This week on Voices of the Tongass, John Straley talks about what it means to succeed in the Last Frontier, from building a career to building a family. To hear the show, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
John Straley's father could not have predicted that moving to the Last Frontier would turn his horse-shoeing son into an intellectual. "He always thought I was better suited to be running a chainsaw," John says. "He was very proud when I became a writer, but he thought it was good that I had a back-up career as a laborer." John's father needn't have worried. While John didn't take the most traditional path to being one of Alaska's most celebrated modern authors, he certainly took an effective one. "Being a horseshoer turns out to be a good motivation to be an intellectual. Your back motivates you to read books." While it also might have helped that there weren't many horses around, any way you look at it, he seems to have subverted his father's expectations. From being a private eye to a youth conservation leader, there are few corners of the community that John has not have a presence in. And of course, his experience means has led to a life as no literary slouch: he has been published many times in many genres, serving as Alaska's writer laureate between 2006 and 2008.
But, like any reputable laborer, John isn't one to dwell on success. After almost forty years living in Alaska, he's come to value his work not by the quantity of his audience, but by it's quality. "I've been in a fancy hotel. And waited in the lobby for my driver and a Lincoln Town car to take me to a bookstore," he says. "I didn't make enough money that day to change anything. If I can give a reading at the library here, I'm happy. That's as much audience as I need. if I can go to a friend's house and read their kids to sleep, that's as much as I need."
And like his own father, John has learned to have his own expectations about being a father subverted. Attention to accurate description, necessary qualities for a writer and a poet, had some different effects when it came to fatherhood. He tells a story about teaching his son Finn some of the everyday joys of the Alaskan experience with his wife, Jan. "When we lived in Fairbanks," he tells us, "she got a hand lens, and when a mosquito landed on Finn's arm, she showed him what happens when a mosquito lands on him. Vividly. And when he steps outside the next day, and the screen door is just black with mosquitos, he starts screaming because the air is filled with monsters that suck his blood." There is a significant pause while John reflects. "This was a mistake," he admits.
But for any listener who has the opportunity to hear even a few of John's stories, it's impossible to believe that parenthood in Alaska was all tribulation - far from it. Near the end of his interview, John says something about the life he has built in the Alaska that rings true, even for those of us who have not spent nearly as much time in the wilderness as John has. "We've stayed here for now, jeez, almost 35 years or more," he says. "It's just become a fabulous part of our family. It changed all the stories I've written, the poems I've written. I'm sixty years old. I'm just happy to be alive. I can't imagine living any place else."
Listen to the show:9_LWL_JOHN_STRALEY
The signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964 legally mandated the preservation of designated wilderness areas throughout the United States. Section 2 (c) elegantly defined wilderness to be "…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man" as well as "…an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions." In regards to managing these wilderness areas, two contradictory phrases emerge from this definition: "untrammeled by man" and "natural conditions." They may not seem to be inherently contradictory, but even with minimal human activity, over time the idea of "wild" and "natural" have begun to clash.
In order for an area to be wild, it must be unfettered by human control and manipulation. Wilderness areas, however, are frequented by visitors whose visits, sometimes quite negatively, impact the area. As a result of all this human interaction with wilderness, native species, patterns and ecological processes change. So the question arises, in these circumstances, where the natural conditions of the wilderness have been unsuccessfully preserved, should people enter these areas and attempt to restore them to their natural condition?
Ecological restoration is defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration as an "intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability." Thus, restoration with its innate quality will bring conservationists into wilderness areas, compromising the wild aspect of the wilderness. Still, if restoration is not pursued, the naturalness of the area may be further diminished, as native ecosystems degrade. So, herein lies the management dilemma for restoring wilderness—striking the balance between wild and natural. The vague definition of wilderness adds to the management conundrum, as what aspect of wilderness takes priority (being "wild" or "natural) is up for interpretation.
The Tongass, with 18 wilderness areas spanning 5,746,000 acres, presents a unique vignette of this dilemma. Recently, a group consisting of Scott Harris (SCS's Conservation Science Director), Kitty Labounty (SCS board member and Botany Professor at University of Alaska Southeast), Jen McNew (Botany Intern) and myself ventured to Rust Lake, located in the West Chichigof Wilderness area, to take our stab at wilderness restoration. Our task was to locate and eradicate non-native dandelions (Taraxacum officnale).
This recent trip was the second time that Kitty had been to Rust Lake this summer. The dandelionpopulationwas present but not overwhelmingly so. During our three days at Rust Lake we pulled over 1,000 dandelions from gravel bars along the Rust Lake stream. One thousand plants may seem like a lot, but it is likely that your backyard has over 100 individual dandelion plants. Still, dandelions are well adapted to distributehundreds of seeds great distances and are capable of outcompeting the native plants at Rust Lake. This is why we were motivated to manage the population. That being said, the native flora, including monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) and alpine bog swertia (Swertia perennis), currently appear unharmed. Thus, with two trips per year to Rust Lake to pull dandelions, the native ecosystem will likely flourish.
Rust Lake offers another possible wilderness restoration project, because it has a "tap" for a hydroelectric plant that used to provide power to the historic Chichagof mine. The hydroelectric plant and mine are both inoperative, but the tap continues to function, significantly lowering the Lake's water level below its natural level. In fact, the water level is so low that our floatplane pilot remarked that landing in Rust Lake is "always an experiment." Plugging this spigot appears to be a straightforward project that would not be too difficult, but go a long way in restoring Rust Lake to its natural condition. This brings me back to my original point, what takes priority? Restoring the lake to its natural condition? Or keeping it "untrammeled" by human activity?
The majority of my knowledge stems from learning about and working to restore highly degraded environments. Here in Southeast Alaska, I have spent the bulk of my time monitoring restoration of forests and streams in areas that were once clear-cut. The idea of restoring wilderness vastly differs from these kinds of restoration projects. These areas are not completely degraded by the interruptions of humans. These areas are the last stronghold of what once covered the earth—natural and unhampered ecosystems. The unique habitats found at Rust Lake include many magnificent sub-alpine wildflowers that must be protected from weed invasion. Wilderness areas are the last refuge for countless species and ecosystems and in order to best protect these areas, managers must work to find that balance between wild and natural. The fact that these areas are so extraordinarily sparse is exactly why I think we should cautiously pursue wilderness restoration.
Film maker Ben Hamilton has captured the essence of the Sitka Community Use Area in this video. In just two minutes find out what makes the Tongass so remarkable:
The Tongass National Forest is the largest forest in the National Forest System. Weighing in at 17 million acres, it encompasses almost the entire Southeast Alaska Panhandle. The Southeast is sprinkled with small towns that have built economies around the resources that the Tongass provides. As a community, Sitka is no different, and is intrinsically connected to the Tongass National Forest. We rely on its resources and all management decisions have repercussions that resonate within the community socially, economically and ecologically. Once a typical timber pulp town, the community now concentrates on the other assets and experiences the Tongass has to offer. At SCS we focus on an area of the Tongass known as the SCUA, Sitka Community Use Area. Ecosystems are never constrained by manmade boundaries, but the SCUA encompasses what Sitkans consider to be their backyard. The SCUA is important to Sitka for jobs, recreation, subsistence, renewable energy, economic development, clean air, clean water, cultural and traditional uses, and our overall quality of life.
SCS is optimistic with USDA Secretary Vilsack's recent announcement, reiterating a commitment to the Transition Framework, that there will also be renewed focus on all of the assets the Tongass has to offer. For us, this commitment means prioritizing the health of the forest and supporting local businesses that rely on the Tongass to keep our community afloat. A diverse Forest Service budget that focuses on watershed health, fisheries, recreation and the visitor industry is paramount to preserve the core aspects of a new economy for Sitka and other communities in the Southeast. SCS continues to support and highlight projects that clearly demonstrate attention to the Transition in ways that are lacking in other programs and projects on the Tongass.
"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." - US Congress 1964
What is wilderness? It was described legally, albeit vaguely, by Congress in 1964 with the passing of the Wilderness Act. However, it remains something deeply personal, is experienced in a multitude of ways and is not always clearly defined amongst its supporters and defenders. I attempted to define wilderness for myself as I joined one of SCS' wilderness crews this summer, spending eight days at Red Bluff Bay. While we were there enjoying and exploring, taking full advantage of the opportunity the trip afforded us, we were also conducting Wilderness Monitoring and outreach. Wilderness Monitoring is required by the Wilderness Act, that is, managing agencies (US Forest Service) are responsible for monitoring designated wilderness areas and preserving the ‘wilderness character'. Therein lies the conundrum, how do you monitor something that is not truly defined in the wilderness act? Additionally, both the wilderness character and individual experience are further muddied by the fact that wilderness areas may be adjacent to areas not subject to the same restrictions as a designated wilderness area.
Such is the case with Red Bluff Bay. While the land is part of the wilderness preservation system, managed by the US Forest Service, the bay itself is ocean waters. The Forest Service has no jurisdiction over ocean waters therefore; the bay isn't bound by preserving the same wilderness character as its land based neighbor. So, how do you define a wilderness, or is it really reduced to a matter of boundaries? Due to its remote location, Red Bluff Bay is most often accessed by boat and sometimes float plane. If it weren't for the bay and the access it provides to boaters and planes, the number of visits it receives annually would likely be reduced.
We were there, primarily, to monitor wilderness solitude, which entailed counting boats and planes and encounters with other visitors. Given our task, it should be noted that our crew arrived there by floatplane and left by boat. We relieved a few crew members from the previous week and joined the camp that was established on the edge of the Northside of the bay, halfway between the entrance at Chatham Strait and the estuary in the west. We spent our days exploring the landscapes around us including the bluffs that give the bay its name, Falls Lake, an old abandoned cannery site, and the estuary nestled quaintly in the western portion of the bay. Our first night we kayaked into the estuary to explore a little and once back there found nine sail boats and two yachts anchored up for the night. Two more yachts anchored just offshore from our campsite, one of the captains telling us they didn't want to crowd the other boats. On another day we saw the entrance of the bay brimming with activity as a sailboat parade trickled out, replaced by new yachts and small cruise ships motoring in and jockeying for prime spots in the estuary and near the falls. There were the daily salmon surveys conducted aerially by ADF&G planes and commercial fishing boats that occasionally anchored up for the night, flooding our campsite with light. The busiest day had two yachts coming in along with a small cruise ship (towing a skiff) and a float plane landing all within a few hundred yards of one another. We had spent a quiet evening, just the four of us, paddling around the falls a few days ago, tonight the waters would be filled with kayakers from the cruise ship on a post dinner excursion.
While all of this activity disrupted the quiet or gave the impression that you weren't far from civilization, I still felt a sense of wilderness. I still felt awe struck and grateful for the experience, even if it came with a little traffic and noise. The people that we met were always friendly, and they certainly thought they were experiencing the wilderness. We had our fair share of wildlife encounters too. I found myself mesmerized, sometimes terrified, by bears and sea lions. Whenever we were hiking or kayaking, I found the landscape to be ‘untrammeled by man' and felt a sense of peace and solitude, along with a dash of anxiety. But that is what makes defining wilderness so difficult. My perception is likely drastically different from those on the yacht, or the cruise ships, or other members of our crew. One person may need a cabin easily accessible by road or a semi-quiet spot in an estuary to feel they are enjoying something wild, while another may need to find themselves truly lost, engulfed by remote spaces that are rarely visited, if ever, by a human being. It's these differences that make wilderness so attractive; it is subject to context and open to interpretation. For me, it's a place (where cell phones don't work!), a habitat description, a technical classification and a feeling. It's a place where I can connect and feel lost, even if only for a short time between boat visits and salmon surveys.
This is a story of a small place - a sandbar -, in a big place - the Red Bluff River -, in an even bigger place - the South Baranof Wilderness -, and, well, we won't even get into the Tongass and beyond.
Over a week of work in Red Bluff Bay this week, we got to know the area very well. Three of our fifteen trip goals happened to require upriver travel, which we did on foot and by packraft. While upriver, we observed beavers, surveyed for owls and amphibians, and measured many giant trees, including a few spruce trees that were over 25 feet in circumference.
The Red Bluff River's productivity and diversity can be traced back to those giant trees; as they rot and fall they alter the course of the river, make homes for canopy and cavity dwellers, and open clearings for berries and deer. Sometimes, they create sandbars, and we decided to survey one of those sandbars in more detail.
On this small patch of gravel and dead tree - also an ideal spot for salmon to spawn - SCS botany intern was able to identify forty-seven different species of plants, including the rare Mimulus lewisii, of which we collected a sample for genetic analysis. Mimulus lewisii, more often known as the pink monkeyflower, has a very interesting, patchy distribution that may be linked to receding ice and snow cover. Here's a close-up of the flower: may it inspire you to go for a stroll in the wilderness!
Explore West Chichagof Wilderness
with Sitka Conservation Society and Sound SailingJoin us to explore the spectacular and wild coast of West Chichagof-Yakobi Island Wilderness aboard a comfortable 50' sailing yacht! And help raise funds for Sitka Conservation Society!
We will be travelling from Juneau to Sitka aboard the modern, fast, and roomy S/V BOB with Blain & Monique Anderson of Sound Sailing. Proud SCS members and US Coast Guard licensed and insured sailors; they are offering berths to SCS members for an incredible opportunity to experience the very best of Southeast Alaska. Past participants have encountered orcas, humpback and grey whales, innumerable birds, brown bears, and much more. We will also have knowledgeable and engaging SCS staff member(s) aboard to enrich our understanding of this special place.
Dates: August 24-30, 2013
Cost: $2575 per person (price includes all fare aboard and expenses).
Sound Sailing is proud to donate a substantial portion of trip proceeds to SCS.
Book your spot now! Space is limited to just 6 lucky passengers.
The summer boat tour adventure continues to the
West Chichagof-Yakobi Wildernesson Tuesday July 23rd.
The West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area is near and dear to our hearts here at SCS, as the central focus of our founding as an organization. Thirty-three years after its federal designation as a Wilderness Area, West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness is still a place treasured by many Alaskans. Come with as we explore just some of the many reasons that this Wilderness is such a special place.
Guest speakers from the US Forest Service and the Sitka Conservation Society will guide us through the dramatic beginnings of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area, what makes a wilderness a Wilderness, why these places are so important, and more.
This special tour will take place on Tuesday July 23rd, from 5:30 to 9:30pm. TIckets can be purchased from Old Harbor Books 201 Lincoln Street for $45 or (if available) at the Crescent Harbor loading dock at time of the cruise. It is suggested that tickets be purchased in advance to assure participation. Boarding begins at 5:15 pm. at Crescent Harbor.Due to the discounted rate of this trip, we are unable to offer additionally reduced rates for seniors or children.
This cruise is great for locals who want to get out on the water, for visitors to Sitka who want to learn more about our surrounding natural environment, or for family members visiting Sitka. Complimentary hot drinks are available on board and you may bring your own snacks.Binoculars are available on board for your use.Allen Marine generously offers this boat trip at a reduced rate for non-profits. Please call 747-7509 for more information or email email@example.com
See you on the boat!
Interested in volunteering with the Community Wilderness Stewardship Project? This year we'll have a number of opportunities for you to get into the field with SCS staff and USFS Wilderness Rangers to help collect monitoring data, remove invasive weeds, and enjoy our amazing Wilderness areas.
Slocum Arm- 6 days - July 8-July 14 – 2 volunteers
Volunteers will be travelling to Slocum Arm in West Chichagof Wilderness Area to help researchers monitor plots for the Yellow-Cedar study by Stanford University. The crew will be transported by charter boat to Slocum Arm, then access field plot by kayak.
Slocum Arm – 5 days – July 14-July18 - 2 volunteers
Volunteers will be travelling to Slocum Arm in West Chichagof Wilderness Area to help researchers monitor plots for the Yellow-Cedar study by Stanford University. The crew will be transported by charter boat to Slocum Arm, then access field plot by kayak. This trip will trade-out with the previous trip on July 14th.
Port Banks/Whale Bay- 5 days – July12-July16 – 2 volunteers
After boating from Sitka to Whale Bay, the crew will off-load with gear and packrafts. After hiking to Plotnikof Lake, the crew will packraft to the end of the lake, portage to Davidoff Lake and paddle to the end of the lake, then reverse the trip back to salt water. Volunteers will assist SCS staff and collect ecological and visitor use data. At the end of the trip, volunteers will fly back to Sitka by float plane.
Red Bluff Bay- 8 days – July 21-July 28 – 2 volunteers
Red Bluff Bay on the eastern side of South Baranof Wilderness Area is a spectacular destination. The SCS crew will spend 8 days camping in the bay and traveling by kayak and foot to monitor base-line ecological conditions and visitor use before flying back to Sitka by float plane.
Red Bluff Bay- 7 days – July 28-August 3 – 2 volunteers
Red Bluff Bay on the eastern side of South Baranof Wilderness Area is a spectacular destination. The SCS crew will spend 8 days camping in the bay and traveling by kayak and foot to monitor base-line ecological conditions and visitor use before flying back to Sitka by float plane. This trip will trade-out with the previous trip on August 3.
Taigud Islands – 7 days – August 11-August 17 – 3 volunteers
Volunteers will paddle from Sitka to the Taiguds and surrounding islands to assist SCS Wilderness staff monitor recreational sites and collect beachdebrisfor future pick-up. The crew will then paddle back to Sitka. *Note: These dates are not yet firm and may be subject to change.
Saturday, June 8th and Sunday June 9th (we will be camping overnight at Starrigavan Campground, Sitka)Description: This course will allow participants to learn, practice, and teach the principles of Leave-No-Trace outdoor ethics and will certify participants as LNT Trainers. The Leave-No-Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a national organization dedicated to teaching people how to use the outdoor responsibly. It is the largest and most widely accepted and widely used outdoor ethics accreditation program in the nation.
The Training includes 16 hours of hands-on instruction and overnight camping. The course will be held at Starrigavan Campground.
This LNT Trainer Course will focus on the skills to teach Leave-No-Trace as well as practical low-impact outdoor skills. Participants will be asked to prepare a short 10-15 minute lesson on of the Leave-No-Trace principles or other minimum impact topic before the class, then present the lesson during the course. (These lessons are not expected to be perfect. They will provide a learning tool for the group to improve their outdoor teaching skills.)
Who: This course is intended for outfitters, guides, naturalists, Scout leaders, etc., and anyone who would like to have certification to teach Leave-No-Trace skills.
Course Times: The course will begin at 9:30am on Saturday, June 8th and will conclude by 5:00pm on Sunday, June 9th.
Gear: Participants need to bring their own camping gear. SCS has a limited amount of camping gear to loan if necessary. Please pack a lunch for the first day.
Cost: $35.00 per person. The fee covers dinner on Saturday, lunch and dinner on Sunday, drinks, and course materials.
Contact: Please reserve your spot by registering before May 31st. To facilitate your preparation for the course, we recommend an earlier registration if possible. You can register by contacting the Sitka Conservation Society at 907-747-7409 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instructors: Adam Andis, Master Educator, Sitka Conservation Society
Bryan Anaclerio, Master Educator Trainer, Sitka Conservation Society
Darrin Kelly, Master Educator, USDA Forest Service
Ever wonder where the idea of wilderness came from?Follow the first explorers of Alaska, like Georg Steller, the German naturalist aboard the S/V Gabriel with Vitus Bering upon the first "discovery" of Alaska's coast or the Episcopal priest Hudson Struck who made the first ascent of Denali, as they struggle to frame their experiences in this wild lands. Look through John Muir's eyes during his adventures in Glacier Bay. Travel with Mardy and Olaus Murie's to the interior rivers. Explore the Brooks Range with Bob Marshall. We will see how these writers formed the idea of wilderness, and how the wilderness inspired their writing.
This lecturewill be presented by Adam Andis and is part of the Backwoods and Water Lecture Series. Andis wrote his undergraduate thesis on wilderness in Alaskan nature writing. He now manages the Wilderness Stewardship Program at Sitka Conservation Society. He has a degree in Environmental Studies with emphasis in Wilderness Philosophy and is a founding board member of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance.
Sunday, May 12th from 5:00 to 6:00 pm at the Kettleson Library.