When I was 21, I headed to the Sierra Nevadas for two months as a part of my forestry degree, studying the scientific and professional dimensions of forest and wildland resource management. I received training in simple field orienteering principles, ran transects, cruised timber, and assessed the ecological conditions around Quincy, California. Being out at Starrigavan this past Friday with SCS's Scott Harris and Kitty LaBounty and Foresters Chris Leeseberg and Craig Bueler, I felt nostalgic as we also ran transects, assessed forests for deer habitat, and sampled gaps for regeneration of herbaceous layers however there was something quite different about this experience—instead of university peers, we were working with students from Sitka High whose ages ranged from 15 to 19.
The Forest Team emerged unofficially three years ago as an occasional field trip opportunity to Starrigavan and False Island in Kent Bovee's Field Science course, yet there is talk of having the program adopted into the curriculum for Sitka High's Life Science course. This would guarantee every 10th grader field-based instruction on forest and wildland resource management topics in the hopes that these students will develop a better understanding of public stewardship and what this stewardship means for the forests that sustain us.
What these students get to learn in the field is an experience many of us do not have until college. I watched the teachers hand off GPSs to the students, while the three stations they visited—the riparian stream station, the gap station, and the quick cruise station—equipped the students with transects, compasses, a plot mapper, and prisms to come up with data needed to assess the health of riparian and forest habitats. The gap vegetation monitoring the students did will eventually turn into a long term study about understory plant regeneration and will be published with the intent to spread awareness on the importance thinned forests have for growing winter deer food.
Streams and forests together determine the health of Tongass watersheds. Sharing knowledge through field-based instruction gives high school students a clearer, scientific understanding of what goes on in the woods and also sheds light on career opportunities they could have as Tongass stewards.
The value of salmon fisheries for ecosystems, industry, personal, sport, and traditional use is unquantifiable in Southeast Alaska. The lakes and streams of the Tongass National Forest contribute the vast majority of this pivotal resource- producing 79% of the annual commercial harvest, about 50 million salmon each year. In its efforts to manage the Tongass for salmon, the US Forest Service invests in a variety of projects that ensure continued high productivity of fisheries and watershed resources. 'Fish Pass' installation has proven to be a powerful and effective option- an integral component of the Forest Service's tool-kit to boost salmon production from Tongass systems.
'Fish passes' are constructed to bridge waterfalls that historically restrained salmon from accessing quality upstream spawning and rearing habitat. To protect the natural integrity of this lush national forest, the Forest Service adheres to a 'minimalistic yet effective' construction policy- minimizing environmental alteration while maximizing fish access. The vast majority of watersheds in the Tongass remain unaltered with only the most strategic and promising barriers selected for fish pass installation. Passes take many forms varying from nonstructural 'step pools' blasted out of natural bedrock to the Alaskan Steeppass 'fish ladder' that harnesses water current to push exhausted salmon to the top of barrier falls. Whatever the type, Fish Passes follow the same basic principle- allow more fish access to more area.
Increased spawning and rearing habitat translates into less competition for space and nutrients with more salmon surviving to adulthood. Following this basic principle, the Forest Service has successfully improved production of Tongass fish. Fish Passes have opened access of 443 stream miles and 4,931 lake acres to spawning and rearing steelhead and salmon. Exact fish counts produced by increased area are difficult to calculate and are estimated by projecting the average number of fish produced given particular habitat quality by the amount of increased area. Conservative estimates suggest an average of 86,855 coho and sockeye and 227,500 pink and chum salmon adults added each year as a direct result of this increased area made available by fish passes. At the current rate of a dollar and ten cents per pound for coho and sockeye and forty two cents a pound for pink and chums, fish pass produced salmon add an impressive estimated $8,598,930- over eight and a half million dollars- to Southeast Alaskan economy over a ten year period.
Unfortunately, like everything man-made, structural fish passes require maintenance to remain effective. There are approximately fifty fish passes across the Tongass- about fifteen operating in the Sitka Ranger District alone. The majority being between 20-30 years old, structural fish passes are reaching the point in their lifetime where they require considerable work. Managing this forest and recognizing that salmon are one of the most important outputs that benefit both humans and the overall ecosystem means continued investment in projects like fish pass construction and maintenance.
We are fortunate to have learned from mistakes made across other regions of the world where wild salmon populations were pushed to extinction. We are even more fortunate to boast a talented fisheries staff and a holistic fisheries and watershed program that manage and protect the future of this valuable resource. Fish passes are one of the significant activities within this program that ensure wild Alaskan salmon continue to sustain the communities of Southeast Alaska and that the Tongass continues to rear the salmon that are base of the last remaining sustainable fisheries in the world.
Sitka Trail Works provides visitors and residents of Sitka with a series of well managed trail systems- offering outdoor enthusiasts the opportunity to travel at ease through some of the most beautiful and unique habitats on earth. The Sea Lion Cove hike, located on Kruzof Island, winds through an incredible diversity of habitats over a relatively short distance.
Beginning on a rocky shore, hikers scramble across rugged coast terrain stopping to admire bears grazing on distant estuaries. Next, the trail slips past a large forested lake before bending through a misty rainforest stand, streams and small waterfalls. For me, the overwhelming beauty of these areas far surpassed the annoyance of the few slips, trips, and falls I took. Keep in mind however, the importance of wearing shoes with powerful grip when attempting any trail in the Southeast. When the wood planks that make up managed trail systems become wet they become incredibly slippery too. Pack a positive attitude with your rain gear, snacks, water, and camera!
The trail also brings hikers through muskeg, an incredibly unique and almost eerie wetland habitat found throughout Southeast Alaska, beforeculminating in Sea Lion Cove. The cove boasts a truly breathtaking view- an open sand beach nestled within forest and estuary beside a dramatic ridge line. Littered with drift wood and brilliantly colored seaweeds and shells, hikers could spend hours combing the sand for treasures- pack a ziplock for collecting. Be sure to find a comfortably worn slab of driftwood to relax on and eat your packed lunch before hiking back.
All in all, if you are looking for a day hike that packs the most diversity for your effort, the Sea Lion Cove trail system is a must! Muskeg, mountains, forest, rushing streams, a lake, estuary and a sandy beach (coveted and rare to this area) Sea Lion Cove has it all. Although, finding transportation to Sitka's brilliant neighbor -Kruzof Island- can sometimes be difficult for those of us without access to a skiff, Sitka Trail Works offers transportation and company once a year on a guided hike. A great way to meet new people with similar interests, enjoy a diversity of habitats, and bring home a few beauties for the beach combing collection, Sitka Trail Work's guided Sea Lion Cove hike is a no-brainer.
Supporting organizations like Sitka Trail Works is a must for retaining recreation opportunities for a wide demographic. If one were to attempt to traverse the Sea Lion Cove route twenty years ago when the land was transferred from the US Forest Service to the state, they would have experienced impassable, eroded, boot-sucking mud pits through trampled muskeg ecosystems. Three years of hard work combined with private, foundation, and agency grant funds led to the restored beautiful plank trail system you can enjoy today.
Learn more about Sitka Trail Works, Sea Lion Cove, other trail systems, and review a schedule of guided hikes check out: sitkatrailworks.org.
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.
Ican feel Edgecumbe in my muscles, and in certain parts of my feet and hips, I can feel the mountain in my bones. We planned this trip a week ago, and the sun agreed with a sky so blue and cloudless. A quarter to seven brought us to Crescent Harbor, and with a few safety instructions and tugs on our lifejacket straps, Alison and John Dunlap brought us to Fred's Creek. The Dunlaps are the owners of Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, and are long time Sitka residents who understood how fortunate we were to make it out to Mt. Edgecumbe on Sitka's eighth day of summer.
"Last time I was out here I saw a bear over there," says John as the skiff settles into the sand with help from the incoming tide. We each jump out, confidently landing our hiking-boot-xtra-tuff feet on Kruzof not only as interns of Sitka Conservation Society, but as folks from Sitka and from down South—as folks in love with experiences that could only be labeled "Alaskan." There were six of us—Ashley Bolwerk, Elizabeth Cockrel, Helen Schnoes, AJ Shule, Jonathan Goff, and myself—who chose water bottles, trail mixes, muskegs, forest patches, ups and downs, sun kissed skin, and deep inhales and exhales for our Tuesday. At times I was in front, feeling eager to reach the base in a couple hours, but we each took turns switching off who led, switching off who called water break, switching off who exclaimed "how beautiful is this." Jonathan, an SCS botanist intern, would pause frequently to get closer looks at the plant life along the wood plank trails, at times even getting down on his knees to smell Deer Heart flowers and other blooms. Helen, one of SCS's Sustainable Salmon Specialists, discovered her camera had a panoramic setting, and often one could see her body pivot in a circle as she tried to capture all of us within the wide landscape.
"Thank you for waiting so patiently for us Edgecumbe," I exclaimed as we got approached the rock steps at the base of the mountain.
Mountains take time. Mountains take meditative foot placements, sweat and salt from your body, and critical thought, but they also give. Edgecumbe inspired us to give each other this experience, to give a potential to our bodies that our minds might typically resist. I did not drink coffee that morning, or eat my lunch beforehand but something made me keep moving as I brought myself over those rock steps, immerging bright eyed to the sun hitting the red, powdered soil.
Mountains also give you the wisdom to not hold on to expectations. The bleached white posts that lined the minimal trail up Edgecumbe became my pacemakers, and in the beginning I would approach each post thinking I was almost to the top only to see six more in front of me, six beautiful yet spread out ribs of the earth. This pattern of me expecting the top to be there I soon learned to stop and instead I began to enjoy the gradual rise up. Enjoyment eased my mind, and allowed for a creative fire to develop from my muscles and mind. I began to visualize every post as a person I had deep feelings for, letting them take on the forms of my siblings, my parents, my sweet, sweet friends. I even visualized a post as myself, laughing briefly at what my former self would say if she could see me up there. To be honest, I even began hugging these tall markers and used them as I would with a dependable friend to glance back at Baranoff and the sea.
At the top, I kissed a rock I had found along the way and placed it in a pile started by other travelers who ritualized this experience. I carried my body on the flat earth to a spot that felt right, took off my pack, and gazed down into Edgecumbe's naval, crescent-filled with white lint snow. Sitting down felt exotic. Eating lunch felt indulgent. Really, to be sitting on top of a dormant volcano with my shoes and socks off on a sunny day in Southeast Alaska, overlooking forests, mountain ranges, ocean, and even seeing Sitka—this called for poetry, for odes, for screaming, and for all you yogis out there, this experience called for a happy baby. You cannot help but look and feel epic, you cannot help but feel your mind and body fused.
"How do people seem pre Edgecumbe and post Edgecumbe?" I now ask Alison Dunlap.
"Well I think whether it's sunnyor whether its cloudy they are pretty happy about it." Alison says that beforehand people excitedly talk in anticipation of the hike and then afterwards reflect on how amazing it was, much like how the six of us were on our Edgecumbe trip.
"Mostly people want to do more. They want to do something different or do the same thing. They just want more of it—insatiable."
Alaskan landscapes are addicting in that way. This land gives us reasons to go out and be amongst ourselves in wildness. It gives us reasons to get out of bed much earlier, gather with friends, support local businesses, and charter ourselves to experiences that get the spirit energized with meaning--not to mention all the awesome photo opportunities Alakasa gives, which will make you have one of the coolest profile pictures on Facebook.
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!
[tentblogger-vimeo 48769359]In July of 2012, thirteen undergraduate students from Knox College embarked on a 15-day wilderness expedition into the wilds of Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The trip was part of a semester long course entitled "Alaska: Forest, Fisheries, and the Politics of Wilderness". The course entailed an in-depth study of the history of natural resource management in Southeast Alaska. The first part of the course took place on the Knox College campus in Galesburg, IL with a thorough exploration of the literature regarding natural resource extraction in Southeast Alaska. This classroom based study of Alaskan resource management was complimented with a 15-day field expedition to the region the following summer. This was the "hands on" component to what they had learned in the classroom.
The students arrived in Sitka, Alaska on June 27th, 2012. After a few days of preparation they embarked on a 100 mile kayaking expedition guided by Latitude Adventures, a local kayak guiding operation. For many of these students, this was their first experience camping, not to mention their first experiences in the great Alaskan wilderness. After ten days on the water, exploring the intertidal zone, watching bears, eagles, and whales; the students arrive at False Island on Chichagof Island. There the students then spent five days working side by side with the United States Forest Service restoring salmon streams that had been degraded by industrial logging. They also had the opportunity to participate in a variety of scientific surveys aimed at understanding the complexities of young growth forests.
This expedition was so unique because it allowed the students to experience the places that they had learned about in the classroom, first hand. For many, this was a trip of a lifetime.
Opportunities like Knox College's course are available for colleges and universities throughout the nation. It is the goal of the Sitka Conservation Society and the Sitka Sound Science Center to connect courses like these with our local assets. We can connect you and your students with our local experts, guides, interpreters, and organizations to facilitate your course's Alaskan education.
PHOTO BY BERETT WILBER
Standing on top of one of the Pyramid mountains, gloved hands stuffed into my orange raincoat, I look out over a sea of pink and yellow clouds as the sun sets on the low evening ceiling that settles over Sitka Sound. Alaska is not always the easiest place to call home, but moments like these make me forget the rain and cold. They fill me with awe that presses out against my ribs, bringing up a line from a James Wright poem, A Blessing: "Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom."When the sun shines in my hometown, Sitka, I know I am in the most beautiful place on earth. Sitka is a bustling rural metropolis hugging twenty miles of shoreline on Baranof Island, in Southeast Alaska. The southeast "panhandle," sandwiched between British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska, is made up of eleven hundred islands called the Alexander Archipelago. Baranof is one of the largest, reaching one-hundred miles long and thirty miles across at its widest point. Like almost all of the other large islands, Baranof is covered in mountains and has year-round ice fields at high elevations.
Southeast Alaska is in the Tongass National Forest. Just shy of seventeen million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the country, and is part of the largest area of temperate rainforest on the planet. Temperate rainforest is a very specific and interesting ecosystem, defined by high annual precipitation, mild climate, and tree populations that do not require fire to regenerate.
Fifty degrees and overcast with a seventy percent chance of rain could be the forecast any day of the year in Sitka. Sitka gets about eighty seven inches of rain per year, and there are other towns, both north and south of us, that get up to one hundred-fifty inches annually. Rainfall varies throughout the region due to mountains and wind patterns.
Climate also varies throughout Southeast, but in general it is pretty mild. The ocean keeps the islands cool and wet in the summer, and warm and wet in the winter. Air temperatures range between forty and sixty degrees fahrenheit in the summer and twenty to forty degrees in the winter. Warm Japanese ocean currents keep the water around forty-five to fifty-five degrees, depending on the season.
Finally, temperate rainforests have little to no forest fires. In some places, like California, fire is part of the life cycle of the forest that allows plants to regenerate and be productive. In Southeast Alaska, wind is the change agent that keeps the forest going. In October and November, our stormiest months, straight winds of up to eighty or ninety miles per hour sweep through Southeast, taking out power lines, keeping people off the water, and blowing down trees. When trees get knocked over, the canopy opens up, allowing young trees to grow and providing light to the ground cover plants. The fallen trees themselves become "nursery logs," providing nutrients to new trees and plants.
While Southeast is not the dramatic icy tundra that many people imagine when they think of Alaska, its majestic mountainous islands make it beautiful in its own way. The mountains are one of my favorite features of the islands, and they have an interesting history. The islands did not all form in the same way, but are the result of a few different geological processes that gathered together over millions of years. At one point, the whole area was covered by glaciers, resulting in the topography we see today.
The Alexander Archipelago is made up of three different types of islands called Wrangellia, Stikine, and Alexander. Two-hundred and twenty million years ago, all three "terranes" were scattered off-shore, separate from each other. The Stikine terrane, made up of volcanic flow, paleozoic sedimentary rocks, and marine sandstone, probably started out as a chain of volcanic islands much like Hawaii. As the plates shifted 200 million years ago, the chain collided with ancient North America at what is now British Columbia. Wrangellia also started as a volcanic chain, but these islands sank below the surface and became a shallow reef covered by marine shale. After a while a rift in the ocean floor produced a large amount of volcanic basalt that covered the reef. Later still, copper was deposited on Wrangellia, and that is why today, the Wrangell mountains have copper deposits. The Alexander terrane, distinguished by its marble and limestone, joined up with Wrangellia off shore in the Middle Jurassic period. Together they made a subterrane that collided with the North American plate in a region of subduction. The collision caused metamorphic and igneous rocks to be formed, and the was begining of the region's mountains. Over the next 200 million years the land continued to shift, with rocks being added, and some rocks breaking off, forming the archipelago. Today the mountains are still growing, possibly rebounding from ancient glaciation or as a result of continued subduction. The Alexander Archipelago is defined by its deep channels and steep mountainous islands. The channels, like Chatham Strait, often mark fault lines between chunks of islands. Their depth, and the dramatic contrast with the mountains, is a result of ancient glaciation. At the height of the ice age, Southeast Alaska was covered in thick glaciers that scoured the islands down to bedrock. The only exposed habitat, called refugia, were small areas of coastline and rocky nunataks that stuck up above the ice at high elevations. Both types of refugia were islands of rock in a sea of ice, and supported life, including mountain goats and bears that still inhabit the islands today . When the glaciers melted, the channels flooded and the tops of the mountains became islands. Looking across Baranof Island on a clear day, you can pick out the sharp rocky peaks that must have survived above the ice, as well as the rounded mountains that were scoured down and made smooth by the heavy ice. There is a lake south of town, Blue Lake, where the deepest point is actually below sea level, probably because the valley was once hollowed out by ice.
It used to be believed that the islands were totally inhospitable during the ice age (Wisconsin glaciation), and all flora and fauna populations arrived and spread in the past 10,000 years . However, because of fossil findings, we are now fairly confident that refugia supported life during the ice age. Sea level was about 300 feet lower, and the coastline was lifted in response to the pressing down of the ice. This created the coastal refugia where plants and animals survived. These areas existed on islands we still see today, but it also connected some landforms that are now separated by water. Fossils of black and brown bears have been found in caves along the coast, dating back to the time of the ice age. Arctic fox, caribou, and ring seal bones have also been found in coastal caves, which leads scientists to believe Southeast Alaska used to look a lot like Northwestern Alaska does today. No polar bear remains have been found, but ring seals are their main food supply, so it would make sense that they would have been in the area as well. 
During the ice age, species were isolated and then they distributed in different directions when the ice melted. In this way species variation developed. Coastal brown bears and grizzly bears are the two main subspecies of brown bears, but depending on who you talk to there are up to ninety subspecies. Coastal brown bear DNA is surprisingly close to polar bear DNA. Baranof Island had some coastal refugia during the ice age, and today the coastal brown bears on the island are their own subspecies . Brown bears live on islands in the northern part of the archipelago, while black bears inhabit southern islands. After the ice age black bears spread south and inland, and the interior bears are now a distinct subspecies separated from the coastal bears, but by studying their lineage we can trace their movement and separation over time .
Southeast Alaska is not biodiverse, but it very diverse in the sense that there are many different ecosystems that exist closely with each other and form complex relationships. There are old growth forests, muskeg, alpine, coastal estuaries and more habitats that are home to many of the same flora and fauna. Because the same species exist throughout the ecosystems, the connections between animals and their environment can be seen, and sometimes they are surprising. The relationships between species and habitats also accentuate the impact of global warming in the Tongass.
The warming of the earth is a global phenomenon that disrupts localized ecosystems around the world. According to a study done by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Alaska's seasonal average temperatures have increased by as much as 5.6°F from 1949 to 1998. In Southeast Alaska, the temperature in the Tongass has gone up by 1.5-3°F in this time. The most warming was seen in winter and spring, and the only cooling was recorded in the fall . The impact of climate change in Southeast Alaska is clear, but it can pop up in unexpected ways.
For example, let's look at salmon. There are five types of Pacific salmon that spawn in streams throughout the Tongass. Around Sitka, there are a few pink salmon streams, a king salmon hatchery, and a great sockeye run at Lake Redoubt which is just a boat ride away. When salmon spawn in late summer, they return to the same river where they hatched, and swim up all the way to about the same spot where their parents spawned before. If they are not caught by fishermen or bears or impeded in some other way, they bury their eggs under the gravel in a hole called a redd, and then they die. The eggs have to survive in the streambed through winter, and in the spring the baby salmon hatch and grow until they are ready to swim out into the ocean. They live in the open ocean for one to seven years, depending on the species, and then they return again to their original stream to continue the life cycle. Global warming, however, is bad news for salmon populations. Because of global warming, the temperature of the streams has been increasing, and precipitation patterns have been changing. In the past few years Southeast Alaska has experienced periods of drought that are believed to have affected whole generations of salmon. A study done for the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, in 2009, looks at cases of poor pink salmon returns and their correlation to changes in climate. The pink salmon returning in 2006, which would have been eggs in the run of 2004, saw unpredicted low returns. According to the study, "Drought conditions and high stream temperatures in the late summer and fall of 2004 may have contributed to the poor year-class strength of pink salmon." The drought conditions in late summer would have meant less water in the streams, making it difficult for salmon to swim up river. The warmer water may also have presented a challenge to the eggs that were laid. They concluded that "poor marine survival as well as adverse freshwater conditions affected the 2006 returns." Three years later, in 2009, Sitka experienced a warm dry summer that caused concern among locals that we would have another poor fishing season down the road . I remember that summer because it was "the summer of the bear." The early returning pink salmon (salmon who come from parents who returned early in the season will also return early) came late and couldn't run upstream when they normally do because of the poor stream conditions. The bears (coastal brown bears) were not aware of the change in schedule, so they came down off the mountains in August just like they always do, expecting to gorge on salmon. Instead there were no salmon, and no berries either because of the dry weather. Grumpy and hungry, more bears than usual found their way into town. A mother with four cubs caused quite a lot of excitement around Sitka. Outside of town we saw bears everywhere. It was the summer of the bear. The returns in 2011 (the generation of eggs from the 2009 run) were not poor at all, if you look at the pink salmon harvest data recorded by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game . However, the same data reveals that every return of the 2004 salmon descendants has been poor (2006, 2008, 2010). It is probably only a matter of time before climate strikes again and debilitates another batch of salmon.
Salmon are full of nutrients that bears store to make it through the winter, and the same nutrients support the terrestrial ecosystem in the Tongass. In Southeast Alaska there are over 5,000 salmon streams. Because there are so many streams, "47% of the forested area within the Tongass falls within 0.5km of a salmon stream and over 90% within 5km" . Research is still being done on the effect of salmon derived nutrients in the Tongass. So far, we know that salmon bring in nitrogen, phosphorus, lipids, ammonia, and other nutrients that are consumed and distributed through many different pathways . Studies have been done to try and trace salmon-derived nitrogen (15N) and carbon (13C) isotope distribution in the Tongass, but it is a challenging study. It is almost impossible to trace the phosphorus, but that doesn't mean it is any less important. The problem is that we still don't really know how salmon derived nutrients are used by in terrestrial ecosystems in the Tongass, but there is no doubt that they are there. At this point it is hard to know how the forest will be impacted if salmon populations continue to decline, but it is undeniable that, like so much of the world, these systems are intertwined with each other.
I would like to think that if everyone could wake up in the morning and see what I see outside my front door, more people would be passionate about conservation. Our social habits that are detrimental to the environment would be easier to change, because if you can love a place, you will want to make sure it is always there. That's how I feel about Sitka, but I'm lucky. I grew up in a place where you can't avoid the smell of spawning salmon, and bear sightings are small town gossip. The mountains are literally right outside my door; I don't even have to get in a car, I can just climb to the top, eating blueberries along the way. I'm lucky that I can love my place first hand, when so many people don't get the chance to develop a personal connection with the natural world. Even if you aren't from a place, or have never even been to it, you can still fall in love with the mystery and beauty of a wilderness. More importantly, you can share your passion with others and spread appreciation for our planet. While Southeast Alaska is an isolated place of intricate connections, it serves to remind us that the entire earth is made up of a vast web of interacting ecosystems. When human impact disrupts one part of the system, effects radiate out in a chain of related reactions. If the whole world found its mountain sunset, real or imagined, maybe that would be enough to tip the scales of conservation and balance our delicate ecosystems for another few hundred years.
Sources:  "2012 Alaska Department of Fish and Game Southeast Alaska Pink Salmon Harvest Forecast. ." Alaska Department of Fish and Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/fishing/PDFs/commercial/2012_se_pink_salmon_harvest_forecast.pdf>.
 Connor, Cathy. " Geology of Southeast Alaska: With Special Emphasis on the Last 30,000 Years." . Raptor Research News, n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://raptors.hancockwildlife.org/BEIA/PAGES/Section-7.pdf>.
 "Evidence of Climate Change in Alaska." Climate Change. N.p., 2009. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <http://alaska.fws.gov/climate/inak.htm>.
 Gende, Scott M. , Richard T. Edwards, Mary F. Willson, and Mark S. Wipfli. "Pacific Salmon in Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems." Evergreen State College. Ebsco Publishing, 2002. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <http://academic.evergreen.edu/curricular/ftts/downloads/gende.pdf>.
 Heaton, Timothy. "Mammal Fossils." University of South Dakota. N.p., 2002. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://orgs.usd.edu/esci/alaska/mammals.html>.
 Schwing, Emily. "Drought Could Mean Decline in Pink Salmon." KCAW. Raven Radio, 2009. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <http://www.kcaw.org/2009/07/24/drought-could-mean-decline-in-pink-salmon/>.
 Waits, Lisette, Sandra Talbot, R.H. Ward, and G.F. Shields. "Conservation Biology." jstor. Society for Conservation Biology, April 1998. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2387511?seq=6>.
 Wertheimer, A.C., J.A. Orsi, E.A. Fergusson, and M.V. Sturdevant. 2009. Forecasting Pink Salmon Harvest in Southeast Alaska from Juvenile Salmon Abundance and Associated Environmental Parameters: 2008 Returns and 2009 Forecast. NPAFC Doc. 1202. 19 pp. (Available at http://www.npafc.org).
 Woodford, Riley. "Alaska Black Bears and the Ice Age Newcomers to the Interior but Long in Southeast." Alaska Department of Fish and Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlifenews.view_article&articles_id=509&issue_id=98>.
 Woodford, Riley. "Uncovering mysteries: New research reveals much about life, history of Baranof Island goats." Juneau Empire. Alaska Fish and Wildlife News, 26 November 2010. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://juneauempire.com/stories/112610/out_741885388.shtml>.
"Should I wear these pants or my stretchy ones?" Tracy Gagnon is sitting on the floor of my living room, hunting gear spread out around her, holding up a pair of lightweight hiking pants. Today is a momentous day for Tracy. Not only is it the day after her twenty sixth birthday, but it is the morning of her first ever hunting trip. She has sighted in her thirty aught six at the range, and her head is full of the philosophy of subsistence hunting.This is a big step for Tracy, who is originally from Las Vegas, and moved to Sitka a year ago to run the SCS program, Fish for Schools. "People in Las Vegas don't have guns!" she tells us (we laugh because that's probably not true), "no one hunts, at least no one I know." Actually, she says, her fifth grade teacher did make the class venison sloppy joes one time. And come to think of it, there was an ex-boyfriend who had an unsettling set of deer antlers mounted above his bed...but other than that, Tracy feels that she has had very little exposure to subsistence hunting culture.
Since moving to Alaska, things have been a little different. Tracy decided to start hunting because she wants to be responsible for her food, and up here, hunting seems like a good way provide for herself. A friend of hers once explained that he never feels more connected to the land than when he is hunting. Never more connected to the animal until he has lifted his gun to fire. Now we are in the car on the way to the harbor, and Tracy tells us she is awed by subsistence hunters in Alaska. "They know the place...they know how to read the wilderness, and they have a deep respect for the process," she says. She has heard so many stories of the rituals of respect that people have with hunting, reassembling the carcass after harvesting the meat, leaving a lock of hair on the mountain, always thankful to the deer for being in the right place in the right time, and standing still instead of bounding away. "I've never had those experiences," Tracy says, "so my main underlying reason [for hunting] is practical, but I'm also excited about the process.
We make it to the beach by nine, and we are up the ridge in an hour. We are getting a late start, but the extra sleep was worth it. The day could not be more beautiful. As we hike up through the trees, morning sun glints on the edge of each false summit, until we finally break out onto the alpine, where our ridge stretches out in front of us, and snowy peaks block out the horizon. We all agree that we are unbelievably lucky to live in the most beautiful place on earth. Our hunting location will remain unnamed, but I will tell you that we were in the Tongass, and not too far from Sitka. We see two float planes all day, and not a single other person. "Can you believe we woke up this morning and got to do this?" Berett (the photographer) asks. The ridge is about three miles long as the crow flies, and slowly climbs in a meandering curve up to a frozen lake nestled in a deep bowl. We hit snow after five hours of slow hunting, and the dog lies down to cool off. We go a little farther, then start down, still not giving up the hunt. It's hard to feel discouraged when you have such a glorious landscape to distract you.
Unfortunately, Tracy didn't bring her beginners luck, and we make it back to the beach at seven without sighting a deer. My mom, the experienced hunter on the trip, tells us not to be disappointed. "Subsistence hunting is like a kind of religion. Most religions have some aspect of faith in that which you cannot see." She tells us about a time when she was looking down a hillside, and she knew there must be a deer down there because the dog was going crazy, sniffing the air and prancing around like it was Christmas morning. Mom rested her gun on a boulder and looked and looked and couldn't see anything through the scope, and finally, growing impatient, the dog ran around the boulder and spooked the deer that had been laying there with it's back against the warm rock. "Deer surprise you when you are at your lowest and feel like giving up."
We don't come home with a deer, but we are not entirely empty handed; Tracy found some bright orange Chicken of the Woods mushrooms that she brought home for dinner, Berett got lots of great shots, and the dog brought back a forest's worth of sticks matted up in her fur. Back in the living room thirteen hours later, Tracy is still excited; "I actually think I've never seen a more beautiful view in my entire life. Twenty-six is a good year!"
Photos by BERETT WILBER
Berett Wilber was born and raised in fishing family in Sitka, Alaska. Currently studying as a junior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, the photography skills that she developed as a kid running around Baranof Island have developed into a dedicated interest and professional tool. Although she's worked in many interesting places, from the steps of the capital in Washington, DC to the prairies of the Midwest, the Tongass is still her favorite place to shoot.