Fishing season is in full swing here in Southeast Alaska. The docks of Sitka are buzzing with fishermen anxiously awaiting every available opener to go out and get the next big catch!
Here in Southeast Alaska, fish are a part of every day life. One in 10 jobs in Sitka is directly related to the fishing industry. But, salmon is important for subsistence and recreation in the Tongass National Forest as well. The Tongass produces 28 percent of Alaskan salmon. Salmon hatcheries play an important role in mitigating disease among salmon and ensuring salmon populations can meet the economic and cultural demands of the region.
The Medvejie hatchery in Southeast Alaska is a short boat ride away from Sitka and it produces chum, Chinook (King) and coho salmon, by the millions.
Baby cohos are kept in tanks until they are released in fresh water streams in the Tongass.
Hatcheries support wild populations of salmon, they do not replace them. Housing salmon for just their early months, the fish are released into fresh water streams that lead straight to the ocean. The ones that survive the fishing season, return home to the hatchery to spawn (lay eggs) and then die. Salmon traditionally return to the stream they were born to spawn.
The stream at the Medvejie hatchery is fondly referred to by workers as the “Spawnoma Canal.” After the salmon come up, hatchery workers release eggs and sperm into a bag to fertilize them and then they preserve the meat to be sent to fish processing plants. Outside of hatcheries, the dead fish are eaten by bears and eagles and their carcasses help fertilize the surrounding soil.
Medvejie, like all hatcheries, has a way of marking all of their fish so they can keep track of how many make it back to the hatchery and how many are caught in the wild. By changing the temperatures of the boxes where eggs are kept, a barcode is created on every fish’s eardrum. They also tag each fish with a number (usually on its face).
More baby cohos being shown to tourists at the hatchery.
So, why do they jump? Well, no one really knows. Some say jumping helps loosen the eggs before it’s time to spawn. Some research shows that salmon jump in response to pressure and stress. Others just believe the fish are having fun. You know, the #yolo mentality! There are a lot of theories and explanations floating around, but no salmon has ever answered the question for us, so we may never know for sure.
Sitka Conservation Society employees feel the baby salmon nipping at their fingers inside the Medvejie hatchery.
“Even a rainy day in Sitka is better than a good day at work!” both Denise (right) and Maureen (left) agreed on their first and only day here in town.
Denise and Maureen have been friends for 15 years. They both participate in the same women’s group in Fort Collins, Colorado and love to travel. In the past, their adventures have taken them to India and Thailand. But, this summer, they set their sights on Alaska and they are already planning their return.
On their only day in Sitka, Denise and Maureen headed out on a Gallant Adventures wildlife tour with Paul Davis. Paul has lived in Sitka for about 15 years and enjoys leading wildlife tours on his boat around the islands of the Southeast.
As we headed out on the rainy Tuesday morning, Paul told Denise and Maureen he has only had one tour where his guests did not see any whales. Lucky for the two of them, they were not the second tour to have that unfortunate fate.
Humpback whale named Hook.
This is Hook. Paul named this humpback four years ago when he first saw it because of the hooked nature of its dorsal fin. The whale, Paul estimates, is more than 40 feet long and weighs about 35 tons. Captain Hook is actually an adult female whale.
Hook begins to dive.
And down she goes!
But, the wildlife tour didn’t end there. Denise and Maureen had already seen grizzlies near Mt. McKinley on their driving tour up north, but they were pretty excited to come across this guy near Redoubt Bay as the salmon were coming in.
Caught this bear looking for salmon near Redoubt Bay.
The tour also included some sitings of otters,
A mom and pup on the left see another sea otter come up on the right.
Rhinoceros auklets have horns on the edges of their beaks and white feathers under their eyes.
and sea stars.
Purple and pink sea stars dot the tide lines of the islands.
Even as the rain poured down and the two jostled around on the bumpy sea, they both agreed, “A rainy day in Sitka is better than a good day at work!”
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!
Tommy Joseph, Tlingit master carver, has been teaching woodcarving for about 15 years to university students, teenagers at camps and to local citizens. The shed to the right of the shop is a heated, well-lit place for his students to come learn and practice.
Right inside the back door of the shop, a bowl rests on a tree stump. Tommy explained that he intends everything he makes to serve a purpose. This bowl will be sealed with oil so that it may hold any kind of food without staining the wood.
Tommy created this armor based on armor he has seen in different Alaskan museums. He wants his next museum trip to be to the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
“Carving gives a frame for some of our cultural values to come forward,” Kristina Cranston explained. Kristina is an apprentice in Tommy’s shop and believes carving brings people together and provides a sense of community and commitment for students and local people. The orca tooth necklace Kristina wears was a Valentine’s Day gift from Tommy.
“I’m in love with the human face and the human experience,” Kristina said of her work in Tommy’s shop. Despite a terrible injury early in her carving practices, she now has an apprenticeship where she is learning to make masks.
Tommy and other Tlingit carvers do not just make spoons they make art. He explained that the off-season (the winter) is a perfect time to add color and designs to his pieces.
Tourists from cruise ships often visit Tommy’s shop during the week to see his work and learn about Tlingit carving of old growth cedars. The shop stays open seven days a week if cruise ships will be docked.
Tommy travels to other islands in the southeast to find the red cedar he will use for a totem pole project. Sometimes it takes as long as a year for the wood to arrive after he has selected the tree. This project rests outside of his shop.