Film maker Ben Hamilton has captured the essence of the Sitka Community Use Area in this video. In just two minutes find out what makes the Tongass so remarkable:
The Tongass National Forest is the largest forest in the National Forest System. Weighing in at 17 million acres, it encompasses almost the entire Southeast Alaska Panhandle. The Southeast is sprinkled with small towns that have built economies around the resources that the Tongass provides. As a community, Sitka is no different, and is intrinsically connected to the Tongass National Forest. We rely on its resources and all management decisions have repercussions that resonate within the community socially, economically and ecologically. Once a typical timber pulp town, the community now concentrates on the other assets and experiences the Tongass has to offer. At SCS we focus on an area of the Tongass known as the SCUA, Sitka Community Use Area. Ecosystems are never constrained by manmade boundaries, but the SCUA encompasses what Sitkans consider to be their backyard. The SCUA is important to Sitka for jobs, recreation, subsistence, renewable energy, economic development, clean air, clean water, cultural and traditional uses, and our overall quality of life.
SCS is optimistic with USDA Secretary Vilsack’s recent announcement, reiterating a commitment to the Transition Framework, that there will also be renewed focus on all of the assets the Tongass has to offer. For us, this commitment means prioritizing the health of the forest and supporting local businesses that rely on the Tongass to keep our community afloat. A diverse Forest Service budget that focuses on watershed health, fisheries, recreation and the visitor industry is paramount to preserve the core aspects of a new economy for Sitka and other communities in the Southeast. SCS continues to support and highlight projects that clearly demonstrate attention to the Transition in ways that are lacking in other programs and projects on the Tongass.
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.
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” – US Congress 1964
What is wilderness? It was described legally, albeit vaguely, by Congress in 1964 with the passing of the Wilderness Act. However, it remains something deeply personal, is experienced in a multitude of ways and is not always clearly defined amongst its supporters and defenders. I attempted to define wilderness for myself as I joined one of SCS’ wilderness crews this summer, spending eight days at Red Bluff Bay. While we were there enjoying and exploring, taking full advantage of the opportunity the trip afforded us, we were also conducting Wilderness Monitoring and outreach. Wilderness Monitoring is required by the Wilderness Act, that is, managing agencies (US Forest Service) are responsible for monitoring designated wilderness areas and preserving the ‘wilderness character’. Therein lies the conundrum, how do you monitor something that is not truly defined in the wilderness act? Additionally, both the wilderness character and individual experience are further muddied by the fact that wilderness areas may be adjacent to areas not subject to the same restrictions as a designated wilderness area.
Such is the case with Red Bluff Bay. While the land is part of the wilderness preservation system, managed by the US Forest Service, the bay itself is ocean waters. The Forest Service has no jurisdiction over ocean waters therefore; the bay isn’t bound by preserving the same wilderness character as its land based neighbor. So, how do you define a wilderness, or is it really reduced to a matter of boundaries? Due to its remote location, Red Bluff Bay is most often accessed by boat and sometimes float plane. If it weren’t for the bay and the access it provides to boaters and planes, the number of visits it receives annually would likely be reduced.
We were there, primarily, to monitor wilderness solitude, which entailed counting boats and planes and encounters with other visitors. Given our task, it should be noted that our crew arrived there by floatplane and left by boat. We relieved a few crew members from the previous week and joined the camp that was established on the edge of the Northside of the bay, halfway between the entrance at Chatham Strait and the estuary in the west. We spent our days exploring the landscapes around us including the bluffs that give the bay its name, Falls Lake, an old abandoned cannery site, and the estuary nestled quaintly in the western portion of the bay. Our first night we kayaked into the estuary to explore a little and once back there found nine sail boats and two yachts anchored up for the night. Two more yachts anchored just offshore from our campsite, one of the captains telling us they didn’t want to crowd the other boats. On another day we saw the entrance of the bay brimming with activity as a sailboat parade trickled out, replaced by new yachts and small cruise ships motoring in and jockeying for prime spots in the estuary and near the falls. There were the daily salmon surveys conducted aerially by ADF&G planes and commercial fishing boats that occasionally anchored up for the night, flooding our campsite with light. The busiest day had two yachts coming in along with a small cruise ship (towing a skiff) and a float plane landing all within a few hundred yards of one another. We had spent a quiet evening, just the four of us, paddling around the falls a few days ago, tonight the waters would be filled with kayakers from the cruise ship on a post dinner excursion.
While all of this activity disrupted the quiet or gave the impression that you weren’t far from civilization, I still felt a sense of wilderness. I still felt awe struck and grateful for the experience, even if it came with a little traffic and noise. The people that we met were always friendly, and they certainly thought they were experiencing the wilderness. We had our fair share of wildlife encounters too. I found myself mesmerized, sometimes terrified, by bears and sea lions. Whenever we were hiking or kayaking, I found the landscape to be ‘untrammeled by man’ and felt a sense of peace and solitude, along with a dash of anxiety. But that is what makes defining wilderness so difficult. My perception is likely drastically different from those on the yacht, or the cruise ships, or other members of our crew. One person may need a cabin easily accessible by road or a semi-quiet spot in an estuary to feel they are enjoying something wild, while another may need to find themselves truly lost, engulfed by remote spaces that are rarely visited, if ever, by a human being. It’s these differences that make wilderness so attractive; it is subject to context and open to interpretation. For me, it’s a place (where cell phones don’t work!), a habitat description, a technical classification and a feeling. It’s a place where I can connect and feel lost, even if only for a short time between boat visits and salmon surveys.
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.
This is a story of a small place – a sandbar -, in a big place – the Red Bluff River -, in an even bigger place – the South Baranof Wilderness -, and, well, we won’t even get into the Tongass and beyond.
Over a week of work in Red Bluff Bay this week, we got to know the area very well. Three of our fifteen trip goals happened to require upriver travel, which we did on foot and by packraft. While upriver, we observed beavers, surveyed for owls and amphibians, and measured many giant trees, including a few spruce trees that were over 25 feet in circumference.
The Red Bluff River’s productivity and diversity can be traced back to those giant trees; as they rot and fall they alter the course of the river, make homes for canopy and cavity dwellers, and open clearings for berries and deer. Sometimes, they create sandbars, and we decided to survey one of those sandbars in more detail.
On this small patch of gravel and dead tree – also an ideal spot for salmon to spawn – SCS botany intern was able to identify forty-seven different species of plants, including the rare Mimulus lewisii, of which we collected a sample for genetic analysis. Mimulus lewisii, more often known as the pink monkeyflower, has a very interesting, patchy distribution that may be linked to receding ice and snow cover. Here’s a close-up of the flower: may it inspire you to go for a stroll in the wilderness!
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.
Is it possible to restore clear-cut areas of the Tongass National Forest back to their original composition? While this question will remain unanswered for generations, we do know some things about restoration in the Tongass. Trees regrow in logged areas, with the assistance of people or not. However, the natural succession of second-growth forest in the Tongass results in a dense forest filled with numerous spruce stems and little to no understory growth. The characteristic moss, fern, and shrub understory that illuminates the forest floor in old-growth forests is replaced with bare ground and needles. This not only decreases the biodiversity found on the forest floor, but it also provides poor habitat to many species. There are techniques being used to restore the ground cover of second-growth forest in the Tongass, and we at SCS are committed to making sure these projects continue to be implemented and monitored.
My most recent endeavor involving the restoration of the Tongass National Forest was at Kruzof Island. Kruzof Island is an important neighbor to Sitka that offers recreation activities, tourist attractions and an area for subsistence hunting. Still, this island is scarred from the clear-cutting that occurred in central Kruzof. Of course, as the forest on Kruzof Island regrows, central Kruzof Island becomes a great location for restoration work.
On my trip to Kruzof, Scott Harris (SCS’s Watershed Program Manager) and I ATVed and bushwacked our way to artificial gaps cut in Kruzof’s second growth forest. These gaps are part of a program to restore wildlife habitat in logged forests, and we were monitoring the effectiveness of these gaps. An effective gap would be filled with shrubs like blueberry for deer to browse on, while an ineffective gap would be overrun with salmonberry or hemlock flush. After collecting countless scratches on our arms from crawling through the dense spruce forest to get to these gaps, we were able to draw some conclusions about the forest succession occurring at Kruzof. Where thinning of the forest or artificial gaps were cut, the forest was filled with shrub thickets, while moss, ferns, and forbs covered the forest ground. Thus, these artificial disturbances appear to be working as designed! They are providing space for the young trees to grow, while improving shrub growth. However, there is still a lot of unthinned forest on Kruzof and some of the gaps are filling in, meaning there is still a critical need for further restoration work. If restoration projects continue to be implemented on Kruzof and throughout the Tongass, we may be able to catalyze the establishment of healthy secondary forests.
Logging Kruzof Island not only affected its terrestrial ecosystems, but the streams were greatly affected as well. While streams running through old-growth forest are filled with fallen trees and root wads which provide great habitat for salmon, the streams we walked through in central Kruzof are deprived of fallen trees, leaving the salmon habitat highly inadequate. These streams offer ideal locations for future stream restoration work. They are located near trails used by Alaska ATV tours (among other users) and allow easier access to possible restoration sites, allowing more restoration work to occur for less time and money. In order to restore Kruzof’s terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, trees must be placed into the streams and the forest should be thinned. Thus, the trees cut to thin the forest surrounding the streams may be placed into the stream. In this way, both the stream and forest may be restored together.
Kruzof Island offers a great opportunity to implement restoration projects and bring a clear-cut island back to an island dense with shrubs, deer, and salmon. The time frame and viability of restoring Southeast Alaskan ecosystems back to their original structure may be unknown, but we are capable of propelling the process forward. As natural resources continue to deplete and climate change adds to the insecurity of the environment we live in, we must not watch the world go by. Instead, we must actively work together to help conserve and restore the Tongass National Forest, our forest.
After a summer of exploring, examining, and identifying, kids in the Alaska Way of Life 4H clubs are walking away from these 7 week clubs will a whole new skill set. During June and July, clubs in gardening, hiking, and kayaking met every week to build community, interact with their landscape, and learn new skills.
Gardening club spent every Monday at St. Peter’s Fellowship farm learning how to plant, weed, water, harvest, cook, and de-slug. Every Thursday we explored other gardens in Sitka to learn different gardening techniques. We learned how chickens are helping Sprucecot Garden, saw how bees are pollinating plants at Cooperative Extension’s Greenhouse, and the many different styles of gardening present at Blatchley’s Community Garden. Kids walked away a little dirty and wet, but with smiles and plants in hand.
Kayaking Club incorporated more than just how to paddle a boat. We learned how to tie bowlines, clove hitches, and double fishermen knots. We had another 4H’er teach us how to build survival kits. Every kid learned how to use and put together their own kit to keep us safe on our kayaking journeys. Rangers at Sitka National Historical Park showed us why we have tides and how they change during the course of the day. Finally, after weeks of preparation, 4H’ers learned how to put on gear, get in and out of their boat, and paddle before we took to the water at Swan Lake and Herring Cove.
This summer’s hiking club learned how to interact with the Tongass in new ways. We learned foraging skills and how to properly harvest spruce tips and berries. We collected leaves and flowers and created plant presses to preserve them. The kids learned flora and fauna of the muskeg before gathering labrador tea leaves. For our final hike, we learned how to use a compass and GPS to find treasure hidden in the forest. Even after learning all these new skills, we made time to hike seven different trails in Sitka.
25 kids participated in these three Alaska Way of Life 4H clubs over the summer with ages ranging from 5 to 12. These clubs were a great way to get outdoors and understand more about the amazing wilderness we live in. Look for more Alaska Way of Life 4H programs in the future! For more information or to sign up for 4H email email@example.com
Enjoy photos from the summer programs! For the full album, visit our facebook page.
Explore West Chichagof Wilderness
with Sitka Conservation Society and Sound Sailing
Join us to explore the spectacular and wild coast of West Chichagof-Yakobi Island Wilderness aboard a comfortable 50’ sailing yacht! And help raise funds for Sitka Conservation Society!
We will be travelling from Juneau to Sitka aboard the modern, fast, and roomy S/V BOB with Blain & Monique Anderson of Sound Sailing. Proud SCS members and US Coast Guard licensed and insured sailors; they are offering berths to SCS members for an incredible opportunity to experience the very best of Southeast Alaska. Past participants have encountered orcas, humpback and grey whales, innumerable birds, brown bears, and much more. We will also have knowledgeable and engaging SCS staff member(s) aboard to enrich our understanding of this special place.
Dates: August 24-30, 2013
Cost: $2575 per person (price includes all fare aboard and expenses).
Sound Sailing is proud to donate a substantial portion of trip proceeds to SCS.
Book your spot now! Space is limited to just 6 lucky passengers.