This week on Voices of the Tongass we get to hear from an Alaskan with an interesting perspective on place. Kathryn Medinger was born and raised in Alaska, but hasn’t always lived in the Tongass. To hear her story, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Kathryn Medinger is not originally from the Tongass. Her family moved from Bethel to Sitka when she was thirteen, and to her it felt like moving to a big city. She had to adjust to paved roads, cell phones, and a lot more people. Another change to get used to was the dramatically different landscape, and the ability to be active outdoors year-round. The long cold winters of Bethel were the foundation for Kathryn’s basketball career, which she has continued into college.
“I remember my dream was always to play at our high school [in Bethel] – it was a huge deal. Everyone would go to the games. Growing up I remember that’s all I wanted to do… I always wanted to be a Bethel Warrior.” Kathryn wasn’t the only kid to become skilled in an indoor sport. “There’s people from Bethel who go to Division I schools for wrestling because that’s how much they do it. My high school crush is going to the U of M for wrestling.” Kathryn left Bethel before she was old enough to play a home game with the warriors, but she stuck with basketball and eventually her dream came true. “I finally got to play on that court – Sitka traveled to Bethel. And I remember the Sitka kids having trouble adjusting – to not having a cell phone, the cold, dressing up.”
While the environment of Kathryn’s hometown is hugely different from the Tongass, it does have the characteristic small-town charm of communities in Southeast. “I remember finally getting to play at home… The coach shook my hand and said ‘Welcome home,’ even though I didn’t remember him – Lara [my sister] played for him, they knew my parents. [The announcer] gave a shout out to my parents, welcomed me home even though I didn’t live there anymore.”
Hannah Hutton is the storyteller this week on Voices of the Tongass. To listen to her episode, scroll to the bottom of this post. Be sure to admire the very tall girl and very small pony on your way.
This week on Voices of the Tongass we get to hear from Dylan Hitchcock Lopez. To listen to the episode, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more on the influence place has had in Dylan’s life, keep reading.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Dylan Hitchcock Lopez grew up fishing off the coast of Baranof Island, and has since lived all over, including Fairbanks, Homer, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wales. Yet, like the salmon he fished for as a kid, he returns every summer, to work with his family and reconnect with the place that he thinks of as his home: Sitka, Alaska.
For Dylan, there’s a simple answer to why he keeps coming back, an answer that looms in the back of the minds of many Alaskans who grew up on boats and trails: geography. “It’s a lot more important to me than to people from other places,” he says. “The places I lived after Alaska – everything was really small, safe, controlled. Here, the community is so small relative to the mountains and oceans and everything around it. Your idea of place becomes dominated by habitat and ecosystems rather than by man made structures, like it would be anywhere else.”
But he also acknowledges that Alaska is far from perfect. His experiences all over the state exposed to him to realities that many Alaskans prefer to avoid, deferring to the beautiful landscape to represent the state instead. But for Dylan, it’s important to think about Alaska from a macroscopic perspective. “We’re a kind of screwed up state on that level,” he says, “Here, where we have basically an insignificant amount of people and a vast amount of natural resources – if we had a more intelligent way of investing our resources Alaska could be so far ahead of the rest of the country, and yet we’re a little behind. We have some really frightening statistics.” Domestic violence, alcohol and drug problems, depression, suicide rates…these are problems that many young Alaskans hear about or experience every day, but as Dylan puts it, “It’s such a big place and there are so few of us that it’s easy to ignore these problems that are staring us in the face.”
And yet, he keeps coming back to Alaska. “Having that sense of truly caring about a place not just intellectually” – he stops himself, to clarify. “I might identify with America on an intellectual sense, but I don’t identify with it in a personal sense. It’s just a concept, it’s too big, it’s just words. When I think about being from Alaska, I have feelings, memories – those statistics I mention earlier make me feel sad and angry in a way that is not entirely rational.”
But they’re also not something that scares him. On the contrary: “The fact that we have so many problems is more of an impetus to want to come back,” he says. ”It’s the only place I have a personal connection to, that I really care about in that sense. I don’t think you ever care about a place like you care about the place you grew up.”
So does he have Alaska in his permanent plans? When I ask, he ducks his head and gives us an answer that resonates all too well. “I used to say absolutely not,” he tells me, “and every year I lean more towards probably. It’s a pretty hard place to leave.”
This week Voices of the Tongass brings us a poem by Berett Wilber entitled Whale Watching. To hear the poem read aloud by the author, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Last week on Voices of the Tongass we heard from Tully Mcloughlin who is relatively new to Southeast Alaska. To hear how he has been affected by his new second home, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
Photo by Berett Wilber
This week, Voices of the Tongass brings us salty stories from Adrienne Wilber. To hear this week’s show, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post. For more stories, keep reading.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Adrienne Wilber was born and raised in Southeast Alaska. Whether it was turning over rocks on a beach or deciding she would rather have a skiff than a pony, Adrienne has always had a connection to the ocean. She started commercial fishing with her dad at age ten, and kept it up every summer for over a decade. Even after she went to college in a land locked state, she graduated with a degree in geology. She was still studying oceans – only now they were fossilized ones. “From an early age being expose to a tidal environment – gaining food and profit from the ocean – has made me feel like the ocean is a really important part of my life. I look at the character traits that I admire in myself and I attribute them to growing up every summer on the back of a fishing boat. I feel like that’s where I learned to work hard. Enthusiasm for hard work. I’m no longer trying to catch as much fish as possible in one trip, I’m trying to broaden the minds of middle school and high school students. But now the idea of working hard in a crew is still there.”
Because of course Adrienne’s relationship with the ocean didn’t end after college: it just transplanted her to warmer waters. She currently works as a deckhand and marine science instructor on the SSV Tole Mour in the Channel Islands, which at 160 feet is the largest active tall ship on the West Coast. But even despite the move, she still feels like values that she developed because of her relationship to the the environment of Alaska are a big part of who she is.
So much in fact, that her coworkers in California are always asking if she’ll move back to her homestate. “People ask me this all the time. I take a lot of pride in being from Alaska and sharing how great it is with people who aren’t from here. Truthfully, I can hardly imagine settling down anywhere… But I don’t know where I would live if it wasn’t Alaska…If you grew up in the Sitka School District, you remember getting into your survival suite and floating around in the harbor for the 7 steps of survival. Building shelters of ferns and bracken. And when I describe this to people outside I get head-shakes, wide eyed looks, and, ‘What? I want to grow up in Alaska!’ and I think that’s an example of the richness that this place can bring to people, whether they’re little kids or returning college students or people who have fished and just decided to stay. And I feel pretty lucky to spend a lot of my time here.”
It’s that time of year and Emma Bruhl, like many seniors in Southeast, is about to hit send on her college applications. This week on Voices of the Tongass, Emma gives us a sneak peak at her application essay, and shares some thoughtful insight on what it means to be from the Tongass.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Brian McNitt has an incredible collection of stories from his years living in and exploring Southeast. To listen to him tell one of them, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Photo by Caitlin Woolsey
To hear this week’s episode of Voices of the Tongass, featuring Jonny KT, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Photo by Berett Wilber
It has stopped raining by the time Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins gets off the plane, but his feet are already wet. Why?
“Oh, I ran from Craig to Klawock this morning,” he says casually.
This is perhaps the best introduction to Jonathan that you could get. Born and raised in Sitka, Alaska, most of the people that know Johnny would say that he has always been unusually active. “In the beginning of high school I would start to go off on trips in the mountains in Baranof just by myself. I would pack my backpack and go off and explore,” he says. One of those trips? An attempt to trace the Kiksadi Survival March through the backcountry, from the northern tip of Baranof Island to the town of Sitka. “It rained every day and it was wonderful. I think about that trip all the time,” Johnny says. And when he tries to explain why, he gets down to the heart of something that many Alaskans can relate to. “We’re made to go from place to place, inherently nomadic in some way. When you complete a trip from A to B, it sounds so simple: why would you waste your time putting yourself through brush and discomfort? But it satisfies a very primal purpose, moving and accomplishing something in a locomotive way.”
The mountainous landscape of our archipelago has given Jonathan vast areas in which to satisfy the need to be active, and the landscape has become part of who he is. As a result, a relationship to place has become very important to him. “You want to fall in love with the place you live,” he says, comparing place to a life partner, “that is the same kind of relationship.” He feels his deep connection to place is unusual, and it keeps him coming back to Sitka, even if it’s hard to describe why. “Something I realized back East [at college] was that some of my classmates weren’t in love with a place. Perhaps it’s self-perpetuating, in that if you’re in a place where other people are committed to place, that sense of community perpetuates itself.”
We ask Johnny why he thinks people here become committed to place, and he responds, “Sitka is objectively breathtaking in its place in the natural world – mountains, the ocean, the outer coast, that’s the reason tourists come here, and it’s hard not to appreciate that. But it’s a difficult, perhaps unanswerable, philosophical question.That’s like asking why people fall in love – with a person, or with a place? I don’t know why. In some ways it’s just innate to us.”
For Kari Paustian, one of the most important things about growing up in Southeast Alaska is the way that is has shaped what she considers valuable. To read about a value system based on the Tongass, read Kari’s story. To what she has to say, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
If you had seen Kari Paustian at her first dance recital, in her polka dotted tutu, you might not recognize her now. She is 21 years old, a senior in college, almost six feet tall. and has worked for the Forest Service Trail Crew for the past two years, hauling logs, sawing trees, and building bridges. However, if you listen to her describe her job, it’s clear that her tutu years have had their influence. “Me and my boss, and we went up to cut firewood with a cross-cut saw because you can’t use a chainsaw in wilderness areas. We took this beautiful saw up to this very isolated cabin – flew in by float plane. We spent two days cutting firewood. You move your whole body when you use a cross-cut saw. It’s almost like a dance – one person pulls and the other person pushes, and the only sound that you hear is the shh shh shh of the saw moving through the wood. And you can still hear the birdsong in the background.”
Kari can make chopping wood sound like a gift because for her, it is one. The opportunity to work with the Tongass is a way to take advantage of the skills that she learned from all of the physical activities she did as a kid, from ballet to cross country. And her relationship to the land is reciprocal: she’s majoring in environmental studies and is currently interning at the Sitka Conservation Society. When she thinks about her future, it’s with conservation in mind. Being out in the woods is something that is valuable enough to her that she is working on becoming valuable to the forest in return. “I think that any work If involve myself in here will be involved with the Tongass, with the ocean. I can’t imagine living here and working at a desk for 8 hours a day 5 days a week,” she says.
Kari feels that because she grew up in South East, her view of the land is different that most people’s – but just as important. “I think the true beauty in this place is in the details.There’s a sense of learning about plants by tasting them, instead of learning out of books. picking up a leaf and tasting it. The act of being out in the environment – feeling the bark in the trees, the rain falling on your face – it’s a very tactile life that we live here. Those really little details, those tiny creatures and plants are what makes this ecosystem run. They’re at the bottom of the food chain. It makes me feel blessed that I’ve had the time, enough years, to notice those things. and enough people to show me.”
Even if she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do after graduation, one thing that she’s sure of is where she’ll do it “I’ve never been someplace that I’ve liked more than Sitka, and I’ve done a fair bit of traveling. If I were to raise a family, this would be -” she stops, and corrects herself – “This is the place I’d want to do that. It’s home.”
To hear Kari, click here: 19_LWL_KARI_PAUSTIAN