but did so from the background, never seeking credit or recognition.
Greg was also a serious outdoorsman. He loved fishing for king salmon in the early summer and dip-netting for sockeye in July. He was a very accomplished alpine hunter whose passion was chasing after sheep in the Alaska interior. Greg did a number of epic hunts solo. He once shared the story of a solo mountain goat hunt that he did during a particularly dry summer. He became severely dehydrated high in the mountains. At one point he was crawling into a gorge looking for water while hallucinating because he had already been without water and under the sun for 2 days (in a rainforest!). He did get his goat in the end though.
That type of solo hunting in big mountains really characterized the kind of person Greg was– not macho and he didn’t do any of that to show-off or to be the guy that got the biggest trophy– rather, he did those hunts for the pure challenge and as the highest form of communing with the natural world of Alaska. Greg loved wildlife. He loved the land and the water and the oceans. He loved the ecosystems of Alaska and all the natural processes that tied them all together. Hunting for him was one of the many ways that he was part of those ecosystems and part of how he connected with the natural world.
Greg didn’t just challenge himself on Dall Sheep hunts in the Alaska Range. Greg took on enormous challenges in the work that he did and with the same calm and unassuming manner that he talked about his extreme outdoor exploits. One isn’t the type of leader that Greg exemplified or is responsible for the variety and complexity of programs that Greg oversaw on a whim. In fact, balancing all the issues and programs that Greg oversaw was more of a challenge than the hunts he loved so much. Protecting salmon habitat under pressure from development, finding the resources and coordinating the partners to restore critical salmon systems, bringing together extremely diverse interests to work together, and being responsible for defining the strategy for how our largest National Forest deals with Climate Change are just the tip of the iceberg of what Greg did in his day-to-day. In most likelihood, those extreme hunts for Greg were actually a simplification of life for him: a situation where the most logical rules of nature are paramount and where the most basic instinctual conflicts of man-vs-nature and man-vs-himself are played out amongst the most perfect and beautiful of our planet’s natural creation.
Greg died suddenly, unexpectedly, and in his prime. The one and only grace of his passing is the fact that it happened on a mountainside, in the arms of the beautiful forest he loved, and on one of the most spectacular spring days there ever was in Sitka. He enjoyed that last day to its fullest fishing for King Salmon in the morning, gardening, and then a trip up the mountain.
Greg’s unexpected passing left all of us who knew him shocked. We lost a mentor that we admired, a colleague that inspired us, and a friend that we could always count on. Greg came to the Tongass and when he left, he left it a better place. We will always remember him and we will always strive to be as good a person as he was.
Written by: Andrew Thoms, Bethany Goodrich, Jon Martin, Kitty Labounty; May 30th, 2014
Video and Slideshow by: Bethany Goodrich, Corrine Ferguson, Pat Heur and the great help of Lisa, Su Meredith and all who scanned photos, dug through the archives and even digitized slides to memorialize Greg
Note: Greg Killinger will be added to the Sitka Conservation Society’s Living Wilderness Celebration Board which honors the people who cherish and protect the wild and natural environment of the Tongass and have a passion for Wilderness. The above essay will be added to a book that tells the story of the people we honor and forever celebrate their lives and actions. In this way, we will continue to draw inspiration from Greg and all the others whose lives we celebrate.
SCS had the opportunity to catch up with F/V Cloud Nine this week and we were humbled by these wonderful people. Karen Johnson, long time crew member on the Cloud Nine, was asked what fishing meant to her and this is what she had to say.
“I started fishing when I was 6. There are different kinds of fishermen as there are with any type of job, I suppose. My perception of fishing is I love it – I love the life, I love the ocean, I love the excitement, I love the peacefulness, I love the hard work.I can be seasick, look up, and still be amazed by my surroundings. I can be working hard, dead-tired, and still take in what’s around me.
It’s beautiful out there. It’s part of living here I guess, never getting tired of seeing the amazing things that go on around us every day, even if it’s just a daily morning walk at Totem park. There’s always something to notice.
Our family fished together for a long time and I’m thankful for that and for the fact that my brother and I still get to fish together some. Our bond to the ocean, the coast, the inside passage is very strong and commercial fishing gave us a better opportunity to experience it on a wider scale than some might get. You can think of commercial fishing as a way to make money, as a job, but to some – it is so much more.”
We can’t thank you guys enough for what you do!
SCS had the opportunity to sit down with Harvey Kitka and talk about what living with the land means to him. Listening to him tell stories of his family, harvesting, and respect for the land and animals was absolutely mesmerizing.
“My family has been here for countless generations. My grandfather was Coho, and my grandmother was Kaagwaantaan, so I’m Kaagwaantaan. I carry stories from my grandfather and father.
Everything from the ground up we have respect for. A lot of native art has eyes on it and the reason they did that is because everything had something living in it. It showed our respect for the living. Everything has a purpose from what we are told. The trees when we cut those down there was a ceremony for that. We figured when we were hunting and had good fortune, the animals gave themselves to us and we thanked them for it. So we always thank the salmon and things.
We hope this hasn’t changed. We try to teach our kids. We tell them everything is about respect. My grandfather always said you never make fun of your food. You don’t play with your food. It’s about respect. It is one of the things you pass onto your kids. Some of our earliest stories go back to this.
Food is our life. You take what’s there, you take care of it, and it will take care of you. That’s our whole philosophy.”
Thank you for everything you do, Harvey!
Meghan joins us this week on Voices of the Tongass, to share a story from when she was a little girl on the southern tip of Baranof Island. Meghan feels lucky to have grown up all over Southeast Alaska. To hear her story, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
Meghan and her dog, Barnacle, this winter break. Photo by Berett Wilber
This week on Voices of the Tongass we get to hear from Ellen, Spencer, and their cats. To hear their story, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
Ellen and Spencer are working on a canning project…for their cats. Here they are with Poncho, one of the lucky felines. Photo by Berett Wilber
How many Alaskans do you know who came up for a summer job in their twenties and never left? This week on Voices of the Tongass we get to hear from Steve Abbott, who still thinks he’ll only be in the Tongass for a few more years…
Photo by Berett Wilber