This week on Voices of the Tongass we get to hear from Sitka native Torin Lehmann. To hear the show, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post. To read about the challenges of remote life, and why Torin feels lucky to be facing them, read on.
Photo By Berett Wilber
Torin Lehman is 23 years old and has the best commute in the Western Hemisphere. Maybe even in the world. It helps that the only way to get to work is by float plane. “We take off and we start heading south, fly over Camp Coogan. If it’s really cloudy sometimes we’ll have to fly all the way around the tip of the island, around Chatham. But if it’s a sunny day we can fly directly over the island. When you get up there it’s just mountains as far as the eye can see. Sometimes we’ll fly closer to see if we can spot any goats or bear or deer, and on the approach into Deer Lake you can see the cabin and an awesome natural log jam at the mouth of the lake.” Torin is a seasonal fisheries technician for NSRAA, and we managed to catch him for an interview on one of his rare days off in town. He works at a remote release station for coho salmon at Deer Lake, on the eastern side of Baranof Island. His job entails raising a stock of 2.8 million coho salmon until they’re big enough to be released into the ocean, which is an eleven month process.
When he’s not feeding millions of coho fry, Torin still has to find ways to stay busy. Fortunately, growing up in the Tongass has given him a lot of practice at creative entertainment. “I remember being six, seven years old and running around in the woods pretending I was a knight or a soldier. You’re given this stretch of land and you kind of build a story for yourself to interact with, you go out and use your imagination to build upon that.” Torin thinks that the place he grew up and the amount of time he’s gotten to spend outdoors contribute to the creativity he now has when it comes to life in the Togass. “I think growing up here encourages you to go out and explore and use your imagination and be creative with your surroundings. Down south, one of the things I noticed, at least with the friends I made, was that the things to do were to go to the mall or play video games.” Experiencing life “down south” reminds Torin how lucky he feels to be from Alaska. “How many other kids got to go whale watching from the minute they were born til now?…It teaches you not to take things for granted because there are millions of people who don’t get to enjoy the things we do here.”
Even with a lake full of tiny fish to keep him company, and no matter how creative he gets, Torin is out for weeks at a time. It can feel isolating. It’s hard to see his friends and family in Sitka, let alone maintain the connections with people he knows outside of the state. For people who live in the Lower 48, this might not seem like a big deal, but for many young Alaskans, it’s a major challenge. If you grow up in a small town, you know that maintaining good relationships with people you care about can have a huge impact on your happiness. “You know, I went to school in Maryland,” Torin says, “And trying to keep in touch with people from back there…” he trails off and shakes his head. “You have to work at it. On the East or West coasts, if you haven’t seen a friend in a while, you can just hop in your car. Here, if you want to see someone you went to school with, you have to buy a [plane] ticket, and figure dates out.” For young people in Alaska just entering the job market, it makes trying to find a balance between their relationships and the place they live both frustrating and expensive.
Despite the challenges of rural life, Torin still has a great attitude. His approach to staying positive is close to the hearts of Sitkans of every generation: “Living in Sitka, you have to enjoy the rain, that’s for sure. But it definitely makes the sunny days that much better,” he says. As we all know, Sitka has had a particularly sunny summer, and the night of Torin’s interview is beautiful. “I’ll probably go to the gym for a little bit after this, go on a hike with the dogs,” he says with a smile. “Have a beer. Watch the sunset.” After all, it is his weekend.
This week’s show takes us under the breaking waves for a night dive with Taylor White. To hear more about Taylor’s relationship with the ocean, read on. To hear her episode of Voices of the Tongass, scroll to the bottom of this post.
photo by Berett Wilber
Taylor White is 22 years old and she shares her office with a killer whale skeleton. She is the Aquarium Manager at the Sitka Sound Science Center. Whether it’s describing a night dive off the coast of Baranof Island or a kayak trip launched from her front yard, Taylor talks about the ocean like it’s a member of her family. It has drawn Taylor back each year to dive and snorkel her way into a job. “Leaving the ocean made me realize how much I wanted it in my life,” she says about her four years spent studying marine biology in the frustratingly landlocked Eastern Washington.
“I always wonder about how I would be if I grew up in a suburb,” Taylor says. She wouldn’t call herself a hard core crazy outdoors person, but because nature is literally at her doorstep it has become an integral part of her life. “I think any place where you grow up shapes who you are.” More specifically, Taylor feels that growing up in Sitka, Alaska, has grounded her and given meaning to the way she lives her life. “I’m appreciative for the perspective that Alaska gives you…you’re more a part of it, and more a part of the natural process than you would be in other places…Those sorts of experiences that don’t happen in other places.” Like the summer her friend got attacked by a bear while biking. “They make you stop and think about the place in the wider picture….it just makes you think more.”
When Taylor thinks about her four years in Washington, she remembers feeling pressed to meet deadlines and “living life not necessarily day by day.” One of Taylor’s favorite things is landing in Sitka on the narrow runway that juts out into the water. Her first stop in town is at Sandy Beach, where she loves to run into the water, no matter the season. “When I come back here it’s kind of nice to just stop and find my place again, instead of getting wound up with what I might call less of living and more of just doing.” She adds, here I think I live with more of a purpose and I understand better where I belong in my community, and in my surroundings, and that’s because of all those experiences of growing up and going away and coming back.”
If the play bar doesn’t pop up below, try clicking the link.
This week’s episode of Voices of the Tongass takes us deep under the surface of our coastal waters. To hear Tory O’Connell share stories from her underwater research career, scroll to the bottom of this post and click the play bar. To read more about why Tory chose to make her life in Alaska, read on.
Tory O’Connell’s perspective on the ocean is usually reserved, well, for fish. Though she was raised in New Jersey, she first came to Alaska in 1978 to work on a bowhead whale survey in the Chukchi Sea. Her first gig in Sitka was working as a diver biologist for a rockfish survey earning $100 a month. It was the very beginning of the commercial rockfish fishery in Alaska, and Tory’s life was about to become seriously entwined with one of Alaska’s most colorful vertebrates.
“There’s a little two person submersible called the Delta. It’s this little yellow submarine, and originally in 1985, I was aware that there was this program called The National Undersea Program, and we were trying to figure out how many Yelloweye Rockfish there were. It was hard because they live in rocky habitats and deep water – normally you would just troll, but that doesn’t work in rocky habits. And you can’t tag them because rockfish have a swim bladder that inflates at the surface. So I got this idea to use the submersible. We wrote a grant and it surprised everyone when we got it.” And so, Tory began to use the Delta to dive down and count Yelloweye Rockfish.
Flash forward to the present. Sitting in Tory’s office at the Sitka Sound Science Center, her innovation and success no longer seem surprising. Tory is one of the premiere marine experts on the bottomfish of the Pacific. She has traveled all over the world talking about how to record and sample hard-to-find species in hard-to-access habitats, and racked up more than 600 dives in the Delta submersible, from California to Alaska. And though she has been SCUBA diving in almost every place she has ever been to, she says that the diving here at home is hard to beat. “Sitka, the outer coast of Southeast Alaska, has some of the best scuba diving in the world,” Tory says, adding that while the water is not very warm, the visibility in deep water can be up to a hundred feet.
And there’s more connecting Tory to this place than the time she’s spent underwater. When we asked Tory how living in Alaska has changed who she is today, her response was that raising her two daughters in Sitka has had the most impact on her. “It’s hard to figure out what’s because of Sitka. I think I have become a better person because my children are such great people…I think this will always be home to them.”
Because Tory grew up on the east coast, she can see how growing up in Sitka has been a different experience for her two daughters. “Popping tar bubbles with your feet in the summer in New Jersey. That I miss. And I miss downpours, thunder and lighting, I miss that in the summer and fall. Real bread, I miss real bread…fireflies. But on the other hand you get phosphorescence. And [Margot and Chandler’s] experience has been pretty rich here…I can’t imagine my life without Sitka.”
Tory isn’t the only one who feels like her life is intertwined with Southeast Alaska. Many Alaskans found their way here in their early twenties, like Tory, and came up with ways to stay. Tory started out as a research assistant making barely enough to get by, and in a few short years she was the point person running the Rockfish survey project. For Tory, Alaska was and is a place where she could make opportunities for herself, and literally choose her own adventure.
How have you shaped your life in Alaska? How has Alaska shaped you?
Today’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Ben Hamilton about becoming a filmmaker in Southeast Alaska. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Ben, read on…
Ben Hamilton, a native Texan, never thought of himself as someone who lived in Alaska. But recently when a stranger asked if he spent the summers here, he had to stop and think about it. He was living here this summer. And lived here the summer before. And, as it turns out, Ben realized that he is a 24-year old filmmaker who has spent the last six summers living in Southeast Alaska, very far from both Texas and from what the average person would think of as a thriving cinema industry. But getting into the wild has given him opportunities he couldn’t have found anywhere else. He talks about his first film, Echoes in the Tongass, as his second film school. “I spent more hours on that movie than I did in classes,” he says. “The Tongass is definitely a media resource for me. There’s so much that I’ve filmed here that it’s been a huge resource. Financially, without the Tongass, I don’t think that I would have worked here, without question. For most films you need a subject with conflict and a narrative. Wilderness area doesn’t necessarily have a story, unless there’s a human story behind it. Humans working to protect a conservation area from a threat? It seemed like a story worth telling.”
Not only did his work help spread a message of conservation for the Tongass, but the Tongass also helped spread the message of Ben: in particularly, the quality of his work. “Now with National Geographic, I’m considered an Alaskan contact. I’m currently in talks with the BBC to help coordinate Southeast Alaska shoots,” he says. “Which is crazy. But if you spend enough time in a place, you get to know it.”
Ben represents a new type of subsistence lifestyle in Alaska. He makes his living from the land, and what he shoots out in the wilderness he still has to pack to town on his back. But what Ben can bring home are not anything that could fill his freezer. Instead, they’re the stories of the land that he has grown to love, stories that are shared with people all over the world in order to show them what a temperate rainforest or a calving glacier looks like, and why they’re worth protecting. And getting to see more wilderness than 90% of the residents of Southeast isn’t just nice for Ben’s viewers. “I have no doubt that living in Sitka has changed who I am,” Ben says. “There are definitely moments where I just think this is the most beautiful place in the world. I’ve been so lucky. On one of the most incredible sunset nights I’ve ever seen, we saw aurora borealis and the Milky Way. Before that I had never seen stars in Sitka.” How did he find the secret to stargazing in cloudy Southeast? “You just have to stay late enough until it gets dark. To wake up in the middle of the night to see the sky filled with stars? That was a magical night.”
This week’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features, Squid Fishing, a poem written and recited by Berett Wilber, who was born and raised in Sitka. Her collection of poems, entitled Lesser Known Marine Mammals Lesser Known Love Songs, won the departmental prize for poetry this year at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she has been a student since 2011. Many of the themes and images in her poems are drawn from her experiences growing up in the Tongass, from the ocean, and from everyday life in Sitka.
To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. Check out our Voices of the Tongass page, under the media tab, to listen to all of our shows.
Don’t forget to tune in to Raven next Thursday during Morning Edition!
it’s snowing fat and white in denver
and i am meeting your mother for the first time.
she is burning the turkey
and the salty steam,
that comes out of the oven rich and wasted,
takes me straight back to the ocean, straight back to
squid fishing in the dark,
heavy nets billowing in the black currents,
until the skipper flips the switch
and every surface of the boat shocks itself alight,
a tiny marble palace bobbing in the sea,
shining steady from across the waves.
and then the searchlights, pouring down into the water,
strike opalescent gold – the first clouds of squid,
pulsing up from the gloom
to where we are silently gripping the slick rails,
waiting for the call, boots glowing on the wet deck.
when your mother
takes her shoes off and pours herself a glass of something
shallow and shimmery to drink,
i float off the coast of california in my mind because
you laugh like a lighthouse searching for a ship to save
and you fan the turkey with your hands,
and in this moment,
it seems love
is not so far from fishing, and we are not
so far from squid -
that breathless search in the inky dark,
and the phosphorescent promise
of rising to
To listen to Berett read her poem, click the play bar below. If you don’t see the play bar, try the link.
Today’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Bailey Brady about growing up on a float house. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Bailey’s stories, read on…
At 20, Bailey Brady has had fewer chances than most to get her feet planted firmly on the ground. A native Southeast Alaskan, Bailey spent her formative early years living on her family’s float house. “It’s your own personal island!” she says. And it has shaped Bailey’s perspective in a unique way: for here, there’s not just one right way to do things, even in terms of a foundation. “It creates different expectations for me, for a house, and what you can do with it,” she says to us. The fact that we are sitting at a reclaimed restaurant booth on the back deck of her family’s current on-shore home, walled in by recycled windows and a salvaged glass door only serves to prove her point.
For many kids (not to mention their parents), a float house might seem like an incredibly limiting perimeter. “To go into town you had to take your skiff in,” Bailey says, “And I was little, so it was just one trip in a day to go to daycare. Then Mom would come pick me up and skiff out again. Other than that, regular life. Just in a house that floats on the water. ” But Bailey says it taught her how to be creative, even if she couldn’t step off her front porch. “You find places to go on your float house,” she says. She recounts the places she would explore: the big deck, her dad’s big troller, which was tied to the float when he wasn’t out fishing. And Bailey was no stranger to fishing herself. Whether it was with her Spiderman rod or just trying to fish her cat Marbles out of the water, she always found a way to stay entertained on the water.
And now, living in Sitka, to Bailey it seems like her space to roam has significantly expanded. And while some people might feel penned up by the very real city limits, Bailey still sees endless possibilities. “You’ve only got fourteen miles of road and so you appreciate it a lot more. You make a lot more out of those fourteen miles. Living on an island is such an amazing experience – you’re a little bit more limited, but you have a lot more opportunities at the same time and I think that really shapes people in a different way.”
Bailey herself is proof of that – her ability to find creative opportunities and possibilities that are often overlooked by others are evidence that the places we grow up shape who we are, from our values to our outlooks on life. And even for kids who didn’t literally grow up on the water, Bailey is a great example of the power of perspective. Your physical boundaries can only restrict you as much as you allow them to – and unlimited adventure can be found in even the smallest quarters.
If you don’t see a play bar below, try using the link to play this week’s show, produced by Caitlin Woolsey and Berett Wilber: LWL_BAILEY_BRADY.
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.