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
This week on Voices of the Tongass we get to hear from Sitka native Torin Lehmann. To hear the show, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post. To read about the challenges of remote life, and why Torin feels lucky to be facing them, read on.
Photo By Berett Wilber
Torin Lehman is 23 years old and has the best commute in the Western Hemisphere. Maybe even in the world. It helps that the only way to get to work is by float plane. “We take off and we start heading south, fly over Camp Coogan. If it’s really cloudy sometimes we’ll have to fly all the way around the tip of the island, around Chatham. But if it’s a sunny day we can fly directly over the island. When you get up there it’s just mountains as far as the eye can see. Sometimes we’ll fly closer to see if we can spot any goats or bear or deer, and on the approach into Deer Lake you can see the cabin and an awesome natural log jam at the mouth of the lake.” Torin is a seasonal fisheries technician for NSRAA, and we managed to catch him for an interview on one of his rare days off in town. He works at a remote release station for coho salmon at Deer Lake, on the eastern side of Baranof Island. His job entails raising a stock of 2.8 million coho salmon until they’re big enough to be released into the ocean, which is an eleven month process.
When he’s not feeding millions of coho fry, Torin still has to find ways to stay busy. Fortunately, growing up in the Tongass has given him a lot of practice at creative entertainment. “I remember being six, seven years old and running around in the woods pretending I was a knight or a soldier. You’re given this stretch of land and you kind of build a story for yourself to interact with, you go out and use your imagination to build upon that.” Torin thinks that the place he grew up and the amount of time he’s gotten to spend outdoors contribute to the creativity he now has when it comes to life in the Togass. “I think growing up here encourages you to go out and explore and use your imagination and be creative with your surroundings. Down south, one of the things I noticed, at least with the friends I made, was that the things to do were to go to the mall or play video games.” Experiencing life “down south” reminds Torin how lucky he feels to be from Alaska. “How many other kids got to go whale watching from the minute they were born til now?…It teaches you not to take things for granted because there are millions of people who don’t get to enjoy the things we do here.”
Even with a lake full of tiny fish to keep him company, and no matter how creative he gets, Torin is out for weeks at a time. It can feel isolating. It’s hard to see his friends and family in Sitka, let alone maintain the connections with people he knows outside of the state. For people who live in the Lower 48, this might not seem like a big deal, but for many young Alaskans, it’s a major challenge. If you grow up in a small town, you know that maintaining good relationships with people you care about can have a huge impact on your happiness. “You know, I went to school in Maryland,” Torin says, “And trying to keep in touch with people from back there…” he trails off and shakes his head. “You have to work at it. On the East or West coasts, if you haven’t seen a friend in a while, you can just hop in your car. Here, if you want to see someone you went to school with, you have to buy a [plane] ticket, and figure dates out.” For young people in Alaska just entering the job market, it makes trying to find a balance between their relationships and the place they live both frustrating and expensive.
Despite the challenges of rural life, Torin still has a great attitude. His approach to staying positive is close to the hearts of Sitkans of every generation: “Living in Sitka, you have to enjoy the rain, that’s for sure. But it definitely makes the sunny days that much better,” he says. As we all know, Sitka has had a particularly sunny summer, and the night of Torin’s interview is beautiful. “I’ll probably go to the gym for a little bit after this, go on a hike with the dogs,” he says with a smile. “Have a beer. Watch the sunset.” After all, it is his weekend.
This week’s show takes us under the breaking waves for a night dive with Taylor White. To hear more about Taylor’s relationship with the ocean, read on. To hear her episode of Voices of the Tongass, scroll to the bottom of this post.
photo by Berett Wilber
Taylor White is 22 years old and she shares her office with a killer whale skeleton. She is the Aquarium Manager at the Sitka Sound Science Center. Whether it’s describing a night dive off the coast of Baranof Island or a kayak trip launched from her front yard, Taylor talks about the ocean like it’s a member of her family. It has drawn Taylor back each year to dive and snorkel her way into a job. “Leaving the ocean made me realize how much I wanted it in my life,” she says about her four years spent studying marine biology in the frustratingly landlocked Eastern Washington.
“I always wonder about how I would be if I grew up in a suburb,” Taylor says. She wouldn’t call herself a hard core crazy outdoors person, but because nature is literally at her doorstep it has become an integral part of her life. “I think any place where you grow up shapes who you are.” More specifically, Taylor feels that growing up in Sitka, Alaska, has grounded her and given meaning to the way she lives her life. “I’m appreciative for the perspective that Alaska gives you…you’re more a part of it, and more a part of the natural process than you would be in other places…Those sorts of experiences that don’t happen in other places.” Like the summer her friend got attacked by a bear while biking. “They make you stop and think about the place in the wider picture….it just makes you think more.”
When Taylor thinks about her four years in Washington, she remembers feeling pressed to meet deadlines and “living life not necessarily day by day.” One of Taylor’s favorite things is landing in Sitka on the narrow runway that juts out into the water. Her first stop in town is at Sandy Beach, where she loves to run into the water, no matter the season. “When I come back here it’s kind of nice to just stop and find my place again, instead of getting wound up with what I might call less of living and more of just doing.” She adds, here I think I live with more of a purpose and I understand better where I belong in my community, and in my surroundings, and that’s because of all those experiences of growing up and going away and coming back.”
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Tenders may only fulfill one or a few parts of the salmon commodity chain yet their hard labor and work ethic is what keeps our fishermen fishing and eventually our plates full of fish. To keep fishermen fishing, yet another amenity often provided by tenders is conversation.
This is where my role as a community organizer came in.
There are all sorts of approaches to packing Coho bellies with ice–I got a little ridiculous and acrobatic.
While on the tender boats, I both worked as a crew member, and an organizer. While working on the tender boats, I talked with fishermen and deckhands about the US Forest Service’s Tongass Transition and how the transition should be focused on protecting the salmon they depend on.
It is very important that fishermen and tender operators voice their concerns with the people and agencies responsible for managing our Tongass National Forest because the salmon these fishermen depend on come directly from the Tongass. Salmon fishing accounts for over 7,000 jobs, hundreds of millions in revenue, and are a sent out as food to people from all over the country.
A Sitka fishermen offloads his catch to the Shoreline Scow in Pelican, AK.
It wasn’t surprising thing I found that most fishermen catching salmon had not heard about the Tongass Transition because the Forest Service is still only focusing on timber.
The very Coho that I helped process spent anywhere from one to five years in the rivers, streams, tributaries, sloughs, and back-pools of Tongass watersheds. Now here they were: supporting the livelihoods of these fishermen while generating thousands of jobs in our Southeast economy by the many hands that catch, weigh, stuff, and ship these fish all over the world.
Rows and rows of Coho with ice-stuffed bellies are lined up in totes that can hold from 1,000-1,500 pounds of fish and ice.
It is the Forest Service’s job to manage the Tongass, our forest and resources, in a way that reflects the people of Southeast Alaska’s priorities. If you look at the economic stats and use common sense, Salmon is the most sustainable and valuable resource that the Tongass produces.
After discussing the Tongass Transition with the large number of fishermen I worked with this summer, they want the Forest Service to start implementing the Transition, and make sure that salmon are a big focus of the Forest Service’s work. They have written messages to the Forest Service that include “I have been trolling in SE for the last 9 years and will for many more to come. Every salmon is important to me. It is my livelihood so every fish counts.” They are telling the Forest Service to prioritize restoring salmon habitat damaged by historic logging as the main focus of the Transition.
As my friend Kai on the Shoreline scow said about fishermen and deckhands respectively, “You slice um, we ice ‘um,” we Sitkans, fishermen, and users of the Tongass can say to our Forest Service respectively, “you manage ‘um, we live off of ‘um.”
If you haven’t already done so, type up a quick email to Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell asking him to implement the Tongass Transition and to focus management effort on salmon for the benefit of the fishermen, the multitude of jobs created by the fishing industry (such as our beloved tender operators), and the delicious taste of salmon for super. It takes 5 minutes, yet helps keep the people who depend on the Tongass.
The chief’s email is [email protected], and if you need more information for your email, click here. You just gotta clearly state “Implement the Tongass Transition and move beyond Old Grown timber harvest, Chief Tidwell.”
Over the course of the summer, I had a chance to talk to a huge number of fishermen, but our conversations did not happen just at the harbors, docks, or in Sitka’s Pbar. Instead, they occurred on tenders.
Tenders are a very important component of Southeast Alaska’s fishing industry and serve fishing boats that are far from their home harbors.
Either stationary like the Shoreline Scow by Pelican or mobile like Sitka’s Ginny C or Deer Harbor II, tenders serve our fishermen with paychecks, ice, and at times with rare amenities like hot showers and right-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. The job of tender boats is to unload the catch from fishing boats on the fishing grounds. On the tender boats, the fishermen’s catch gets sorted, weighed, iced up, and packed away in a matter of minutes. During those minutes, there is a lot of physical and mental endurance by people who are typically behind the scenes in the fishing industry.
As a community organizer, I saw working on tenders as not only a way to reach out to fishermen about the Tongass Transition during the busy fishing season, but also as a way to get some sort of experience in the lifestyle and hard work that most people in Southeast commit to in order to make their living.
Picture the King salmon opening in July, which is one of the busiest times for salmon trollers and consequently for the tenders. A typical day for tender deckhands begins at 6 or 7 in the morning with greetings from fishermen that have been waiting to sell their fish since 3 am. There is not just one boat waiting to offload, but a line of 5 boats with more lingering close by. The hydraulics are turned on, the crane is in motion, and bags of fish are hauled one at a time from the fishermen’s boat to a tray on the tender where the deckhands sort the fish for quality and weight.
Once weighed these often heavy and large fish are grasped by the gills and neck, one in each hand, by deckhands that then simultaneously toss both fish into a tote with a repetition that fills the tote with layers of fish and ice in a matter of seconds. These deckhands have to be quick, to operate under pressure, to persevere with numb hands and hungry bellies as each fishermen offloads thousands of pounds of their livelihood onboard in the hopes to catch more in the next few days.
With troll caught Coho aboard, deckhands of the Ginny C and myself removed the ice from salmon bellies, weighed the fish, placed them in totes, and then stuffed their bellies again with ice.
After working on their feet for hours, moving around totes of around 1000 pounds of fish and ice, breaking apart new totes of ice with metal shovels, tossing around 12 pound fish with sore muscles and wrists, stuffing salmon bellies with ice, and then scrubbing the whole operation down with bleach, Joy soap, and water, the deckhands yawn themselves to bed around 2 am, quite possibly still covered in fish slime. Then they will sleep for 4 or 5 hours, wake up, and do it all over again.
The Shoreline in Pelican, AK has been a woman-run operation for decades, and I was fortunate to join them for a few days and share in their hard, hard work, which helps our fishermen keep fishing.
Stay tuned! I will be posting a blog piece focused on the advocacy work I did on tenders entitled “You slay ‘um, we weigh ‘um”: a mix of tendering and Tongass Transition advocacy in Southeast Take Two. A big thank you to KaiLea Wallin who coined the two slogans I have used as titles for these blog pieces.
This week’s episode of Voices of the Tongass takes us deep under the surface of our coastal waters. To hear Tory O’Connell share stories from her underwater research career, scroll to the bottom of this post and click the play bar. To read more about why Tory chose to make her life in Alaska, read on.
Tory O’Connell’s perspective on the ocean is usually reserved, well, for fish. Though she was raised in New Jersey, she first came to Alaska in 1978 to work on a bowhead whale survey in the Chukchi Sea. Her first gig in Sitka was working as a diver biologist for a rockfish survey earning $100 a month. It was the very beginning of the commercial rockfish fishery in Alaska, and Tory’s life was about to become seriously entwined with one of Alaska’s most colorful vertebrates.
“There’s a little two person submersible called the Delta. It’s this little yellow submarine, and originally in 1985, I was aware that there was this program called The National Undersea Program, and we were trying to figure out how many Yelloweye Rockfish there were. It was hard because they live in rocky habitats and deep water – normally you would just troll, but that doesn’t work in rocky habits. And you can’t tag them because rockfish have a swim bladder that inflates at the surface. So I got this idea to use the submersible. We wrote a grant and it surprised everyone when we got it.” And so, Tory began to use the Delta to dive down and count Yelloweye Rockfish.
Flash forward to the present. Sitting in Tory’s office at the Sitka Sound Science Center, her innovation and success no longer seem surprising. Tory is one of the premiere marine experts on the bottomfish of the Pacific. She has traveled all over the world talking about how to record and sample hard-to-find species in hard-to-access habitats, and racked up more than 600 dives in the Delta submersible, from California to Alaska. And though she has been SCUBA diving in almost every place she has ever been to, she says that the diving here at home is hard to beat. “Sitka, the outer coast of Southeast Alaska, has some of the best scuba diving in the world,” Tory says, adding that while the water is not very warm, the visibility in deep water can be up to a hundred feet.
And there’s more connecting Tory to this place than the time she’s spent underwater. When we asked Tory how living in Alaska has changed who she is today, her response was that raising her two daughters in Sitka has had the most impact on her. “It’s hard to figure out what’s because of Sitka. I think I have become a better person because my children are such great people…I think this will always be home to them.”
Because Tory grew up on the east coast, she can see how growing up in Sitka has been a different experience for her two daughters. “Popping tar bubbles with your feet in the summer in New Jersey. That I miss. And I miss downpours, thunder and lighting, I miss that in the summer and fall. Real bread, I miss real bread…fireflies. But on the other hand you get phosphorescence. And [Margot and Chandler’s] experience has been pretty rich here…I can’t imagine my life without Sitka.”
Tory isn’t the only one who feels like her life is intertwined with Southeast Alaska. Many Alaskans found their way here in their early twenties, like Tory, and came up with ways to stay. Tory started out as a research assistant making barely enough to get by, and in a few short years she was the point person running the Rockfish survey project. For Tory, Alaska was and is a place where she could make opportunities for herself, and literally choose her own adventure.
How have you shaped your life in Alaska? How has Alaska shaped you?
THE TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST AND THE COHO SALMON:
Alaska’s coho fisheries and the Tongass National Forest are closely related. Shot in Sitka over the fishing season of 2013 by Berett Wilber, this photo essay illustrates how conservation and restoration matter to local fisherman, and why it should matter to you.