This has got to be one of the coolest hikes I’ve ever done! This last July I was able to participate in the Sitka Trail Works Mt. Edgecumbe hike (i.e., climbing our local volcano). The trip began with a boat ride across Sitka Sound to the trailhead at Fred’s Creek Cabin. After unloading and organizing our packs we began our 7 mile and nearly 3,000 vertical feet climb up the mountain (and that’s just one way!).
The first part of the trail winds through a giant stand of old growth hemlock and spruce. After a few minutes zigzagging through the trees we broke out into the open muskegs where the majority of the trail is located. The muskegs of Kruzof Island are a truly amazing site as they are some of the biggest in the area, stretching across most of the island.
After roughly 4 miles of fairly flat terrain, we arrived at the three-sided shelter. There we found a number of other trip participants resting and nourishing themselves for the climb to the top of the volcano. From the three-sided shelter to the top of the volcano it is roughly 3 miles and nearly 2,000 vertical feet. It’s by far the hardest part of the hike, but also the most rewarding.
About two miles from the three-sided shelter we broke through the treeline. At that point the trail dissipates and we were left with an assortment of cedar posts stuck in the ground as trail guides. At first glance the cedar posts marking the trail seemed a bit overkill, however, when the fog rolled in we were happy to have them.
From the tree line we climbed for about twenty minutes completely engulfed in a thick layer of fog. Just as we began to crest the rim of the volcano, the clouds broke and we could see where we had wandered. Below us lay the muskegs of Kruzof Island and its rocky outer coast. To our east and south we could see the peaks of Baranof Island and the small speckles of civilization in Sitka. At that moment, we couldn’t think of anywhere else we’d rather be.
We sat quietly in the colony struggling not to make noise for fear of scaring the birds. It was about ten o’clock at night and the sun was still setting. To the west the sun sank over the horizon and the last few flickers of light colored the approaching clouds. To our east and south the full moon rose in a brilliant orange, promising to illuminate our night’s work. The scene was dreamlike, surreal.
Part of what makes Saint Lazaria so unique is its somewhat unusual land use designation. The island of Saint Lazaria is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Homer, AK. It is also a designated Wilderness Area protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System. This multi-level protection has kept the island in pristine condition.
My work with SCS brought me to Saint Lazaria to learn about Alexis Will and the research she is conducting on the island. Will is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she is working towards her Masters’ of Science in Biology and Wildlife. For her thesis she is trying to determine the diets and foraging grounds of Rhinocerous Auklets (i.e., Cerorhinca monocerata). Will believes that by better understanding this species’ diet and foraging grounds, we will better understand how these birds may adapt to an increasingly variable environment.
Will’s research is also part of a bigger study. In recent years the population of five key groundfish species in the Gulf of Alaska have been significantly lower than in previous years. This is particularly alarming as these five fish species are all commercially important to the state. To determine what is causing this decline, the North Pacific Research Board is currently in the process of conducting a Gulf of Alaska-wide study. Their goal is to better understand the causes for these declining populations.
So how does Will’s research fit in to this bigger project?
Here’s the thing. Rhinocerous Auclets feed on the same fish that the five groundfish species feed on. If Alexis can determine where and how much fish the Saint Lazaria Rhinocerous Auclets are eating, then we will have a better picture of the food base in the Gulf, at least, theoretically. With better information on the health of the food base in the Gulf, the state of Alaska will have better science with which to base their fishing quotas. It’s cool research and I was glad to have the opportunity to learn more about it.
However, what intrigued me most about Saint Lazaria was my experience in the Rhino colony. The Rhinoceros Auklet colony is located at the edge of a very steep and menacing cliff. Below the cliff we could see the commercial salmon fleet at anchor, protected in the lee of the island. As the Rhinos arrived at their nest to feed their chicks, the commercial trolling fleet sat below bracing for the approaching gale, and in the distance the lights of Sitka illuminated the night sky. As I sat in the darkabsorbing the night’s activities, I was reminded of the simple fact that we are ALL part of this global ecosystem.
In June of 2012, members of Wrangell’s Boy Scout Troop 40 joined forces with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), the United States Forest Service and local volunteers to help remove invasive plants from the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area. The objective of the trip was to remove the aggressive reed cannery grass from the banks of the Twin Lakes by hand pulling the plants as well as covering areas with sheets of black plastic. The group also helped remove an enormous amount of buttercups and dandelions from the lakes’ shoreline.
However, the ultimate goal of the trip was to teach the Boy Scouts what it means to be good stewards of the land and the value of Wilderness areas like the Stikine. What better way is there to teach this lesson then to spend five days in the Wilderness learning these lessons first hand from the land and from each other?
After five days in the field, Troop 40 decided to adopt the Twin Lakes area as their ongoing stewardship project. They plan to return in the coming years to continue the work that they’ve started. It is community dedication like this that the Stikine and other wilderness areas require in order to remain pristine for future generations.
This is a guest post by Bonnie Loshbaugh about her reflections on SCS’s Tongass Salmon Forest Residency. This unique position was a partnership with the Sitka Ranger District and was tasked with telling the story of the Forest Service’s work restoring salmon habitat in the Tongass.
Be sure to check out the fantastic slide show of Bonnie’s photos at the bottom of this post.
I arrived in Sitka in May, after the herring opener had ended and before the salmon season had really gotten fired up, for a six month stint as the Tongass Salmon Forest Resident. The position, a collaboration between the Sitka Conservation Society, The Wilderness Society, and the Forest Service, was a new venture for everyone. For the Forest Service, it was one of the tentative steps the agency is taking towards a transition from a timber-only to a multi-resource management approach for the Tongass National Forest. For the Sitka Conservation Society and The Wilderness Society, it was part of a long term shift by environmental organizations towards collaborating rather than fighting with the Forest Service in Southeast Alaska. For me, a newly minted master of marine affairs, the residency was an opportunity to position myself at the crossroads of public policy and science, practice my science writing abilities, to return to my home state, and—I’ll be honest—to eat a lot of fish.
In Sitka, I got a room in the Forest Service bunkhouse and started a crash course in island life, Forest Service safety training, NGO-agency collaboration, and NGO-NGO collaboration, with a refresher on small town Alaska. Growing up on the Kenai Peninsula, I already knew a great deal about salmon as food. Now I started learning about salmon as an economic driver, natural resource, cultural underpinning, keystone species in the coastal temperate rainforest, and salmon as the life work and primary focus of many of the people I had the honor of working with during my time in Sitka.
During the summer field season, I went with the fisheries and watershed staff on quick projects—a day trip by boat to Nakwasina to help add large wood to a salmon stream—and long projects—and eight day stint at a remote camp on Tenakee Inlet with a crew using explosives to decommission an old logging road. Although I was mainly in Sitka, I also visited Prince of Wales Island and the restoration sites at the Harris River and worked up a briefing sheet that was used during USDA Undersecretary Harris Sherman’s visit to the same sites. By the fall, I had a large amount of information and photos which I worked up into several brochures for the Forest Service, and also a Tongass Salmon Factsheet, and a longer Factbook.
My main contacts at the Forest Service were Greg Killinger, the Fisheries Watershed and Soils Staff Officer for the Tongass, and Jon Martin, the Tongass Transition Framework Coordinator, both of whom made the connections for me to work with and ask questions of the top fisheries folk on the Tongass, as well the rank and file staff on the ground carrying out restoration and research work. The residency gave me a chance to learn about salmon on the Tongass, and to immediately turn that information around for public distribution. Along the way, it also allowed me to see how a federal agency works, a particularly enlightening experience since I have mainly worked for non-profits in the past. While collaboration is not always the easy way, the joint creation of the Tongass Salmon Forest Residency is a recognition that it is the best way to manage our resources, and I hope to see, and participate in, many more such collaborations in the future.
The land enclosed in the borders of South Baranof Wilderness Area is steep, remote, and difficult to travel. Other than the intrepid mountain goat hunters, this area of the Wilderness receives almost no foot traffic.
In August of 2011, as part of the Sitka Community Wilderness Stewardship Project, as expedition was organized to collect baseline plant and recreational use data. Thanks to packrafts donated by Alpacka Raft Company the Sitka Conservation Society Wilderness crew completed a pioneering transect along the southern boarder of the Wilderness Area. See the slideshow and read the full report below.
Report: Tongass Wilderness Stewardship: Packrafting across Baranof Island
Check out the pictures from the talk below.