Sitka Conservation Society
Nov 26 2013

4H Wild Edibles and Foraging

The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H wrapped up a fall foraging and wild edibles series in October. 4H is a positive youth development program throughout the nation that challenges youth to engage their head, heart, hands, and health for themselves and the community in which they live. We spent the month learning, gathering, and working with wild edibles in the Tongass National Forest. Subsistence truly is the Alaska way-of-life here in Sitka. The 4Hers learned how to preserve foods by canning jelly and making fruit leather.  We concluded the series with a distribution of gifts to give back to our community members.

Rose hips are the bright red fruit of the wild rose, or Rosa rugosia, which are abundant in Sitka. Many of them grow in town, providing beautiful color to the lawns of many homes. The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H club learned how to harvest the fruit and preserve it into jelly and fruit leather. The kids had fun mashing the rose hips in a food mill to create a puree for the fruit leather and squeezing them in cheese cloth for the jelly.

Kitty LaBounty, UAS biology professor and mycologist, was a special guest on the 4H mushroom hunt in September. In the forest, we found puffballs, winter chanterelles, and various russulas. The kids experienced the Tongass with a new perspective and learned about the interdependence of the forest ecosystem: how the fungi work with the plants in decomposition and forest diversity. We got up close and personal with the mushrooms by creating spore prints on paper by setting the cap down overnight. The print reflects the shape of the gills, folds, spines, or pores, which helps to identify the mushroom. We used a fixative to set the spore prints in order to make Thank You cards for those who helped us with our series. The 4Hers were able to practice creativity with the print: one 4Her made a person out of the spores!

Our last challenge was in the muskeg to search for Lingonberries. The small waxy-leaf plants are found on the dry mounds of the muskeg and grow far and few between. They can blossom in clusters as big as 5 berries, but in our experience those are rare. It takes  patience to find these little berries and the 4Hers seemed to be up to the test after the mushrooms hunt! The day was very cold and rainy, but they were successful at finding berries. Lingonberries are very popular in our fellow arctic polar region of Scandinavia for sauce and jam!


The Alaska Way-of-Life 4Hers are learning by doing and giving back to the community that supports them here in Sitka. The more they know about the Tongass, the more appreciation they will have for the Alaska way-of-life. They embraced the process from Tongass to the table, and share with their friends what they now know about living with the land here in Sitka. They are excited to be able to identify the plants in the muskeg, forest, and urban settings, and make food from what they find. It was also heartening to see their enthusiasm for giving to community members at the Sitka Pioneer’s Home and those who helped make this series possible.

The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H club is currently engaged in an outdoor survival series!


Nov 16 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Lily Herwald

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!

Lily Herwald and her favorite camping partner. Photo by Berett Wilber

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

Nov 14 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Hannah Hamberg

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 and her best friend Scout. Photo by Berett Wilber

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.”

 To hear Hannah’s story, click here: 15_LWL_HANNAH_HAMBERG
Nov 11 2013

Lake Suloia Wilderness Trip

In early October two high school students, Sitka Sound Science Center educator Ashley Bolwerk, and I traveled to Lake Suloia on Chichagof Island. This trip was part of the Community Wilderness Stewardship Project funded by the National Forest Foundation and the Sitka Conservation Society Living Wilderness Fund in order to gather baseline data on wilderness areas in the Tongass National Forest. Flying in a Beaver for the first time, I was able to see Southeast Alaska from a new perspective. As you fly from island to island, one can get lost in the sight of the Tongass from above. I was amazed at the beauty of Lake Suloia, peaking through the valley as we approached Chichagof Island. Upon landing, I realized my mistake of wearing hiking boots instead of Xtratufs. Fortunately, Ashley was able to give me a lift from the Beaver floats to shore.



Within our first hour, we had something to record for the Wilderness Stewardship Project: our first plane. We could not see it due to the low clouds, but it seemed fairly close. We went on a hike around the lake to look for beaver traps that were previously dropped off by a high school teacher but never set. Although unsuccessful, we became lovers of the muskegs and masters at dodging Devil’s Club. There were many signs of black tailed deer: tracks, scat, and trails that went under logs far too low for us to follow. We saw some small black birds with white wing tips on the lake, too far away to identify without binoculars. We were able to harvest Lingonberries and cranberries in the muskeg along with Labrador tea.

This particular trip provided for opportunities to explore and share my experience as the Living with the Land Jesuit Volunteer at SCS. I have learned about subsistence harvest of fish, game and wild plants upon which the Southeast community depends.  I have gathered abundant wild edibles in the forest and muskeg to make fruit leather, jam, and other tasty treats. The area around Lake Suloia was no exception to the availability of these foods to support this Alaska way-of-life. I was able to teach the students on the trip how to identify cranberries, Lingonberries, crowberreis, bunchberries, and Labrador tea, which are all found in the muskeg. We also had a lesson on the Leave No Trace (LNT) wilderness ethics, which guide an explorer to travel with intention in the wilderness. It is an important practice to live by in the wilderness.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest values of simple livingcommunityspirituality/reflection, and justice were very present on this trip into the wilderness. Although I thought we were living in luxury with a wood stove and outhouse in the forest service cabin, it was still a lesson in simple living! We talked about how little we need to survive in the wilderness: warm layers, rain gear, and Xtratufs take care of the basic need to stay warm in this coastal temperate rainforest. It excites me how simple living ignites creativity and shared talents. We were able to share a common space to build community without the distractions of technology and excess: a space for songs, games, and philosophical discussions. Taking time to reflect on your life, where you place value and priorities, seems to come naturally when you gaze across an alpine lake glimmering with a rainbow.

Nov 06 2013

Stream to Plate

The “why” of Fish to Schools has had clear goals from the beginning: connecting students to their local food system, learning traditions, and understanding the impact of their food choices on the body, economy, and environment. The “how” has been a creative process. Serving locally is one component of the program, but equally important is our education program that makes the connections between stream, ocean, forest, food, and community.

We were back in the classroom this year offering our “Stream to Plate” curriculum that focuses on the human connection to fish. How are fish caught? Where do they come from? Why should we care? Who depends on them and how? What do I do with them? These are just a few of the questions we answer through a series of hands-on games and activities.

Students began by learning about the salmon lifecycle and its interconnection to other plants and animals. By building a salmon web, students saw that a number of species depend on salmon—everything from orcas, to brown bears, to people, to the tall trees of the Tongass. They learned how to manage a sustainable fishery by creating rules and regulations, allowing each user group (subsistence, sport, and commercial) to meet their needs while ensuring enough fish remain to reproduce. They learned that fish is an important local food source (and has been for time immemorial) but also important for our economy, providing a number of local jobs. (Read more here.)

Students also learned how to handle fish–how to catch fish both traditionally and commercially, how to gut and fillet fish, how to make a super secret salmon brine for smoked salmon, and how to cook salmon with Chef Collete Nelson of Ludvigs Bistro. Each step is another connection made and another reason to care.

The Stream to Plate Curriculum will be available through our website in early 2014. Check back for its release!

Photo Credit: Adam Taylor

Oct 31 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Fishing Village Blues

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.


Oct 30 2013

A Salmon Connection

Can you teach economics to kids? I wasn’t sure. I’ve been scratching my head at how to convey such an advanced topic to third graders. So what if money stays here or goes there? A dollar is a dollar to a kid and they are going to spend it on the next trendy thing, right? Probably, but Fish to Schools developed a lesson that teaches students that it does matter where money our goes.

We started with a game showing our connections to salmon. We have all seen salmon jumping in the ocean, swimming around the docks, fighting their way up Indian River, and returning  to all the streams and rivers of the Tongass National Forest. We can’t ignore their smell in the late summer air and for those who have been fishing, we can’t get enough. It’s fun to catch and delicious to eat.

After showing that we are all connected to salmon in some way, we dove deeper into the idea that our jobs are connected to salmon (in fact dependent on). To show this we handed every student a card with a picture of a profession: troller, seiner, seafood processor, grocery store clerk, boat repair man, gear store, teacher, doctor, etc. Students gathered in a circle and passed around a ball of yarn forming a web between the different professions. They identified who depended on them or who they depended on for their livelihood. Once every student and profession was connected to the web, students could visually see that each job affects the other. While it may have been obvious to many students that a seafood processor depends on a fisherman (and vice versa) it was much more abstract to show the connection between a teacher and salmon. This game provided a visual and taught students that our Sitka community is tied to salmon, that a healthy economy is dependent on healthy salmon.

After the lesson, a student in one of our classes couldn’t figure out how her mom’s job was connected to salmon. She went home to learn that her mom does daycare and takes care of fishermen’s children when they are out on the water. A connection reinforced!

19% of adults aged 16+ are directly involved in the fisheries as a commercial fisherman or seafood processor. Many, many more professions are indirectly connected, their businesses dependent on seafood. (

Beneficially impacting our local economy and community is one benefit of eating locally-caught salmon. Through the Fish to Schools “Stream to Plate “curriculum unit, students learned many more reasons why local is better. Check back soon for blog posts on our other lessons.

Oct 25 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Kevin McGowan

This week on Voices of The Tongass, Kevin McGowan explains his unusual fishing method: spear gun. To hear this week’s show, scroll to the bottom of this post. To continue the story, keep reading.

Unintimidated by marine mammal or photographers. Photo by Berett Wilber.

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?

Oct 17 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Charlie Wilber

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?”


Oct 11 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Alaire Hughey

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.


Photo by Berett Wilber


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  • Hungry for Huckleberry Pie, Venison Stew, or Fresh Greens? Come to the Wild Foods Potluck Nov. 2!
  • Stand Up to Corporate Influence!
  • Kayaking Kootznoowoo: Report on SCS’s Final Wilderness Trip
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  • Teaching the Alaska way of Life: 4-H in Sitka
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