In 2009, SCS launched the Sitka Community Wilderness Stewardship Project with funds from the National Forest Foundation and our own Living Wilderness Fund. Our goal was to bring together people and wilderness in an original and exciting way while also collecting valuable data on invasive species, human impacts on wilderness, and wildlife abundance. As Sitka residents explored the backcountry by kayak, float plane, boat, or on foot, we challenged them to join our Stewardship Project by observing and recording the species they encountered or noting any signs of overuse by people. This project radically increased SCS's base of knowledge while also encouraging more exploration of the playground we call the Tongass National Forest.
Learn more about our findings and wilderness expeditions below!
Click on the white markers on our map of the Sitka Community Use Area to see where past expeditions have gone.
Check out the most recent project report below, or view our briefing sheets for past reports.
When collecting baseline solitude, campsite and invasive plant data in remote Wilderness areas throughout the Tongass National Forest, getting to these areas often presents a challenge, most often alleviated by taking a floatplane. However, to survey the greatest distance to help manage the most Wilderness, sea kayaks are needed for swift and efficient transportation. But how can a kayak fit in a small plane? The creators of the TRAK kayak are a company that offer a solution to this problem with their polyurethane fabric and foldable lightweight aluminum frame, allowing us to survey locations that may have otherwise been unrealistic.
This spring, generous donors rose to a matching challenge, allowing the Sitka Conservation Society to raise the funds to buy a TRAK kayak, and the kind folks at TRAK kayaks donated another three! This allowed us to take four people (the maximum number that fits in a beaver floatplane) into remote Wilderness areas and have kayaks after landing. This summer, we put the TRAK kayaks to the test, using them on five Wilderness Trips to five different Wilderness areas. The TRAKs were also used as part of a kids kayak course and were paddled on Mendenhall Lake in front of the Mendenhall Glacier.
The most trying trip for these TRAKs was a 13 day, 130 mile survey of the Portland Canal. The Portland Canal is a 100-mile long fiord that separates Canada from Southeast Alaska, with almost the entire Alaskan side lying within the Misty Fiord Wilderness area. However, the steep, almost unbroken rock walls, unrelenting wind and sheer remoteness makes it nearly impossible for the Forest Service to manage this canal. Thanks to the flexibility of the folding TRAK kayaks, we were able to survey this often overlooked canal. Still, before this trip we had only used the TRAKs once before and it was on a base camping expedition. Thus, there were some reasonable concerns about packing two-week’s worth of supplies in a folding boat. Luckily, the TRAKs packed well and handled amazingly. On this trip, we put the TRAKs to the test as we paddled in sizable chop nearly every day, dealt with the huge 20 foot tidal exchanges that were occurring at the time, and to our surprise we experienced the natural anomaly of a jökulhlaup—meaning a glacial lake broke free from the Salmon Glacier at the head of the fiord—resulting in a week-long constant ebb current. Nonetheless, the TRAK kayaks handled impressively well and it was easy to forget you were in a folding Kayak.
Another noteworthy expedition taken with the TRAK kayaks was on a trip down the west coast of Admiralty Island in Kootznoowoo Wilderness. On this trip, a crew of four took the ferry to Angoon and arrived in early afternoon. We were then able to take the Kayaks and gear to the sea, and we were on the water in time to find a good camp in the Wilderness by sunset. On this expedition, we paddled and surveyed 105 miles within the “Fortress of the Bear” before getting picked up by a floatplane. The flexibility to fold the kayaks into duffle bags greatly improves our ability to be stewards of the Wilderness and survey locations otherwise too remote.
Once again, we want to sincerely thank the kind and generous donors who helped SCS buy a TRAK, and we would also like to thank TRAK Kayaks for donating three boats to our project. Although the TRAK kayaks’ Wilderness field season is over, there are always remote Wilderness Areas in need of baseline Wilderness surveys, and we look forward to use these boats to manage our Wilderness areas in the future. If you are interested in learning more about the Community Wilderness Project, please feel free to e-mail email@example.com.
The first 2014 summer Wilderness was a trip to the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness area, where we based camped at Baird Island. Here, we conducted visitor use monitoring, surveyed for invasive plants and completed campsite inventories. Additionally, we picked up a lot of beach trash and cached it on the island. During this trip, we also revisited sites where there were roofing materials and other trash cached from past field seasons. On October 8, SCS employees Mike Belitz and Sophie Nethercut and volunteer Paul Killian took a boat captained by Charlie Clark back to these locations to remove and dispose of the trash.
The Wilderness Act, which celebrated its 50th birthday last month, states that Wilderness Areas must be areas “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” Thus, as Wilderness stewards, we are inherently committed to collecting and removing trash, which compromises the naturalness of an area. While marine debris has been washing up on Alaska’s shores for decades, there has been an increase in marine debris since the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. This disaster makes the tireless endeavor of picking up trash appear even more insurmountable.
Although the tsunami debris has not been found to have radiation, it still causes serious risks to other animals. Marine debris is often made up of products that do not naturally decompose and would remain in the environment for years. Some of the most common marine debris is plastic and Styrofoam, which are often mistaken for food by fish, bears and seabirds. These animals are unable to digest these products which can be fatal to these animals because an accumulation of plastic and Styrofoam in their body may cause the animal to feel full, leading to death from starvation.
An additional concern is that Japanese tsunami debris was covered by Japanese plant or animal organisms and may reach coastlines outside their native habitats, becoming destructive to local fish, wildlife and plant species. Marine invasive species can seriously affect Alaskan marine ecology by outcompeting native species for food and habitat and their presence must be monitored.
Trips to the wilderness are often fantasized as remote excursions where one is surrounded by snow covered peaks, apex predators and clean running water. This trip to the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness did have its own grandeur scenery, as we were among vast old growth forest, spotted a regal black-tailed deer and in the distance stood the stunning Fairweather Range. But look a little closer and the algae ridden plastic bottles and half-chewed Styrofoam blocks painfully come into view. This trip was about recognizing the trash among the treasure and removing the items that should not be in Wilderness, a place federally protected as a safe haven from human impact.
Teaming up with SEARHC for Suicide Prevention and Mental Health
After speaking with the board of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (or SEARHC), Doug Chilton was able to secure funding for the One Canoe Society to travel and give paddling workshops throughout Southeast Alaska. He suggested that the canoe society team up with SEARHC’s “One is Too Many” suicide prevention program. The journey, he said, aligns with the goals outlined in Behavioral Health programs at SEARHC: specifically, their initiatives to create spaces for building community.
“You feel like you have an extended family and those people care.”
Can the canoe journeys combat suicide? Early on, Chilton was able to see the connection between the canoe journeys and suicide prevention. “Honestly, if you think about the situation of people who commit suicide or attempt suicide,” he told me, “they’ve hit an all time low and they feel that they have nowhere to turn, nowhere to go. With (the canoe journeys), not only does it give you an activity to do or participate or coordinate, but you feel like it’s family. You feel like you have an extended family and those people care.” For people who lack those connections or a feeling of support, being a member of a canoe team may fill that void. For others still, the journey’s were about sobriety. For many, it has. Others that I spoke to in Hydaburg and throughout Southeast agreed that the sense of community they felt with their canoe team was indescribably powerful. “I think it probably changed everyone’s life that went on the trip,” said Stormy, “… I saw people that I’d known for a long time just completely in a different mindset and different behavior pattern while they were on that journey.” Reconnecting with the traditional practice, song and dance involved in the canoe journeys, also offers its own kind of healing. In the early 1900s, the loss of canoe culture coincided with aggressive policies that prohibited Alaska natives from learning about their language and traditions. “Canoe culture has been dormant,” Ken Hoyt explained to me, “It has never died. It was not forgotten.” For many, reliving this culture and connecting with the past is the most important aspect of the journey.
Fred Olsen, the chairman of the board at SEARHC, joined the Hamars in their paddle from Coffman Cove to Wrangell. When I spoke to him, he told me that he was overwhelmed by his experience. “It was incredible,” he said, “Sometimes I would just be paddling along and these kinds of things would just hit me… I wonder if this is what it was like for them.” Fred was instrumental in SEARHC’s decision to fund Chilton’s paddle workshops. For him, the journeys are first and foremost, a way to reconnect with traditional Tlingit and Haida practices and lifestyle. He can clearly see the connection between loss of culture and suicide rates. To him, a canoe journey is suicide prevention because it bridges a gap where pride in tradition and culture has been torn away.
“There is no better suicide prevention then pride in yourself,” he told me.
Fred argued that the activity of paddling the canoe is a form of behavioral health. The reason, though, isn’t just because it is physical exercise. “When we go out to get sockeye, or seaweed or collect berries, you have to go out and do this,” he explained, “These are all verbs, they are activities. And so just going to get this stuff makes you healthier. It is behavioral health.” When people stop regularly practicing these activities, as the result of modernization, they lose the “behavioral health” that naturally comes with them. Canoe travel, which was an integral part of living with the land in this region for centuries, is no different. It is a journey that was robbed when people converted to using skiffs and motorboats as a primary form of transportation. While for many it was a practical step in the process of assimilation, to Fred, by choosing that, people lost something vital to their deeper sense of health and existence.
“When we go out to get sockeye, or seaweed or collect berries, you have to go out and do this,” he explained, “These are all verbs, they are activities. And so just going to get this stuff makes you healthier. It is behavioral health.”
Elders and Children
In many ways, the revitalization of canoe culture is motivated by the love for elders and children in Tlingit and Haida communities. Ken Hoyt. from Wrangell, told me that some of the elders in his family would have been old enough to see canoes tied up on the docks. For him, one of the most rewarding aspects of building and paddling a canoe is sharing the experience with those uncles and aunts. “(I love) seeing the look at the face of the elders, like my great aunt, my grandma, anyone who is over 65, seeing them be impressed,” he told me, “…That’s pretty cool to contribute something and in a way, give back to them, everything they’ve given to use.” Among many things, for Ken, the canoe-journey is a way prove to the elders that traditions are not lost and will continue.
On the other side, Doug Chilton from the One People Canoe Society, said that the youth were the primary motivation for his work. He sees the canoe journey as a way to connect youth with different aspects of the culture, like song, dance, carving and language. He told me about his experience hearing a young girl speak her native language during one of the first gatherings he witnessed in Washington. Listen to him tell that story here.
“Right in the middle of the stage they have this microphone and we are waiting for the next group to go on. And I am sitting there talking to my son and then this little girl, she must have been 5 or 6, this little girl went walking out onto the stage and I thought, uh-oh, somebody’s little girl is getting away. And I thought somebody for sure was going to grab her. She started getting close to the front of the stage where the microphone was… I got worried and got up because I thought she was going to move up in that direction. Well, she walked right to the microphone, she reached up and grabbed the microphone, and she introduced her canoe family in their indigenous language and then led them out leading the song. So, I’m telling you, I was so impressed by that little girl. I don’t know who she was, I don’t know what group it was, I just remember looking at my son and thinking, this is exactly what we need back in southeast.”
Fred Olsen from Kasaan agreed that the benefit to young children and adolescents is indescribable. He was moved to tears by the idea that children in Hydaburg and Kasaan were “going to grow up thinking that we’ve always had canoes or we’ve always had totem raising.” When for so long cultural practices were lost, adults today are thrilled by the idea of raising their children in an environment rich with tradition.
Building Connections to Nature and Place
There is also something deeply healing about connecting with the sheer width and depth of Southeast Alaska. Surrounded by the Tongass national forest, the landscape can feel as vast as the wild lands and waters that surround us, or as cramped as a few miles of road that pass through small towns. While people living in small communities like Kasaan and Hydaburg, go out in motor boats all the time, Stormy Hamar told me, “It’s different in a canoe.” On one journey to celebration, Doug Chilton told me, a canoe team was passed by a whole pod of killer whales. “The feeling was indescribable,” he told me. Timothy Willis Jr., who paddled with the team from Coffman Cove, spoke about how his perspective shifted moving slowly and that closely to the water. “Just getting a feeling of the size of the water,” he said, “The straight looked like it was just over the way, but it was just actually 4 or 5 miles across. Actually getting out there and getting to experience it was kind of impressive to think of someone paddling all the way down to Washington.” Timothy had gained a respect for sheer size of landscape as well as for the traditional Haida lifestyle.
There is a difference between knowing something (for him, that the straight was four miles across) and experiencing that space. There is a difference between knowing that you live in a wild and abundant place, and having the ability to go out an experience it. Sometimes, it is the difference between feeling whole and feeling like taking your life.. Doug Chilton told me that he could barely find the vocabulary to describe the feeling of expansiveness and connection that he often experienced while paddling. “It’s such a huge thing when you’re there,” he confessed, “It’s hard to put into words what the experience feels like. So all you can do is try and convince people to come try it and experience it for themselves.” With help from an extended network of friends and fellow-paddlers, he is helping people to experience the waters and landscape of Southeast Alaska. The canoe-journeys are one more way that people are seeing the connection between community health, cultural health, and a relationship with the natural landscape. All this work can be summed up simply. Connecting with our past and our present, ourselves and our homes in the Tongass National Forest, inspires us to live healthier, fuller lives.
Doug Chilton and The One People Canoe Society
A decade ago, when his canoe team was invited to race at the Quinault Indian Reservation in Washington state, Doug Chilton was thrilled. The team had trained for weeks and raised enough money to cover travel expenses from their home in Juneau. But when they drove into Quinault, ready to cream the competition, they were surprised to find that they were a day early. When they woke the next morning, they were not greeted by vans full of trophy-hungry canoe teams, like they had expected. Instead, that morning they arose to find the bay filled with canoes which had been paddled from reservations across Washington and Canada. Some had come hundreds of miles.
“What we didn’t know at the time is that it wasn’t about racing for them,” Chilton explained to me, “it was about the journey.”
Over the course of the week in Quinault, Chilton was moved by the way the canoe journeys were building community and reconnecting the native community in Quinault with the paddling culture that their ancestors had flourished with for thousands of years. Chilton was overwhelmed and inspired. He came back to Southeast Alaska with a refreshed goal: he wanted to build a canoe-community in his home waters and reconnect the native community in Southeast with the paddling traditions of their Tlingit and Haida forefathers and mothers. More importantly, he hoped to build a movement that would bring together native tribe-members of Southeast Alaska in ways he had witnessed in Washington.
Flash forward. Doug managed to empower a team of people to paddle from Hoonah to Juneau for Celebration, a biennial festival celebrating Haida, Tlingit and Tshimian traditions and culture. While it was hard to garner support prior to the the trip, Chilton told me that the team received an outpouring of enthusiasm once they reached Juneau. People were intrigued. Many doubted that the journey would ever come together. Once they witnessed Doug and his team successfully overcome the obstacles, they began to believe others could do it too. “Over the years, it’s been growing a little bit more and a little bit more, and sometimes it didn’t feel like it was growing at all. But we were staying busy,” Doug told me.
Since the first paddle to celebration, canoe journeys throughout the state have been taking off. Eleven canoes asked permission to land in Juneau at Sandy Beach for Celebration this year: the most canoes since Doug started paddling a decade ago. Doug and his team started reaching out to others to get them excited about the canoes. In 2005, they started the process of creating a nonprofit, calling themselves the One People Canoe Society. As the One People Canoe Society, the group started giving paddling workshops throughout Southeast. During the workshops, participants carved paddles from yellow cedar carving blinds and also learned the basics of paddling as a canoe team. “During the workshops, we’re putting together the group that’s going to paddle the canoe,” Doug explained to me, “and the idea is to get them started paddling together as a unit… Now during the paddle workshop we are trying to build the excitement and keep the excitement level high.” And it’s working.
Wooch.een: We Work Together
Doug Chilton and the One People Canoe Society was the spark that ignited a wildfire of enthusiasm for the canoe movement in Southeast Alaska. Now, there a number of new leaders, like Stormy Hamar and his Kasaan canoe team, running with the banner. After connecting with Doug, Stormy decided to organize a canoe journey to the re- dedication of Chief Shakes House in Wrangell in 2013. His first challenge, however, was to find a way to fill the 38 foot fiberglass canoe with people from the community, the first of whom were members of his family. The Hamars told me that it was initially difficult to get other folks in town to take the plunge and sign up for the journey. Many were concerned about safety and organization. The Hamars and their friends handed out fliers, stopped people on the street, and used a variety of other tactics to recruit volunteers. Finally, they were able to reel in fifteen people of all different ages and backgrounds, some with Haida heritage and some without. After carving their own paddles from yellow cedar, practicing paddling as a team for a a few hours, and pulling together last minute details, the day finally came to cast off. Many on the team were unsure if they would ever make it to Wrangell “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Stormy’s daughter Stephanie told me, “We half expected to go down in the bay.”
Much to their surprise, the team was able to paddle 34 miles the first day and were able to camp for a few nights on an island. Tim Paul Willis Junior was a pace-setter up at the front with his girlfriend Stephanie. He explained to me that his team mates far exceeded his expectations, not just with their paddling speed but with their enthusiasm. “I was surprised that a couple people ever made the journey, “ he told me, “It was kind of impressive to see the different personalities of people come out through their actions.” Stormy, who skippered the boat, agreed that people on the team were able to show a different side to themselves. By the end, he told me, the group had become a significantly more cohesive community though in many ways, paddling in a canoe forced them to become more unified.
“In the canoe, people have to learn how to work together,” he told me, “There’s all this kind of simple stuff that you don’t really think about. Everybody has to learn how to paddle in the same direction. When you’re turning the boat, even when you’re docking the boat. We even had to learn how to get in the boat.”
This sense of re-connection extends far beyond the rim of the canoe. In his spare time, Ken Hoyt is a part of a team that is building a strip-bark canoe in Wrangell. He told me that everyone, not just the paddlers, involved in organizing the canoe journey has a stake in it and wants to see the team succeed. “The journeys aren’t simply just paddling,” he told me, “There’s a huge amount of logistics involved, a lot of people involved. You know every canoe might take fifty or a hundred people to get everything together, to get every last logistic taken care of, every bag packed and every little check list checked off.” Equally, the inspiration and sense of achievement, Ken told me, extends across the community; from the team on the water to the crowds of people singing traditional songs, dancing and cheering as the canoes come on shore to their final destination.
Listen to what Ken Hoyt says about how the different communities support the canoes here.
“People support the canoers in a big way,” he said, “They pray for the canoers, when we roll up to any community or leave any community they roll out the red carpet, or they’ll host a potluck and the dance groups show up. It’s powerful for the villages and the towns and the cities. Everyone celebrates the canoes in their own way. Like when we go to Juneau, they do that by having thousands of people on the beach. And when we go to Angoon, they do that by having a traditional foods potluck or a dance group. Kake woke up early in the morning to see us off. A lot of people were out on the dock with us. Just trying to help us out, whether it was picking up the canoes and helping us get them in the water, or if people forgot stuff at the house or they brought little last minute gifts for the trip.”
If wilderness, as its definition attests, is supposed to stand “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape,” then the Kootznoowoo Wilderness of Admiralty Island is serving its purpose well. To camp on the island with the highest density of brown bears on the continent and kayak through waters in which humpbacks are breaching and gray whales flapping their flippers, it’s hard not to feel humbled as a human, and concede that there are areas of this earth where man does not, and should not, hold sway. The migration of salmon swimming upstream; the beautiful, yet haunting, call of a loon; the sight of an undisturbed doe resting on the beach – upon witnessing all these simple joys not manufactured by humans, how can one not agree that there are places on our planet where the rest of nature should dominate?
SCS coworkers Mike Belitz, Bethany Goodrich, Sarah Stockdale, and myself spent the last week of August checking up on the Kootznoowoo Wilderness Area of West Admiralty Island. Kayaking the coastline of Hood, Chaik, and Whitewater Bays, the majority of our time was spent surveying for invasive plants and monitoring visitor use patterns, ensuring that the “untrammeled” character of this land was being well preserved. Wilderness, like all public land, is a shared space. But it’s also, for many, a symbolic and sacred place. A big part of our task was thus making sure that, 50 years out from the passage of the Wilderness Act, and 34 years out from the 1980 designation of this particular wilderness area, the sanctity of Kootznoowoo was still intact.
Not all people would agree with the above assertion though. In his (in)famous article,“The Trouble with Wilderness,”published over twenty years ago, the renowned environmental historian William Cronon critiqued this tendency of people to view nature as sublime, considering it a perspective of the overly romantic. Quoting Muir on Yosemite and Thoreau on Mount Katahdin and Wordsworth describing the Simplon Pass, Cronon writes that “all three men are participating in the same cultural tradition and contributing to the same myth – the mountain as cathedral.” He argues that by using such religious rhetoric to describe these spaces, we’ve abstracted wilderness, transformed it into a concept merely fit to serve our cultural and emotional needs. Thus, to him, seeing God or something spiritual in nature is a problematic aspect of how humans have historically and continue contemporarily to conceive of the outdoors.
But I disagree. To me, using such spiritual speech isn’t a romanticization or abstraction of the wilderness as much as it is an expression of the awe, reverence, and humility that these men, among many others, have felt in nature. Shelton Johnson, a park ranger featured in Ken Burns’ National Park series, may have communicated it best when he said: “When I think of a grove of giant sequoias, I think of a cathedral, or a church, or a place where you’re not necessarily worshipping the name of something, but the presence of something else. There’s no need for someone to remind you that there’s something in this world that is larger than you are, because you can see it.” In other words, the outdoors is space in which we as humans cannot be deceived into thinking we are infallible, and almighty, and always at the top of the totem pole. It’s a space where we are forced, with what’s before our eyes, to see our vulnerability, and co-dependence, and reliance on existences and processes bigger and beyond us, be those scientific, spiritual, or both.
So, despite Cronon’s objections to it, I think there is something apt regarding the religious language often used to describe wilderness. Man’s place in and relation to nature, and wilderness in particular, has always been difficult to define. A hotly contested question, my definition will have no more claim to conclusiveness than any other. But it’s always made sense to me to think of wilderness as a religion with many churches, a religion with many places and manners of worship. Like any church or synagogue or mosque, it’s a space deserving of respect, where there are some rules as to what you can and cannot do, and some strictly defined parameters. But within those, there is also the freedom to make meaning and find inspiration as you wish. It’s a place where people can go for different purposes and pursuits, but, regardless, it should be treated with the deference and due regard you would accord your own or someone else’s place of worship.
As we face growing environmental challenges and crises in the 21st century, having such humility and respect for the temple of wilderness, for these places untrammeled by man, for these spaces in which we do not dominate, will, I think, only serve us well.
Thank you to everyone who has kept up with SCS’s wilderness program this summer and read along with the blog posts. Your support has meant a lot.
Almost three months have already gone by since I started my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society, under the supervision of Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Directorat SCS. It is now the start of September and I cannot believe how fast time flies by when I am truly enjoying my eye-opening opportunity. It still feels as though only yesterday I landed in Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Nowadays waking up every morning to rhythmic pulses of the rain droplets and the fresh aroma of the soothing ocean breeze has become a part of my daily life.
Along with the overwhelming invasion of nature in my life, I also get a chance to spend the majority of my time here in the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. The Tongass is one of the last few forests untouched by industrialization and remains as the largest temperate rainforest on earth. The forest encompasses part of the Northern Pacific coastal forests along with the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia. Due to its vast size, the forest hosts a number of various types of trees: western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock. The forest is also home to five species of salmon, brown and black bears, and Bald Eagles.
My days at Sitka are often filled with a variety of outdoor activities- all of which have constantly kept me marveling at the great nature I am surrounded by. From hiking up mountain trails to kayaking upstream against the swift tides, my internship projects have led me to explore different parts of the Tongass while having the opportunity to meet other biologists, conservationists, and interns. One of my projects involved monitoring a conservation and restoration project implemented by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) in the Starrigavan Recreational Area. I am conducting vegetation surveys in these forest gaps and collecting data from trail cams to monitor deer activity within the gaps for tagging purposes. The workers of the USFS cut oval forest gaps with anarea of 100 ft in diameter to mimic natural disturbances in the forest. The purpose of this is to encourage the growth of shrubs and ferns, which are another type of food sources for deer and bears. Starting since the 1950s, a significant percentage of the big trees (old growth) in the Tongass were logged and when the second generation of trees grew, they left little space for sunlight to reach to the ground. Thus, without these gaps, the growth of shrubs and ferns will decrease, thereby lowering the food sources for the deer, which may lead to a decline in the deer population in the future. Within the gaps, there are also deer enclosures to monitor how deer foraging affects vegetation growth.
From the peaks of the mountains to where streams meander across the landscape, my weekly duty takes me to a stream that flows through the community of Sitka. Once a week I would ride my bike down to Indian River to collect water samples from the river. According to the protocol, I would filter the water from the river and pour them into two sampling bottles. The Sitka Conservation Society is a part of SALMoN (Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network) and participates in the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO). GRO documents water chemistry from rivers around the world in order to understand long-term ecological changes to freshwater ecosystems. To document the water chemistry, GRO analyzes nutrient concentrations, dissolved organic carbon, and the isotope ratio of strontium. Local streams such as Indian River will be studied alongside the great rivers such as Amazon, Yangtze and others. The program started when Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the founders of GRO was a Scientist in Residence at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
My days often began with journeys packed with wilderness adventures. I went on a five day camping trip to West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness which is located about 55 miles away from Sitka and it takes around 3 hours to get there by boat. This trip by far is the longest period of time that I've been out camping. The purpose of this project is to install temperature loggers into five different streams in order to monitor the health and the quality of the stream waters. To arrive at some of these streams, we had to bushwhack through the forest while making noises to alert the bears. Some trails were challenging and tedious with rugged and slippery mud-covered grounds but they were all fun. Once we've reached the streams, we conducted a variety of analyses such as installing temperature loggers and recording the stream width. We also measured the flow of the streams and noted down the dissolved oxygen levels. While performing these tasks, it was fascinating to see thousands of salmon fish swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water. The end of each day was an even bigger adventure for me since we would move from one campsite to the next. Before the sun sets, we would spend about 30 minutes, cruising around the ocean in our boat, searching for a safe spot to camp. We camped on different parts of the forest each night and got to explore the wonders of the old growth wilderness in the dark, quiet night.
From sampling streams, my internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake where its top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake.Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before at Sitka. Not only was it the longest camp trip, it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake where I had a chance to work with the Forest Service. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season. Once the fish pass through the weir, they head up to the northern tip of the lake and travel up streams to spawn. Through out the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies become bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time, before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It definitely was a biological process worth observing.With large amount of ocean surrounding the island comes the freshest seafood. The most important resource of Southeast Alaska is salmon. There are five different types of salmon here: king, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon. Here, salmon is fished for industrial purposes and plays a major role in sustainable fishing as well. Out of the five different types of Salmon, I have already tried three of them, which are King, Sockeye and Pink. The two that I haven't tasted yet are Coho and Chum. Most people here prefer the King and I have to agree with them on that. I also got a chance to try deer meat, which tasted like beef but leaves a trace of gamey palate in your mouth.
Despite the nature explorations that were required for work, I also had a chance to enjoy the beautiful picturesque landscape of Alaska. The town of Sitka is small with a population of 9000 people, yet it is lively and vibrant with esthetically decorated small vendor shops. Sitka is surrounded by the sounds of clashing waves and mountains varying in heights. During my leisure time from work, I went on hikes on the mountains with friends and enjoyed stunning landscapes from the peaks of the mountains. Along the way, I met other interns and co-workers who were passionate about conserving the natural beauty that the Tongass has to offer.
On the 28thof August, I completed my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society and had the opportunity to gain hands on conservation experience that I have longed for. Within the past three months, I learned so much about the importance of conservation methods, and my internship gave me a chance to work with land managers who are working on making important conservation decisions. I learned new research and conservation approaches and methods as well as the importance of social outreach to the community for our conservation works. Overall, this internship has given me invaluable knowledge and taught me to have even more respect for the beautiful wilderness and the natural wonders of the earth. This was truly an eye opening experience and certainly, one that I will never forget.
If you've picked up a book on the Tongass or timber or even just Southeast Alaska, the story of the trees of Prince of Wales Island is probably one with which you're familiar. But even for an outsider, the story would be hard to miss, as the history of this island has been carved into its mountainsides. One does not need to have spent much time there to recognize: this land and logging have intimately known one another.
Traveling around the island by plane, car, and boat this past week, I saw before me a history etched in wood, a past laid bare by the felled trunks which often seemed to outnumber standing trees. But while I saw many scarred mountainsides on Prince of Wales Island, I also felt hope – hope that the manner by which this land was logged can serve a cautionary tale; function as an instructive story of misuse; and issue a warning – and wake-up call – to present and future generations of the costs we all pay when an unrenewable resource such as old-growth forest suffers reckless abuse as opposed to measured use.
It was beginning in the 1950s that many of the old-growth stands of the island began meeting with the former fate, logged swiftly and carelessly to provide raw material for the newly built pulp mill in Ketchikan. Flying over the forest in 1954, Art Brooks, logging manager for the Ketchikan Pulp Co., was to exclaim, "As far as the eye could see there were trees, trees, trees…nearly all virgin timber." That is no longer the case. Of the 140 by 45 mile island, only a few places have been spared the saw. I was lucky enough to visit one of them, the southern tip of the island, this past week.
For eight days, I, along with a group representing SCS, SEACC, the U.S. Forest Service, and HCA (the Hydaburg Cooperative Association), traveled around South Prince of Wales Wilderness, one of the most remote wilderness areas that Southeast Alaska has to offer, monitoring visitor use patterns. Along the way, we were fortunate enough to catch sight of whales and bears, watch the wonder that is salmon swimming upstream, be shown around an abandoned Haida village, and stand in the presence of trees hundreds – if not thousands – of years old. And aware of the past of this place, the contentious story of this space, I did not take getting to gaze at these ancient trees lightly. Knowing that this land has been a battleground for environmentalists for over half a century, that these forests are standing due to the hard work of many defenders, I felt privileged to be in their presence. But mindful that their present preservation was no guarantee of future conservation – the Big Thorne timber sale further north on the island standing as a testament to as much – I also began thinking about my own role to be had in speaking for these trees.
A few days before heading out on this trip, I had been having a conversation with someone who, when my job with the conservation society came up, laughed and said, "Oh, so you're part of the cult." When I asked what he meant, he spoke fairly disparagingly of environmentalism in general, asserting that environmentalists rarely understood their own agendas, merely mindlessly subscribing to whatever mentality happened to be dominant within conservationist circles at the time. Although initially affronted, I am, in retrospect, thankful for the encounter, as it reminded me that it's only when our beliefs are challenged that we take the time to reexamine, analyze, and crystallize them. As so, thinking of my parents soon flying into Sitka for a visit, and the many times as a kid they had read The Lorax aloud to me, I set out to articulate exactly what speaking for the trees means to me with regard to the Tongass National Forest.
And after having spent a week out in the wilderness, observing the natural connections that govern life in the Tongass, it becomes immediately apparent that just as with Dr. Seuss' Truffula trees, speaking for the spruce, hemlock, and cedar of Southeast Alaska involves speaking for a lot more. It's speaking for the salmon we saw jumping upriver, who rely on the trees for the enrichment and stabilization of their spawning streams. It's speaking for the deer we saw foraging on shore, who make their homes and secure their food under the cover of these trees' canopy. It's speaking for the bears we saw catching salmon, who depend on the forest to protect their food source of fish and fawns. It's speaking for the eagles we saw flying overhead, who make their nests and raise their young in the trees. And it's speaking for the people who catch those fish, hunt those deer, and enjoy the multiple other uses to which wilderness can be put. We are all intricately connected. It may be important at times to see the forest for the trees, but it is just as important to sometimes, both literally and figuratively, see the individual trees as well – see all the organisms and associations that make up the forest and appreciate that the parts are, indeed, what make up the whole, and if we misuse one, we endanger them all.
In its message of interconnectedness and warning against environmental abuse, Dr. Seuss' fable of the Truffula trees thus seems perfectly able to translate to the Tongass. There is only one point on which I might challenge him: having seen them, having stood in their presence and felt the reverence, awe, and humility they are able to inspire, in some ways, it seems, the trees of Southeast can also speak for themselves.
If you're interested in hearing more about our work, or are looking to get involved with wilderness stewardship and the preservation of our wild places, be sure to check out SCS's wilderness page here.Thanks and photo credit goes out to Luke A'Bear, one of the SCS participants, who was amazing at taking photos out on the trip. The Lorax image remains the property of Dr. Seuss.
Join the Sitka Conservation Society on their last boat cruise of the season!
On Tuesday, Aug. 19, SCS will set sail with Allen Marine tours to explore the salmon of Sitka Sound. Lon Garrison, aquaculture director at the Sitka Sound Science Center will be on board as a guide and to answer questions. Come learn about the importance of salmon to the Tongass National Forest and have some fun on a Tuesday night!
Tickets are on sale at Old Harbor Books beginning Aug. 5. The cost is $40 per person.
The boat cruise will depart Crescent Harbor at 5 p.m. and return at 8 p.m., boarding begins at 4:45 p.m.
Don't miss the last chance to take a SCS cruise this summer!
The Sitka Conservation Society sponsored a boat cruise through Sitka Sound and Nakwasina Sound on Sunday afternoon, bring visitors from Florida, Columbia, New York, Ireland and even some native Sitkans around the waterways and salmon habitats of the area. Led by SCS director Andrew Thoms and SCS board member Kitty LaBounty, guests on the Allen MarineSea Otter Express, enjoyed gorgeous vistas, a bear siting, watching salmon jump and bald eagles soar and just before heading back to Crescent Harbor, a humpback whale gave everyone a close up flick of his tail as it descended to the deep.
But, while aboard the Sea Otter Express, guests also learned the southeast Alaska sea otter story, a tale fraught with controversy that acts as a simple reminder of the importance of any one species to The Tongass National Forest ecosystem.
Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals and are members of the weasel family. They spend almost their entire lives in water, often only going on land to give birth. Sea otters usually stay in groups called rafts of all males or females with their pups. These furry creatures are often seen floating and grooming around kelp beds and the rocky islands of Sitka Sound.
With no natural predators, sea otters have free reign over their territory. They eat shell fish and sea urchins and spend their days playing and grooming their fur. Because they do not have a blubber layer to keep them warm in the ocean, their fur is vital for their survival. Otters have the densest fur of any animal in the world with 300,000 hairs per square inch. And that is what has gotten them into trouble in the past.
During the late 1700's and early 1800's Russian fur traders almost completely wiped out the population of sea otters in Alaska. What some researchers believe was a population of 150,000 to 300,000 had been reduced to a mere 2,000 sea otters along the Pacific Northwest Coast by 1911. And it wasn't just the fur industry thriving. Without the sea otters to eat them, clam and other shell fish populations grew and so did a whole system of fisheries that became very profitable in the region.
As you can tell from the pictures, the sea otters have returned. Hunting restrictions and reintroduction programs have restored the sea otter population along the Alaskan coast. Now, an estimated 12,000 live in Southeast Alaska.
But, the story is not without controversy. Those profitable shell fish fisheries I mentioned are now struggling to compete with the renewed sea otter population. Some argue that those fisheries became profitable in a time when the natural environment had been altered. There is also the topic of kelp to consider. Sea otters also eat sea urchins that kill off bulk kelp populations. The kelp is a great place for fish, particularly herring, to spawn and now with the sea otters back eating sea urchins, the kelp populations can thrive again.
Removing a species from its natural habitat can have profound effects on an ecosystem, as the story of the sea otters has shown. Even without natural predators, the sea otters play an important role in The Tongass National Forest ecosystem and help keep the environment in balance.