Falling in love in Sitka

by Sarah Stockdale

I am in a land of light. Alaska is alive in the summer, and in southeast, the rainforest is abundant with green foliage. As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation Summer internship program, I have been blessed with the opportunity to spend three months here in Sitka as a media and storytelling intern with SCS. And in the three weeks since I arrived here, I've found Alaskans themselves to be not unlike the native flora and fauna that surround them in the summer. They take advantage of their daylight hours, knowing that winter will bring plenty of time for hibernation. The fisherwomen from whom I rent sleep only three hours a night, especially when they're on their boat and alert for King salmon snapping at the line. Karen Schmidt, an attorney who hosted me in Anchorage for the ACF intern orientation, was the same way. She worked tirelessly during the day, but was still happy to spend the late evening down at the beach until midnight, treasuring every last glimpse of light that bounced across the Cook Inlet mudflats.

Sunset at Cook Inlet. Photo credit: Sarah Stockdale

As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation internship program, I attended a weeklong orientation in Anchorage before heading off to my internship placement site. There, I met with young folks interning with conservation organizations across the state. We heard from conservation leaders on a variety of topics, from organizing to Alaskan history and GIS. While in Sitka, it's easy to feel like one of only a handful of groups concerned with issues of conservation. In Anchorage, however, I was able to experience the interconnectedness of all the conservation movements across this enormous state. We certainly need one another.

In my first three weeks in Sitka, I've been able to sit back and breath in the Tongass, orienting myself to the sites, smells and culture. And when I look around me I see… green!!! For a New Mexican like me, you can't imagine my awe at the density of life that the rain brings to this unique and hidden corner of the world. As one of the Alaska native speakers commented during the orientation, it's less like subsistence out here, and more like abundance. And the Tongass is certainly abundant. Food prices may be high, but looking around, I see nourishment on ever corner from the salmonberry bushes to king salmon coming into the harbor on trollers.

I couldn't feel further away from the suburban desert where I grew up. Yet it's clear to me that maintaining and protecting the future of these natural resources is an issue that is not just important to Alaskans. With almost 80% of wild-caught salmon in North America coming from Alaskan fishermen, campaigns like the fight to protect Bristol Bay impact people all over the United States. Recently, New Mexico senator and congressman Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich spoke out against the Pebble mine. People are concerned, even down south.

And while a lot of people have a stake in the future of these lands, the people in southeast who have the time and energy to work on these issues are few. This is both overwhelming and deeply hopeful. It reminds me of the way a friend from Southern Colorado once described ranch culture. On a ranch, everyone's help is needed. Nobody is turned away and everyone's contribution is welcome. When there is a job to be done, you need all the hands you can get. Southeast Alaska feels similar to me. Every person's energy adds to the greater goal. It's nice to feel that you can really make a difference.

Co-worker Mary Wood and I got to take the Trak Kayaks out on Mendenhall lake when we were in Juneau this weekend. Later, we explored the ice caves on the side of the glacier. Unlike difficult to access arctic glaciers, Mendenhall is just outside of Juneau. Thousands of visitors every year come to see it, and are able to see how it is receding. Folks who grew up in southeast remember that it used to jut out all the way to the parking lot at the Visitor's Center not so long ago. Photo Credit: Freddie Muñoz of SEACC.

As a Media and Storytelling Intern, my job is to capture the ways that people in Sitka live in relationship with their natural environment. By sharing these stories, SCS hopes to connect people with their own sense of place in the Tongass, and their personal reasons for contributing to the fight to protect it from abusive extraction practices. There is certainly no shortage of stories here in Sitka. Every person I have spoken with has a relationship with the rhythms of the rainforest, whether through fishing, hunting, foraging, hiking, wood-work, etc. From artists, students, carvers, fishermen, elders to avid gardener, everyone has an appreciation for their home. And I'm falling in love more quickly than I'd imagined.

Laurie Adams, collecting duck eggs at Down-to-Earth You-Pick Garden. Laurie taught me that slug-eating ducks are essential to having a successful garden in the Tongass.

While my job here is to inspire others to recognize the singularity of the Tongass and the importance of protecting it, I'm not surprised to find that I'm the one being inspired. As the intern coordinator for ACF, Claire Pywell, commented: people come to Alaska for the landscape, but they stay for the people. And I'm starting to believe her.

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