Kruzof island is a defining characteristic of the landscape of Sitka. This diverse and wild island is home to the emblematic profile of Mt. Edgecumbe volcano, mountains and craters, thousands of acres of muskeg, and a wild and rugged coastline. It is one of the Tongass National Forest's most impressive landscapes, as well as one of the most appreciated and utilized by hunters, fishermen, ATV users and hikers. In an effort to repair damage from past logging, the US Forest Service is in the preliminary stages of an extensive and important restoration project on this well-loved island.
The Forest Service maintains four recreational cabins on Kruzof that allow people to access and enjoy the beauty and wonder of the island. Locals often skiff over on weekends to camp or stay in cabins, hike Mt. Edgecumbe, and walk sandy beaches. The central part of Kruzof is particularly important to Alaska ATV Tours, a locally run business. On these tours, visitors drive old logging roads to view bears, Sitka black-tail deer, and to experience a wild landscape and coastline unparalleled in the U.S. Many local Sitkans depend on Kruzof for hunting and fishing subsistence resources, and value the island highly as a place to live off of the wild bounty of the Tongass.
Our relationship with Kruzof has not always been as ideal as it is now. Many of the most majestic forest stands on the island were clear-cut for timber by the U.S. Forest Service, the agency responsible for managing the Tongass. Areas that were once old-growth forest are now in various stages of second-growth, with alder creating the predominant canopy. Some stands are in the stem-exclusion stage (sometimes referred to as dog-hair forest), where trees are close together and spindly, with branches protruding in all directions. It is a far cry from the open, mossy, complexity of old-growth Tongass forest and does not provide superb habitat for wildlife like the original forest. Simply walking through this second-growth forest is a difficult endeavor, and a reminder of the responsibility we have to restore the Tongass.
While past timber management decisions have been near-sighted in scope, we now have the chance to be more informed and thoughtful stewards of this rare temperate rainforest. Carefully planned thinning treatments are one possible restoration method that helps accelerate the regrowth of the forest back to old-growth conditions. By thinning some of the trees in these dense stands, more sunlight reaches the forest understory and improves habitat for vital subsistence resources.
Kruzof is a treasured place that people of diverse backgrounds and interests love and appreciate. As the land manager of Kruzof, the Forest Service has both a responsibility and an opportunity to improve its landscape for community members and wildlife. Management of such an important place must be done with great care and consideration to all who use this incredible landscape.
Because the landscape is valuable for many different reasons like recreation, salmon production, subsistence and timber potential, the best way to manage the landscape is through an approach that aims to figure out how to integrate management activities that seek to balance and benefit all these uses. In the Forest Service, this is being called "Integrated Resource Management." For an Integrated Resource Management Plan to succeed, the multiple local interest groups invested in Kruzof must work together to figure out how to balance uses and figure out what is appropriate and will work. They must work together to develop the most communally valuable plans for restoration.
The Sitka Collaborative Stewardship Group is actively working to bring together different community voices on this project. SCSG recently organized a visit to Kruzof with several community members, discussing and visualizing future possible uses for the island, and the meaning of restoration and ecological maintenance. Such visits are important in determining which areas are most ecologically and socially important, and how best to acknowledge and repair past damage done by clearcut logging. Conservation is a constant effort to find the best and most sustainable ways for people live among our natural environments. The planning stages of the Kruzof restoration project are a valuable time to think about how we can envision the most sustainable, wild, and beneficial Kruzof for years to come.
The collaborative work between the Forest Service and the Sitka community is a chance to be resourceful, sustainable, and thoughtful in developing our relationships with Kruzof.The second-growth forest on Kruzof is poor wildlife habitat and needs to be repaired. Salmon habitat is impaired and needs work to return to its full potential. Recreational infrastructure on the island is important to the community and to local businesses. Management activities in such a communally important area must be imagined and carried through with the combined perspective, foresight, and resourcefulness of Sitka as a community. This project is new, and the learning process is ours to share as we envision and shape Kruzof for many future generations. All community members have a stake in shaping the future of Kruzof, and we can work together to create the healthiest future for ourselves and for the Tongass.
Bethany and I recently spent five days volunteering at the Forest Service-managed weir at Redoubt lake in the Tongass National Forest. Located just twelve miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt falls is one of Sitka's most important subsistence fisheries, especially for sockeye. Locals dipnet and castfor salmon to stock their freezers and cupboards with the rich red flesh of this iconic fish. In past years, Redoubt has provided up to 60% of the total sockeye subsistence harvest in the Sitka Management Area (US Forest Service, 2011).
Redoubt lake is unique because it is one of the largest meromictic lakes in North America, which means its top layer is freshwater, and there are several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake. The two layers don't mix, and the lake is about 900 feet deep at its deepest. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering the lake, and coordinates with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to make management decisions based on the data collected each season.
Subsistence harvest defines life in rural Alaska, and Sitka is no exception. In July when the sockeye are running, Redoubt is the buzz of local conversation and activity. Employees and volunteers at Redoubt work hard to maintain the health and sustainability of this salmon run, serving the general public by caring for the most important resource of Southeast Alaska.
Redoubt lake is long and narrow, protected on all sides by mountains and cliffs in a glacial valley. Salmon swim from the weir at the falls up to the northern tip of the lake, spawning in a clear stream that originates in a pristine lake in the mountains. The Forest Service runs a mark and recapture study of sockeye returning to the stream, which entails occasionally snorkelling the stream to survey marked and unmarked sockeye. Bethany and I donned warm and buoyant drysuits to snorkel in the clear, cold water with stunningly red sockeye. When they pass through the weir, sockeye are silver-scaled and relatively normal-looking salmon. The physical transformation they undergo between the weir and their spawning stream is spectacular. The sockeye we swam with had bright scarlet bodies and a defined and unwieldy hump on their backs. Olive green heads ended in sharply hooked noses dripping with snarling teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce as a final dance before laying and fertilizing their eggs for future runs.
Redoubt lake is one of the most important public spaces in Sitka for people to fish and recreate. It is a community gathering place for Sitkans in the Tongass National Forest, and it is vital that this place remain public for this tradition to continue. Currently there is pressure from Sealaska to privatize Redoubt, potentially excluding many people from this vital public fishery and gem of the Tongass. The public service done by the Forest Service at Redoubt is highly valued, and a reminder of the incredible importance of keeping salmon, our most valued economic and cultural resource, accessible to all. Redoubt has been identified as one of the T77, or top 77 fish-producing watersheds in the Tongass. It's awe-inspiring beauty and vital habitat is absolutely deserving of this designation.
Click here to learn more about the Tongass77 and what you can do to help protect our salmon forest!
[doptg id="22"]Salmon fishing is a pillar of life in Southeast Alaska. A few of us at the Sitka Conservation Society tried our hand at subsistence gill-netting in Sitkoh Bay, on the southern end of Chichagof Island, hoping to fill our cupboards with fresh, vibrant sockeye. Sitkoh creek has a well-known sockeye run, and draws fishermen from Sitka and Angoon when the fish start running in mid-July. Tlingit communities have been harvesting here for millennia, and today, Alaskans of all backgrounds come to fish this rich stream system. This is one story of a fishing trip in Southeast Alaska, including a few lessons learned on the water from some first-time subsistence gill-netters.Preparation
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game oversees all fisheries, and is the primary resource for fishermen curious about regulations, requirements, and guidelines of personal use fishing. We acquired our free subsistence permit in just a few minutes at the local ADF&G office, and familiarized ourselves with legalities of the fishery before we left. Subsistence and Personal Use Salmon Fishing permits are granted to Alaska residents. There is one permit allowed per household, and each management area specifies a limited amount of salmon that may be harvested. While we chose to use a gill net, other legal fishing methods include beach seining, dip netting, gaffing, and spearing.
After procuring the right tags, and letting ADF&G know when we were going to be fishing, we put together a set of equipment to prepare ourselves for fishing. We brought mending twine and a needle in case we needed to repair the net. A friend lent us a fish pick, which is a plastic-handled tool with a small metal point, and helps to smoothly remove gill net from even the most entangled fish. The most important gear item is of course the net. Sockeye eat plankton, so they can't be caught on hook and line like King or Coho salmon. These red-fleshed beauties must be netted. A gill net is typically made of a fine filament sea-green mesh, and hangs vertically in the water. The net dangles from a line of floating corks, and the bottom of the net is weighed down by a heavy rope, called the lead-line. Flotation on top and weight on the bottom create a wall of net that salmon swim into headfirst, fatally catching their gills when they try to swim away. Our net was lent to us by a local troller, the type of person who keeps a three hundred-foot gill net in his backyard, along with other marine miscellany typical of Sitkans who harvest their own food. The net on its own was heavy and large; it required at least three people to lift it and move it from yard to car, to net shed, to boat, and finally to ocean. Before taking the net out fishing, we stretched it out in the net shed adjacent to Crescent harbor. We familiarized ourselves with the net, made sure it was the legal length of 50 fathoms, and mended some salmon-sized holes before taking it fishing.
Gill-netting Lesson Number One: the net does not belong on the bottom of the ocean.
We left Sitka on an overcast Tuesday in two heavily loaded skiffs, four deckhands deep. The crew: Phyllis Hackett, a salty Sitkan who lives on a roadless island just off of town; Stacey Woolsey, accomplished hunter, backpacker, teacher, and thorough Alaskan; Matt Dolkas, photographer, former NOLS instructor, and SCS intern; and me, a former commercial fisherman and current intern for SCS.
By the afternoon, we finally set our net near the mouth of Sitkoh creek. "Should we be setting the net this shallow? I'm not sure it's supposed to be on the bottom..." Stacey wondered aloud, dubious of laying a 25-foot deep net in 9 feet of water, as the tide ebbed. Despite her wise premonitions, we continued to set in the shallows, thinking that the nearer the creek we were, the fishier our net would be. May you learn from this mistake! We hauled in the net by hand, heavy with an array of unexpected sea-floor biota. Dungeness crabs tangled their pincers in the web. Mussel-laden rocks, heavy sticks, and a vibrant display of seaweed also found their way into our net. We thankfully caught a few salmon as well, but picking out all of the non-fish was time-consuming and exhausting.
Lesson Two: A gill net has a mind of its ownAnother difficulty we encountered was controlling the net's shape and location, as it tended to wrinkle and wander at the whims of the wind and tide, Ideally, the net is kept somewhat taught and in a straight line, maximizing the surface area for fish to swim into. In a set gill net fishery, one would simply anchor the ends of the net, solving this problem. It is not legal, however, to use an anchor while gill netting in Sitkoh bay. So, it seems best to leave one end of the net connected to your boat, allowing you the freedom to drift the net behind you as you like. This has its own set of difficulties: the net is quite heavy, placing strain on low horsepower outboards, and one must be vigilant about keeping the net away from the propeller. Lesson Three: Read the tide book
We set up camp on a rocky beach, our tents flattening tall stands of sedge. As I lay in the tent exhausted, Stacey and Phyllis kept watch on our anchored boats, and monitored the incoming tide as it neared our tent. I could hear the water lapping nearer and nearer as I fell asleep, and wondered in my exhaustion if I would even get up if the water started to trickle into our shelter. Smelling of fish and camping in bear country, tide inching closer to us, the reasons to sleep lightly piled up. Simple as it seems, checking the tide book would have saved us some worry.
Lesson Four: The work doesn't stop after you've caught the fish
We brought supplies to clean and ice our fish onboard, until we could process them fully at home. Phyllis used a wedge-shaped plywood tool as a base for cleaning her fish, a useful item for holding the slippery fish in place as she made the proper incisions. We sliced the salmon's bellies from anus to gill, and scraped out the guts, careful not to bruise the bright red meat, the prized object of our labor. Then we made a shallow cut down the bloodline of the fish, scraping out blood and any remaining detritus. The end product was a clean gutted fish, whose belly would be carefully stuffed with ice. We brought ice from a local fish processor before leaving town, and brought along coolers and Rubbermaid totes to store our catch.
While cutting the dorsal fin off of a salmon, per ADF&G subsistence regulations, Stacey's hand slipped, and sliced a tendon below her knuckle. In hindsight, sheet metal scissors would be a better tool than a knife for cutting this bony fin. Though she resiliently kept quiet about her injury, Stacey's cut tendon was a serious concern. As Matt put it, "If you were one of my NOLS kids, I'd probably get you out of the field." Considering this wise counsel, and that we hadn't caught nearly enough fish to fill our quota, we decided to pack up camp and head home. We returned to town salty, sweaty, and smelling of sea. Stacey drove her skiff 60 miles back to town with a splinted finger that would later be operated on, and I blinked away the stinging jellyfish in my eye. Remnants of blood splattered the decks of our boats, a gory testament to our harvest of salmon, and to Stacey's severed tendon. Despite our bruises and cuts, and the steep learning curve inherent in fishing, subsistence gill-netting was a richly rewarding way to harvest our own food. The salmon we caught were hand picked out of our net, and we saw them through the entirety of harvest, processing, and consumption. Truly, it is hard to think of something more gratifying than eating the fish of your labor.
The final step of our subsistence journey (before eating, that is) was to process our salmon. In the cozy haven of Stacey's home kitchen in Sitka, we cut all of our fish into steaks and canned them. After spooning salt into the jars with the steaks, we put them in pressure cookers with boiling water. The steam and heat cooked and softened the salmon, leaving it tender, juicy, and preserved for winter days when salmon are harder to come by. I found canning to be simple, time consuming, and meditative. Harvesting fish is something I grew up with, yet have rarely given deep thought to. As I sliced flesh and tightened jars, I considered the meaning of harvesting such important and life-giving animals, and inwardly thanked them for their lives, and the nourishment they provide.Restoration: Taking care of the Tongass
Gill-netting is just one way to harvest the bounty of Alaska's waters, and to enjoy the natural riches the Tongass provides. The sockeye run in Sitkoh Bay is only possible because of the temperate rainforest ecosystems of the Tongass National Forest and the protection and responsible management of its watersheds. Fish need the habitat provided by these forest streams in order to survive and continue their life cycles. We in turn need this remarkable Tongass habitat, so that we may continue to harvest salmon to feed our friends, family, and ourselves. Harvesting one's own food is a way of life in Southeast, and salmon are a mainstay of the subsistence lifestyle.The Sitkoh River and Sitkoh lake restoration projects are important steps in the direction of repairing salmon streams that have been harmed by past logging practices. These projects are joint efforts between the Sitka Conservation Society, Trout Unlimited, and the U.S. Forest Service. Jointly, these organizations are working to restore natural conditions to damaged salmon streams. This summer, Sitkoh River has been returned to its natural path, and large wooden structures have been added to create spawning and rearing grounds for coho salmon. Restoration work such as this means better salmon habitat, and thus more production of salmon and improved future livelihoods for Southeast Alaskan fishing communities. For the sustainability of the incredible salmon runs that support this wild land and its communities, it is critical that we protect their habitat in the Tongass National Forest.
Restoring the Sitkoh River(Juneau Empire)
[doptg id="21"]In Southeast Alaska, bald eagles are commonplace; they perch on spruce trees, swoop over parking lots, and glide over the vast expanses of water that define this landscape. Ravens are another constant here in Sitka, sometimes called Raven town, ever-present on car and buildings, and an ancient trickster in Tlingit myth. These birds are so common that it is sometimes easy to forget our impact upon them, and that many end up injured because of human activities. The Alaska Raptor Center, located in Sitka, has been rehabilitating injured birds since the eighties. The idea began when a local falconer and conservationist began caring for injured birds in an old tool shed and gained momentum when he was able to successfully return some of the birds to the wild.
The center has since evolved into an expansive and high-functioning facility that includes a dozen outdoor habitats, a spacious indoor flight center where recovering birds build wing strength, a small presentation room, a vet clinic, office space, and spaces for the various owls, hawks, falcons, eagles and ravens that are full time residents. Current eagle patients include Lucky, who earned his name after crashing into a float plane but suffered no broken bones, Vulcan who lost one eye to a beebee gun, Jackson who became hypothermic and too depleted to fly after falling through thin ice, and Bug, a two-month-old who fell out of the nest. The Center recently hosted conservationist Jeff Corwin, of Animal Planet fame, to release one of the centers fully recovered eagles.
The Alaska Raptor Center's mission is threefold: to educate the public, to rehabilitate birds, and to conduct research. The Center not only helps conserve and treat intelligent and majestic birds like bald eagles, but is also a significant employer of local Sitkans. Eight people work at the center year-round, and that number doubles in the summer when tourism is in full swing. The Center is located on 17 acres of land adjacent to the Tongass National Forest. Between 100 and 200 birds become patients there each year, and while many are able to be released into the wild after rehabilitation, some are so severely injured that they become resident raptors. These birds are able to live healthy and productive lives on the Center's grounds, giving visitors the opportunity to see and appreciate raptors up close.
Executive Director Debbie Reeder encourages the public to become aware of the influences that humans have over our environment. "Many people don't realize that a thing as simple as a building can have an impact on birds," she says. About 85% of the injuries treated at the raptor center are caused by humans, though indirectly. Injuries will commonly occur from collisions with windows, buildings, power lines, and cars. By building awareness of the impact humans can have upon raptors, the Raptor Center increases public consciousness of raptor ecology.The Alaska Raptor Center is an organization that illustrates the potential for conservation to build community, reach out to the American public, and to support local economies. So stop by and show your support for another local conservation non-profit!
The fishing tender Ginny C is an old boat, built in 1944 and wooden. The hull is bright cobalt blue, and the cabin colorful and inviting. Skipper Robby Bruce spends his summers on this boat, traveling the coastline of Baranof Island buying line-caught salmon from local trollers.
The landscape of outer Baranof Island is rugged and rough, but the island also provides sheltered refuges for mariners. Names like Deep Inlet and Still Harbor impart the tranquility that can be found in these waters. Petersburg troller Blaise Holly says, "It's amazing what a feeling of protection you get from this really jagged landscape. Even though the rocks and trees are jagged from constant Southeast exposure, you can still feel a sense of protection from pulling in and ducking into a place like Still Harbor."
Communities of Southeast are inextricably connected to the vast landscape of the Tongass. Fishermen embody this connection, spending their days harvesting salmon and hugging craggy island coasts.Their lives and work operate with a closeness to tides, fish patterns, and weather, and an inherent intimacy with their natural surroundings.
Though the Tongass is a National Forest, it's functions are ever interconnected with the sea. Salmon epitomize the coalescence of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, as they return from their lives at sea to spawn in streams throughout the forest. Their carcasses feed bears and fertilize the earth, perpetuating the forest's life cycle.
Many trollers head for shelter in small rural communities like Port Armstrong. Located on the south end of Baranof Island, Port Armstrong is a salmon hatchery where a population of roughly twenty people live year-round. Biologist Ben Contag manages and lives at the hatchery, and trolls for salmon in the summer on a vibrantly colored boat called the Quest. He catches fish that he himself has raised from eggs. His daughter Lavon, 16, says, "We live off the land here. We hunt deer, smoke and can our own salmon, and gather mushrooms." The community gets all of its electricity from an on-site hydroelectric power plant, generating water that flows from a nearby lake. "It's the best water in the world," Lavon says, well aware of the unique beauty of her family's lifestyle.
The Port Armstrong hatchery is working toward the betterment of local fisheries, helping to improve livelihoods for fishermen and fishing-dependent communities.It is also an example of a sustainable community in the Tongass that lives closely off of its surrounding natural bounty. The continued survival of this unique community, as well as of the local salmon-fishing industry, depends upon the health of the Tongass and its rich ecosystems.
[doptg id="12"]July 1st marked the first day of the first king salmon opener of the summer for commercial trollers of Sitka and Southeast Alaska. A fishing opening is a period of time in which commercial fishermen are legally allowed, as determined by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, to harvest their catch and sell it to processors. When ADF&G declares the fishery closed, no one may fish until it is open again. Typical king trolling openers are only about ten days, which means every day is crucial for these fishermen.
Before July 1st, small trollers all over Southeast leave their harbors in search of the best salmon spots. They cruise the inlets and bays of this island-rich region,dragging their hooks slowly through the ocean, trolling for the salmon that mean livelihoods for individual fishermen as well as whole communities.As they fish, they areconstantly protected by tall mountains and thick woods of the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is a temperate rainforest, and its unique ecosystems support the populations of salmon that sustain Southeast Alaskan economies and communities.
Nestled in a grassy clearing within Sitka National Historic Park, three musicians play Mozart to rapt listeners. The resonating classical music, reverberating amongst Tlingit totem poles and ancient rainforest, brings Sitkans and visitors alike to converge in this ocean-side park. Wooden salmon, each uniquely crafted and adorned by local artists, hang from trees near the path leading to the musicians.The Sitka Summer Music Festival is in full swing. This small, artistic community welcomes musicians like Zuill Bailey, artistic director of the festival, each summer to play in the forested landscape of Baranof Island. As Zuill says of Sitka, "It is of the earth. I feel like everything that's done here is pure, and every time I come back here I feel the same way. It kind of recharges and reboots." Perhaps there is no better way to renew one's self than with exquisitely played music in this vibrant community situated within the vast and awe-inspiring Tongass National Forest.
[doptg id="9"]I am climbing over old fallen logs, heavy moss and fungus-covered behemoths. The moss looks inviting, but I don't know whether my next step will be a vertical plunge into a rotten piece of wood, or a nice solid step. My right hand is festering from devil's club thorns, and I'm trying to prevent a hundredth whip to my face from a blueberry bush. So goes another day of surveying goshawks on Chichagof Island in the Tongass National Forest.
Bethay and I volunteered with the Forest Service's survey of Queen Charlotte Goshawks on Chichagof island as part of their management efforts that will include thinning prescriptions to restore old growth habitat conditions.The Queen Charlotte goshawk is specific to this region, and is a subspecies of the Northern goshawk. We hiked through old-growth forest, prime habitat for goshawks, and got to know the beautiful (and powerful) forest we are here to protect.
I've spent some time in Alaska, but I have never experienced anything like hiking through the Tongass for hours on end. It is not easy! It required all of my faculties to not fall, or get scratched, poked, or slapped...and most of that happened anyway. I started to feel like the forest had a personality, a large being with idiosyncrasies I had to learn to respect and work around if I wanted to harmonize with it. Despite the bush-whacking, hiking through the forest was incredibly beautiful and rewarding, and it was enthralling to be surrounded by old-growth Tongass forest.
We hiked all day for three days, stopping frequently to make goshawk calls with a megaphone. We didn't hear so much as a chirp in response for the majority of the survey. I was starting to wonder if this bird actually existed. On the third day, we were soaked from rain, and had almost gotten back to our truck to head home for some hot tea and a movie, but decided to make one last goshawk call. AND IT ANSWERED. Chelsea has years of experience with goshawk surveys, and told us that when a bird finally answers, it's a rush. It made my jaw drop, and my heart race. "Call it again!" I yelped. It answered a second time, this time closer to us. I never thought I'd get so hyped up about hearing a bird! We skipped back to the truck in a state of euphoria.
The Queen Charlotte goshawk is an elusive and sensitive creature. It needs specific old-growth habitat in the Tongass to survive, and it is a species well worth surveying and protecting, as the Forest Service is doing. To the goshawk!
One of my favorite aspects of Southeast Alaska is that it is total water world. There are endless islands and bays and inlets, teeming with life and energy and just begging to be explored. We had the opportunity to go out on a wilderness cruise with Pauli Davis, owner of Gallant Adventures, and explore some of the islands just off of Sitka on a warm, pleasant evening. He skiffed us over to St. Lazaria Island, which is a National Wildlife Refuge and a nesting bird colony. St. Lazaria is rugged and cliff-lined, and provides habitat for bald eagles, peregrine falcons, cormorants, and many other species of birds.
Pauli nosed us into a cave of cormorants, from which Mt. Edgecumbe was perfectly visible.We edged up to some rafts of sea otters, the mothers and pups eyeing us as we moseyed closer to them. At one point we needled into a tiny little lagoon-like inlet on a small island I do not know the name of. Sunset, glassy calm, thick silence, and crystal clear water amounted to an absolutely ethereal experience. I tilted my head downwards and gazed at the bottom, spotting creatures of the intertidal zone. The water was so clear I just wanted to drink it, or swim in it, or be it. Someone pointed out an old Tlingit path on the beach, reminding us that we were certainly not the first people here, though it felt like it.
Pauli is an incredibly knowledgeable guide, with a passion for sharing his practice-earned perspectives. He knows Sitka's waters and its creatures. If you're in Sitka and are looking for an authentic, professional guide of local waters and wildlife, he's your man![doptg id="7"]