Anyone who has lived in Southeast Alaska for any amount of time can’t help but feel a sense of connection to the place. This week on Voices of the Tongass, Matt Hunter reflects on his relationship to the people and the landscape in Sitka. To hear what he has to say, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Matt Hunter wants to live in Sitka forever. He’s already been here for thirty years, and he has decided that it is the place for him. What makes someone who once dreamed of becoming an astronaut choose to make their life in a tiny isolated town in the Tongass? Love of place. It’s not outer space, but, to Matt, Sitka is still a place of limitless possibilities. “In a big town I wouldn’t be able to run on the ambulance, that would be all profession paramedics. The Search and Rescue program is it’s own city department here, so we can respond before the troopers give the word.”
Matt also loves the environment around Sitka. “Kayaking and having a whale pop up next to you…hiking in the fog, where you can’t see more than 10 or 15 feet and your entire existence is 30 foot circle around you…I really like getting up on a mountain if it’s a little stormy or wintry weather, and it’s dark and grey and gets a little uncomfortable. You get out on a ridge and there’s this blast of air that almost knocks you over, and you realize the power of the wind. And I love those moments.”
Matt’s life in Sitka has given him an insightful perspective on how we relate to the natural world. He believes that he values the environment because he gets out and experiences it all the time. But not everyone is that lucky. Matt compares some people’s distance from nature to our isolation from most current events. “I find myself not wanting to read the newspapers – war, you don’t want to think about it as real. The same thing can happen with nature. You don’t value it because it’a a totally foreign concept.”
While we are pretty isolated here in Sitka, our conversation with Matt reminded us that we are certainly not lacking in opportunities. He pointed out that everything that happens in Sitka is made possible by passionate individuals who create opportunity for themselves and others. “You can do pretty much anything in Sitka. I couldn’t be an astronaut, but I don’t really know if I need to do that anymore.”
This week on Voices of the Tongass, Margot O’Connell gives us a look into the unique set of skills she has developed by growing up in the Tongass. To hear Margot’s story, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
When we ask Margot O’Connell about her plans for the future, she tells us something we already know – something everyone who knows Margot knows about her: she loves books. “Growing up, books were sort of my entire universe,” she says, “and that’s still a big part of my life. I want to be a librarian. I’m going to go to grad school in a few years, I want to work in a library.” Honestly, we are inspired by her sense of direction and her long term goals. But when we ask Margot about what she’s doing now, she laughs out loud. “Well, growing up in Sitka you develop a weird skill set, so since 2008 I’ve been organizing and developing marine debris clean up on the outer coasts around Sitka. So kind of on accident I’ve become the marine debris coordinator for Sitka.”
So library school is waiting because after graduation Margot felt “a compulsion to come home.“ And although Margot is humble, it’s no accident that she has found herself involved with marine debris. She’s been helping with the program for the last six years, and is now in charge of everything from organizing clean-ups and estimating fuel costs to partnering with community art programs and applying for grants. Not to mention the actual business of going out on the F/V Cherokee for a week at time to record what they can find on the beach. “We can only get on the beach June – September because of the weather. We’ll take the Cherokee in, then a skiff, then a zodiac. We’ll see what’s there. We’ve expanded our mission to include tsunami tracking. So we’ll record what we find, including invasive species. And then we’ll actually remove all of the debris that we find on the beach.”
Margot has never thought of herself as a scientist, but part of marine debris involves picking up shifts at the Sitka Sound Science Center, and teaching visitors about the local aquarium. She’s surprised by how much she does know, even if it didn’t come to her out of a book. Margot says she’s learned through osmosis simply from growing up in Southeast. “The touch tanks we have [at the aquarium], they look like the tide pools we grew up playing in,” she says. “Growing up here you just have this deep ingrained, inherited knowledge about the landscape and the environment.” It’s knowledge that she has put to use through her position with the marine debris program. Since she started in 2008, the program has cleaned more than 70,000 pounds of refuse off the beaches of Southeast Alaska.
The program will miss her when she follows her passion for history and books to librarian school, but Margot is pretty sure she’ll be back. “I guess I always had two separate worlds,” she says. “I loved where I was living, loved my school, but I really like to be in this environment. I love to come home.”
It’s a 2,185 mile drive from Green Bay, Wisconsin to Sitka, Alaska and Lily Herwald knows it better than most. To hear Lily’s stories about coming to Alaska, scroll down and click the link at the bottom of the page. To read about the life Lily has made after that one fateful pick-up ride, read on!
In 1984, Lily Herwald paid one hundred dollars and caught a ride in a pick-up truck from Wisconsin to Alaska. Her friends thought she was crazy, but she said she knew she was moving for good. “I was excited to see what I could do, the kinds of opportunities I would have [here],” she says about her decision. She certainly proved her friends wrong – and proved that a positive attitude can bring positive results. She describes what happened when she first got to Sitka: “We camped in a visqueen tent behind the trooper academy,” she says. “I lived in a tent for a month, and got a job waiting tables. I had graduated with a communications degree, and there was a job open at Raven Radio. I was offered the job. Within three months of arriving, I got my dream job.” She smiles. “At least, it would become my dream job.”
Lily’s success in both her professional life and her personal life in Sitka all stems from throwing herself into something new and different from anything she’d ever known. Born and raised in Green Bay, she had no way to know what would happen when left. “Many of my friends from high school really didn’t leave Wisconsin,” she says. It’s a theme which runs through many people’s stories about moving to Alaska: taking the risk to move to the last frontier means leaving a lot of what’s familiar behind. “In the first few years, we moved seven times,” she says, “Living on fish scows, house sitting, not paying a lot of rent. I couldn’t get over how many people in their twenties were here from Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota. We were all pretty creative about how we were doing housing.”
It is clear when listening to Lily’s story that her success and happiness has not only come from her willingness to take chances, but from the chances that others decided to take on her. “I started at Raven Radio in public broadcasting. People kept giving me offers of more important jobs and I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But they kept saying, No, you can do this! You have the skills. People were so nice about giving me their time, and mentoring me. And that had not at all been my experience before. It had been so hard to get a job.”
Seeing Lily now, sitting on her porch, in the summer sunshine with a view of the ocean and her vegetable garden, it is hard to imagine her living in Green Bay. It is hard to imagine that people thought she was crazy for taking a chance to live in the place that she has considered her home for almost thirty years now. What happened after she hopped in that pick-up in 1984 might have been a risk, but Lily’s willingness to seize the opportunity has proved to be a solid foundation for more opportunities than she could have imagined in Green Bay, and to her credit, they’re made up much more by hard work and commitment than by chance. Her level of commitment to the life she chose is tangibly visible from her successful career to her family to the zucchinis in her garden, which are notoriously hard to grow in soggy Sitka. “I love that I have to build the soil that I put my seeds in to grow vegetables for dinner in the summer,” she says. “Being outside and building my soil – getting dirt from under alder trees, bringing sand from the beach, mixing in herring and seaweed – I love that. I like to come out here and meditate and look out over that and feel fortunate and grateful for everything I’ve been given.”
She has a point. When she pops a zucchini off its stem and hands it to us before we drive off in our own pick-up, it’s hard not to feel that we too have been given something special.
To hear Lily’s story, click here: 16_LWL_LILY_HERWALD
For many Alaskans, the West Coast and the East Coast seem worlds apart. But Hannah Hamberg, who splits her time between rainy Southeast Alaska and upstate New York, has learned that you don’t have to choose between coasts – you just have to be able to find the connections between them. To hear Hannah’s story in her own words, click the link at the bottom of the page. To read more, just scroll down.
Hannah Hamberg is wearing red lipstick and a very crisp white eyelet jacket. She looks as if she could have just popped in from a New York City street, the place where she likes to spend weekends with her friends when she’s at school upstate, where she studies graphic design. As she’s talking to us, her dad comes downstairs and laughs. “It doesn’t look like you could be the person who you’re talking about,” he says and Hannah laughs.
Because of course, we’re not in New York. We’re sitting at her dining room table, in her large and spacious kitchen, looking out the big windows at the towering forest of Southeast Alaska. And even if Hannah can navigate city streets like a native, the story she’s telling us is about running from a grizzly bear. “We were just across the way from my house, clam digging. We got out on the beach, and walked down about ten feet. We were about to start digging clams. And then we looked up – and saw a sow with two cubs. And she got up on her hind legs and started growling at us. We ran back to the boat. You’re not supposed to run, but the boat seemed so close.” She laughs. “We left the shovel behind.”
Hannah is a refreshing change from some of the frustrating stereotypes of what it means to grow up in Alaska, and the vague pressure to “seem outdoorsy.” Hannah can put on xtratufs and carrying a gun up a mountain, but she also sees her childhood in the wilderness as a resource in a more subtle way. “I’m not conscious of the way it affects me, but it has to in some way. It gives me a different perspective because I didn’t grow up in New York City. I have a point of view that isn’t as influenced. I feel like it kind of helped me create my own point of view rather than being influenced by outside perspectives.”
And they are some fairly towering perspectives. “I’ve spent a lot of time on float planes,” she says. “We have a cabin in Prince of Wales and we always used to take the float plane down. It’s a surreal experience to be flying in between peaks and look down and see a mountain goat. Or feel the downdraft coming between the mountains, and getting physically pushed down by the wind.” So what does Hannah plan to do with the unique perspective she is cultivating, whether that’s by hunting with her dad or taking classes at the Rhode Island School of Design?
“There’s this magnetizing effect that Sitka has,” she says. “I always want to come back. For my job, I’ll probably have to start in the city – NYC, or San Fran. But my goal is to come back to Sitka, and to do design out of Sitka, for this area. It’s home, you know. It’s home.”
Happy Halloween! This week Berett Wilber’s poem, Fishing Village Blues, takes us down to the docks and into the Pioneer Bar. To hear Berett read her poem, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Photo by Berett Wilber
fishing village blues
pictures of shipwrecks
cover all of the available spaces
on the walls of the Pioneer Bar,
the last haven in America
where it is it legal to smoke inside.
the old-time skippers sip whiskey in slow motion,
while the deckhands drink their piny beers in the vinyl booths.
surrounded by the misfortunes of the fleet -
two-ton diesel fires,
stainless steel bottoms scraping barnacles,
caught at low tide with their hulls on the rocks
like drunk and dangerous bridesmaids.
one more pair of salted hands
puts crumpled dollars bills on the bar
like a grizzled miner with a poke of gold and
Is This Love seeps from the jukebox.
this is the small-town time-machine:
Bob will never die.
Disco will never live.
after a few hours,
the deckhands will leave the bar,
duck their heads to clouds of orange and blue
that the rain makes with the streetlamps,
their rubber boots heavy on the wood down the dock.
their sleeping bags,
waiting up in the caves of fo’c’sles all over town,
will wrap the boys’ shoulders in downy embraces.
the boats in their moorings will lull
their beer-sweet breath even and their mouths slack,
the dock snoring gently from the the slow pull of so many ropes.
Kevin McGowan has made some friends you need a snorkel to find. “Swimming and seeing a sea lion can be pretty terrifying. Usually they’re just curious… but they’re pretty terrifying looking creatures, so it can be unnerving. You see their huge brown bodies and their vicious looking faces. it’s usually just a dark spot swimming under you, and then they pop up and you know they’re there. And hopefully they don’t do too much damage to you.”
Born and raised in Southeast Alaska, at age 21, Kevin knows that the experiences he had (and marine mammals he met) growing up have uniquely shaped him. “My interests are environment based,” he says. “My whole life has revolved around water.” And when he moved away from Sitka for college, he found it very difficult to translate those interests into a different environment. “My friends didn’t get to see that side of me,” he says. He’s certainly not the only one – while leaving home for college is difficult for all kinds of reasons, for the kids of Southeast Alaska, it is often harder to leave the wilderness environment behind more than their houses and neighborhoods. When the environment is a major component of your activities and interests, it also factors into your relationships with the people around you. In a new geographic environment, kids from Southeast not only have to deal with the usual homesickness, but they have to find a new way to make friends and navigate relationships without access to the things they usually do with their friends. “It would be hard [for my school friends] to see all my real interests, because a lot of them are really location based, the snorkeling and the mountain climbing and boating and kayaking,” Kevin says. “That’s all dependent on things I have here, and going to school I don’t have access to all these things. The way I relate to people from Sitka is a deeper connection. [I] don’t necessarily have that with people at school.”
But luckily, growing up outdoors doesn’t just serve to hinder the social experiences of Southeast Alaskan kids who are trying to make it in more urban and academic environments: Kevin also gives it credit for some of his success. For a guy who admits his high school years were spent dreaming about being outdoors, Kevin says his attitude towards school has shifted. “I definitely have focused academically,” he says. After a hard first year at OSU, he transferred to UAF, and took classes which he needed to catapult him to engineering school in California. Three schools in three years would wear out even the most dedicated student: so how did the shift from dreaming about getting out of the classroom to doggedly trying to stay in it occur? He sees his motivation linked to his experiences growing up in Alaska. “There’s a lot of curiosity that I’ve developed growing up here, adventures and finding new things,” he says. “So with school, I want to learn a lot of new things. It’s helped myself apply myself to schoolwork. Because there’s new things to learn. New people to meet, more foods to try. You don’t necessarily need to be snorkeling to experience somewhere cool and new.” And even though there will be challenges to surmount, it’s hard not to have faith in his ability to succeed. If he can make a good impression underwater on a sea lion underwater, it’s hard to imagine him feeling out of his depth.
Want to listen to Kevin’s stories about spearfishing in his own words?
Charlie Wilber found his way to Alaska over 40 years ago, and it didn’t take him long to decide he wanted to stay. This week on Voices of The Tongass, Charlie shares what exactly has kept him in Alaska, and lessons he has learned along the way. To hear this week’s show, scroll to the bottom of this post. To continue the story, keep reading.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Charlie Wilber came to Alaska in 1971 as a smoke jumper, parachuting into remote areas of the interior to put out wildfires. “I’d hardly ever flown on an airplane. I got to Seattle and the state of Alaska had a person hired at the gate to try to convince you not to come to Alaska because there were no jobs…I thought I would only spend a summer here, but here I am, still here.” When smoke jumping got “boring,” it was time for the next adventure. “I wanted to make Alaska home,” he says. “I felt like there were a lot of opportunities here for a young person. I still feel that way. I tried to figure out what I could do so I could live here. By a weird series of coincidences I had a friend with a hand troller in Icy Strait. I worked with him for about a week, thought ‘Hey, this might be something’, and it took off from there. I bought my first boat in 1979 and never looked back.”
We had to clarify: “So you bought a troller and became a fisherman after only one week of fishing?”
“Yes,” he says, chuckling. “And I would not do that ever again, nor would I encourage anyone to learn that way. The smart person would become a crew member for an experienced fishermen. I said, ‘this looks pretty easy, I could figure this out,’ and it was fairly painful for a number of years. It wouldn’t be the first time I learned something the hard way. Someone told me once you aren’t really fishing until you have every penny in it, and you owe money. And then you are seriously fishing because failing really isn’t an option at that stage.”
In the process of collecting stories for Voices of the Tongass, we have talked to several “fishing kids.” Charlie is the first “fishing dad” we’ve interviewed, and we want to hear his perspective on parenting on a fishing vessel. “I suppose probably some of the most enjoyable times is when I had my two daughters on the boat with me. I’ve really enjoyed developing a working relationship with my daughters. One seemed to take to the water, and the other decided that probably wasn’t in her interest. And I think that’s a good thing, that the two of them have found their own path.” Through summers spent on the boat, Charlie has passed his well-weathered wisdom on to his kids. “You know, if nothing else, I wanted my kids to have an appreciation for the environment that we were in – for the ocean. Wanted them to have an understanding of what I was doing…and I think they do both have a real sense of appreciation for the environment. When they were little we would go somewhere and they could spend all day with their little nets checking out bullheads on the rocks. There’s not many places you can do that.”
And then we have to ask: What has he learned about fishing, in thirty-four years on the water? “In order to be good at it you have to be very observant,” he tells us. “A lot of it is by hunch: there are a lot of nuances. You can’t see the fish, but you can see the fishermen. You can learn quite a bit from that.”
We pepper him for the stories of the what else he’s learned and the unusual things he’s seen on the ocean: comets and waterspouts, trolling through herds of humpback whales, the northern lights, sharks, sunfish flopping on the surface of the water. But he makes it clear that one of the things that’s most important to him is not something you need to be out on the ocean to see. “Not a day goes by where I don’t still see the novelty of being able to walk out my door and be in the forest. And its not just recreation: I feed my family with deer, and obviously with fish. In order to have healthy salmon runs, the environment is very important. You can’t have successful fishing when there’s not habitat for the fish to spawn in. My living depends on having a healthy environment on land and on the ocean. The word sustainability gets used a lot these days, but it’s the honest truth. Fishing isn’t just a hobby. I’ve got a serious investment in equipment and everything else. It’s how I make my living. I want these fish runs to be healthy for a long time, for long after I’m gone, I hope. To see the salmon returning each year…it’s almost an inspiration. You can go to Indian River right now and almost walk across it without touching the water. It’s really phenomenal. How many thousands of years has that been going on?”
This week on Voices of the Tongass, Alaire Hughey takes us up into the alpine on her family’s annual opening day hunt. To hear Alaire’s story, and her views on subsistence living, click the play bar at the bottom of this post.
Today brings another poetry episode of Voices of the Tongass. Berett Wilber’s collection of poetry, Lesser Known Marine Mammal’s Lesser Known Love Songs, is inspired by her life in Southeast Alaska. To hear Berett read hear poem, The Contingencies of Chance, scroll to the bottom of this post.
the contingencies of chance
where does the outside end?
when the air enters your lungs?
in the beds of your fingernails?
let yourself feel
up against the edges
of your skin, fear
will rip your lungs into sails,
tear down the lines between things and
breathe yourself in:
the scent of lilacs at night,
the silver of the river at our ankles:
the oxygen in your blood is
already just air
and so you are
already just everywhere.
we are vessels, pitchers, open bowls
and the sheer strain of living
tears holes in us
that we cannot repair ourselves.
we can only fill each other:
give yourself away.
(you become hollow if you
board yourself up
if the walls inside of you echo,
splinter through them).
the tiny sutures of your eyes,
your voice: rope yourself to the world.
it will stain you irreparably and you
will build yourself into it,
stretching spindly bridges
until they crumble and fall.
in the moments
where you have to strip back the paper
of your walls, and
raze the scaffolding of your life
to the ground -
curse if you must.
but if you would like to keep yourself alive,
open your mouth
and pour yourself out.
the world will never demand less of you.
we were not meant to stand empty for long.
This week on Voices of the Tongass, John Straley talks about what it means to succeed in the Last Frontier, from building a career to building a family. To hear the show, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
John Straley’s father could not have predicted that moving to the Last Frontier would turn his horse-shoeing son into an intellectual. “He always thought I was better suited to be running a chainsaw,” John says. “He was very proud when I became a writer, but he thought it was good that I had a back-up career as a laborer.” John’s father needn’t have worried. While John didn’t take the most traditional path to being one of Alaska’s most celebrated modern authors, he certainly took an effective one. “Being a horseshoer turns out to be a good motivation to be an intellectual. Your back motivates you to read books.” While it also might have helped that there weren’t many horses around, any way you look at it, he seems to have subverted his father’s expectations. From being a private eye to a youth conservation leader, there are few corners of the community that John has not have a presence in. And of course, his experience means has led to a life as no literary slouch: he has been published many times in many genres, serving as Alaska’s writer laureate between 2006 and 2008.
But, like any reputable laborer, John isn’t one to dwell on success. After almost forty years living in Alaska, he’s come to value his work not by the quantity of his audience, but by it’s quality. “I’ve been in a fancy hotel. And waited in the lobby for my driver and a Lincoln Town car to take me to a bookstore,” he says. “I didn’t make enough money that day to change anything. If I can give a reading at the library here, I’m happy. That’s as much audience as I need. if I can go to a friend’s house and read their kids to sleep, that’s as much as I need.”
And like his own father, John has learned to have his own expectations about being a father subverted. Attention to accurate description, necessary qualities for a writer and a poet, had some different effects when it came to fatherhood. He tells a story about teaching his son Finn some of the everyday joys of the Alaskan experience with his wife, Jan. “When we lived in Fairbanks,” he tells us, “she got a hand lens, and when a mosquito landed on Finn’s arm, she showed him what happens when a mosquito lands on him. Vividly. And when he steps outside the next day, and the screen door is just black with mosquitos, he starts screaming because the air is filled with monsters that suck his blood.” There is a significant pause while John reflects. “This was a mistake,” he admits.
But for any listener who has the opportunity to hear even a few of John’s stories, it’s impossible to believe that parenthood in Alaska was all tribulation – far from it. Near the end of his interview, John says something about the life he has built in the Alaska that rings true, even for those of us who have not spent nearly as much time in the wilderness as John has. “We’ve stayed here for now, jeez, almost 35 years or more,” he says. “It’s just become a fabulous part of our family. It changed all the stories I’ve written, the poems I’ve written. I’m sixty years old. I’m just happy to be alive. I can’t imagine living any place else.”
Listen to the show: 9_LWL_JOHN_STRALEY