Anyone who has lived in Southeast Alaska for any amount of time can’t help but feel a sense of connection to the place. This week on Voices of the Tongass, Matt Hunter reflects on his relationship to the people and the landscape in Sitka. To hear what he has to say, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Matt Hunter wants to live in Sitka forever. He’s already been here for thirty years, and he has decided that it is the place for him. What makes someone who once dreamed of becoming an astronaut choose to make their life in a tiny isolated town in the Tongass? Love of place. It’s not outer space, but, to Matt, Sitka is still a place of limitless possibilities. “In a big town I wouldn’t be able to run on the ambulance, that would be all profession paramedics. The Search and Rescue program is it’s own city department here, so we can respond before the troopers give the word.”
Matt also loves the environment around Sitka. “Kayaking and having a whale pop up next to you…hiking in the fog, where you can’t see more than 10 or 15 feet and your entire existence is 30 foot circle around you…I really like getting up on a mountain if it’s a little stormy or wintry weather, and it’s dark and grey and gets a little uncomfortable. You get out on a ridge and there’s this blast of air that almost knocks you over, and you realize the power of the wind. And I love those moments.”
Matt’s life in Sitka has given him an insightful perspective on how we relate to the natural world. He believes that he values the environment because he gets out and experiences it all the time. But not everyone is that lucky. Matt compares some people’s distance from nature to our isolation from most current events. “I find myself not wanting to read the newspapers – war, you don’t want to think about it as real. The same thing can happen with nature. You don’t value it because it’a a totally foreign concept.”
While we are pretty isolated here in Sitka, our conversation with Matt reminded us that we are certainly not lacking in opportunities. He pointed out that everything that happens in Sitka is made possible by passionate individuals who create opportunity for themselves and others. “You can do pretty much anything in Sitka. I couldn’t be an astronaut, but I don’t really know if I need to do that anymore.”
The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H wrapped up a fall foraging and wild edibles series in October. 4H is a positive youth development program throughout the nation that challenges youth to engage their head, heart, hands, and health for themselves and the community in which they live. We spent the month learning, gathering, and working with wild edibles in the Tongass National Forest. Subsistence truly is the Alaska way-of-life here in Sitka. The 4Hers learned how to preserve foods by canning jelly and making fruit leather. We concluded the series with a distribution of gifts to give back to our community members.
Rose hips are the bright red fruit of the wild rose, or Rosa rugosia, which are abundant in Sitka. Many of them grow in town, providing beautiful color to the lawns of many homes. The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H club learned how to harvest the fruit and preserve it into jelly and fruit leather. The kids had fun mashing the rose hips in a food mill to create a puree for the fruit leather and squeezing them in cheese cloth for the jelly.
Kitty LaBounty, UAS biology professor and mycologist, was a special guest on the 4H mushroom hunt in September. In the forest, we found puffballs, winter chanterelles, and various russulas. The kids experienced the Tongass with a new perspective and learned about the interdependence of the forest ecosystem: how the fungi work with the plants in decomposition and forest diversity. We got up close and personal with the mushrooms by creating spore prints on paper by setting the cap down overnight. The print reflects the shape of the gills, folds, spines, or pores, which helps to identify the mushroom. We used a fixative to set the spore prints in order to make Thank You cards for those who helped us with our series. The 4Hers were able to practice creativity with the print: one 4Her made a person out of the spores!
Our last challenge was in the muskeg to search for Lingonberries. The small waxy-leaf plants are found on the dry mounds of the muskeg and grow far and few between. They can blossom in clusters as big as 5 berries, but in our experience those are rare. It takes patience to find these little berries and the 4Hers seemed to be up to the test after the mushrooms hunt! The day was very cold and rainy, but they were successful at finding berries. Lingonberries are very popular in our fellow arctic polar region of Scandinavia for sauce and jam!
The Alaska Way-of-Life 4Hers are learning by doing and giving back to the community that supports them here in Sitka. The more they know about the Tongass, the more appreciation they will have for the Alaska way-of-life. They embraced the process from Tongass to the table, and share with their friends what they now know about living with the land here in Sitka. They are excited to be able to identify the plants in the muskeg, forest, and urban settings, and make food from what they find. It was also heartening to see their enthusiasm for giving to community members at the Sitka Pioneer’s Home and those who helped make this series possible.
The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H club is currently engaged in an outdoor survival series!
Richard Nelsonand Hank Lentfer will be featured at the next Natural History Seminar series presentation titled “Chasing Wild Sounds” December 5th, 7:30pm at UAS. Nelson and Lentfer will discuss their project “Voices of Glacier Bay National Park”, an effort to create a library documenting natural sounds from the park, including everything from the subtle scratches of a crab claws on sand grains to the reverberating trumpets of humpback whales echoing across the bay.
If you have questions, please contact Kitty LaBounty at 747-9432 or[email protected]
Funding for the seminar series is provided by a grant to the Sitka Sound Science Center by the Sitka Permanent Charitable Trust and by the University of Alaska Southeast.
This week on Voices of the Tongass, Margot O’Connell gives us a look into the unique set of skills she has developed by growing up in the Tongass. To hear Margot’s story, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
When we ask Margot O’Connell about her plans for the future, she tells us something we already know – something everyone who knows Margot knows about her: she loves books. “Growing up, books were sort of my entire universe,” she says, “and that’s still a big part of my life. I want to be a librarian. I’m going to go to grad school in a few years, I want to work in a library.” Honestly, we are inspired by her sense of direction and her long term goals. But when we ask Margot about what she’s doing now, she laughs out loud. “Well, growing up in Sitka you develop a weird skill set, so since 2008 I’ve been organizing and developing marine debris clean up on the outer coasts around Sitka. So kind of on accident I’ve become the marine debris coordinator for Sitka.”
So library school is waiting because after graduation Margot felt “a compulsion to come home.“ And although Margot is humble, it’s no accident that she has found herself involved with marine debris. She’s been helping with the program for the last six years, and is now in charge of everything from organizing clean-ups and estimating fuel costs to partnering with community art programs and applying for grants. Not to mention the actual business of going out on the F/V Cherokee for a week at time to record what they can find on the beach. “We can only get on the beach June – September because of the weather. We’ll take the Cherokee in, then a skiff, then a zodiac. We’ll see what’s there. We’ve expanded our mission to include tsunami tracking. So we’ll record what we find, including invasive species. And then we’ll actually remove all of the debris that we find on the beach.”
Margot has never thought of herself as a scientist, but part of marine debris involves picking up shifts at the Sitka Sound Science Center, and teaching visitors about the local aquarium. She’s surprised by how much she does know, even if it didn’t come to her out of a book. Margot says she’s learned through osmosis simply from growing up in Southeast. “The touch tanks we have [at the aquarium], they look like the tide pools we grew up playing in,” she says. “Growing up here you just have this deep ingrained, inherited knowledge about the landscape and the environment.” It’s knowledge that she has put to use through her position with the marine debris program. Since she started in 2008, the program has cleaned more than 70,000 pounds of refuse off the beaches of Southeast Alaska.
The program will miss her when she follows her passion for history and books to librarian school, but Margot is pretty sure she’ll be back. “I guess I always had two separate worlds,” she says. “I loved where I was living, loved my school, but I really like to be in this environment. I love to come home.”
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This week, Gwen Baluss will be in town to band juncos, chickadees, and sparrows again, and we could use your help! This effort is part of a long-term study to better understand the winter movements of these species. Last year we banded 97 birds and monitored them all winter long with your help.
If you are interested in helping band birds, or just see how it’s done, there are several opportunities!
TUES, 19 Nov, 730pm, UAS room 106, bird-banding presentation and intro for banding assistants and interested folks
Wed, Thu, Fri (20-22 Nov), morning and evenings, help us band birds! Email [email protected] to coordinate a time slot.
Following is a link to the work we did last year:
It’s a 2,185 mile drive from Green Bay, Wisconsin to Sitka, Alaska and Lily Herwald knows it better than most. To hear Lily’s stories about coming to Alaska, scroll down and click the link at the bottom of the page. To read about the life Lily has made after that one fateful pick-up ride, read on!
In 1984, Lily Herwald paid one hundred dollars and caught a ride in a pick-up truck from Wisconsin to Alaska. Her friends thought she was crazy, but she said she knew she was moving for good. “I was excited to see what I could do, the kinds of opportunities I would have [here],” she says about her decision. She certainly proved her friends wrong – and proved that a positive attitude can bring positive results. She describes what happened when she first got to Sitka: “We camped in a visqueen tent behind the trooper academy,” she says. “I lived in a tent for a month, and got a job waiting tables. I had graduated with a communications degree, and there was a job open at Raven Radio. I was offered the job. Within three months of arriving, I got my dream job.” She smiles. “At least, it would become my dream job.”
Lily’s success in both her professional life and her personal life in Sitka all stems from throwing herself into something new and different from anything she’d ever known. Born and raised in Green Bay, she had no way to know what would happen when left. “Many of my friends from high school really didn’t leave Wisconsin,” she says. It’s a theme which runs through many people’s stories about moving to Alaska: taking the risk to move to the last frontier means leaving a lot of what’s familiar behind. “In the first few years, we moved seven times,” she says, “Living on fish scows, house sitting, not paying a lot of rent. I couldn’t get over how many people in their twenties were here from Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota. We were all pretty creative about how we were doing housing.”
It is clear when listening to Lily’s story that her success and happiness has not only come from her willingness to take chances, but from the chances that others decided to take on her. “I started at Raven Radio in public broadcasting. People kept giving me offers of more important jobs and I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But they kept saying, No, you can do this! You have the skills. People were so nice about giving me their time, and mentoring me. And that had not at all been my experience before. It had been so hard to get a job.”
Seeing Lily now, sitting on her porch, in the summer sunshine with a view of the ocean and her vegetable garden, it is hard to imagine her living in Green Bay. It is hard to imagine that people thought she was crazy for taking a chance to live in the place that she has considered her home for almost thirty years now. What happened after she hopped in that pick-up in 1984 might have been a risk, but Lily’s willingness to seize the opportunity has proved to be a solid foundation for more opportunities than she could have imagined in Green Bay, and to her credit, they’re made up much more by hard work and commitment than by chance. Her level of commitment to the life she chose is tangibly visible from her successful career to her family to the zucchinis in her garden, which are notoriously hard to grow in soggy Sitka. “I love that I have to build the soil that I put my seeds in to grow vegetables for dinner in the summer,” she says. “Being outside and building my soil – getting dirt from under alder trees, bringing sand from the beach, mixing in herring and seaweed – I love that. I like to come out here and meditate and look out over that and feel fortunate and grateful for everything I’ve been given.”
She has a point. When she pops a zucchini off its stem and hands it to us before we drive off in our own pick-up, it’s hard not to feel that we too have been given something special.
To hear Lily’s story, click here: 16_LWL_LILY_HERWALD
For many Alaskans, the West Coast and the East Coast seem worlds apart. But Hannah Hamberg, who splits her time between rainy Southeast Alaska and upstate New York, has learned that you don’t have to choose between coasts – you just have to be able to find the connections between them. To hear Hannah’s story in her own words, click the link at the bottom of the page. To read more, just scroll down.
Hannah Hamberg is wearing red lipstick and a very crisp white eyelet jacket. She looks as if she could have just popped in from a New York City street, the place where she likes to spend weekends with her friends when she’s at school upstate, where she studies graphic design. As she’s talking to us, her dad comes downstairs and laughs. “It doesn’t look like you could be the person who you’re talking about,” he says and Hannah laughs.
Because of course, we’re not in New York. We’re sitting at her dining room table, in her large and spacious kitchen, looking out the big windows at the towering forest of Southeast Alaska. And even if Hannah can navigate city streets like a native, the story she’s telling us is about running from a grizzly bear. “We were just across the way from my house, clam digging. We got out on the beach, and walked down about ten feet. We were about to start digging clams. And then we looked up – and saw a sow with two cubs. And she got up on her hind legs and started growling at us. We ran back to the boat. You’re not supposed to run, but the boat seemed so close.” She laughs. “We left the shovel behind.”
Hannah is a refreshing change from some of the frustrating stereotypes of what it means to grow up in Alaska, and the vague pressure to “seem outdoorsy.” Hannah can put on xtratufs and carrying a gun up a mountain, but she also sees her childhood in the wilderness as a resource in a more subtle way. “I’m not conscious of the way it affects me, but it has to in some way. It gives me a different perspective because I didn’t grow up in New York City. I have a point of view that isn’t as influenced. I feel like it kind of helped me create my own point of view rather than being influenced by outside perspectives.”
And they are some fairly towering perspectives. “I’ve spent a lot of time on float planes,” she says. “We have a cabin in Prince of Wales and we always used to take the float plane down. It’s a surreal experience to be flying in between peaks and look down and see a mountain goat. Or feel the downdraft coming between the mountains, and getting physically pushed down by the wind.” So what does Hannah plan to do with the unique perspective she is cultivating, whether that’s by hunting with her dad or taking classes at the Rhode Island School of Design?
“There’s this magnetizing effect that Sitka has,” she says. “I always want to come back. For my job, I’ll probably have to start in the city – NYC, or San Fran. But my goal is to come back to Sitka, and to do design out of Sitka, for this area. It’s home, you know. It’s home.”
In early October two high school students, Sitka Sound Science Center educator Ashley Bolwerk, and I traveled to Lake Suloia on Chichagof Island. This trip was part of the Community Wilderness Stewardship Project funded by the National Forest Foundation and the Sitka Conservation Society Living Wilderness Fund in order to gather baseline data on wilderness areas in the Tongass National Forest. Flying in a Beaver for the first time, I was able to see Southeast Alaska from a new perspective. As you fly from island to island, one can get lost in the sight of the Tongass from above. I was amazed at the beauty of Lake Suloia, peaking through the valley as we approached Chichagof Island. Upon landing, I realized my mistake of wearing hiking boots instead of Xtratufs. Fortunately, Ashley was able to give me a lift from the Beaver floats to shore.
Within our first hour, we had something to record for the Wilderness Stewardship Project: our first plane. We could not see it due to the low clouds, but it seemed fairly close. We went on a hike around the lake to look for beaver traps that were previously dropped off by a high school teacher but never set. Although unsuccessful, we became lovers of the muskegs and masters at dodging Devil’s Club. There were many signs of black tailed deer: tracks, scat, and trails that went under logs far too low for us to follow. We saw some small black birds with white wing tips on the lake, too far away to identify without binoculars. We were able to harvest Lingonberries and cranberries in the muskeg along with Labrador tea.
This particular trip provided for opportunities to explore and share my experience as the Living with the Land Jesuit Volunteer at SCS. I have learned about subsistence harvest of fish, game and wild plants upon which the Southeast community depends. I have gathered abundant wild edibles in the forest and muskeg to make fruit leather, jam, and other tasty treats. The area around Lake Suloia was no exception to the availability of these foods to support this Alaska way-of-life. I was able to teach the students on the trip how to identify cranberries, Lingonberries, crowberreis, bunchberries, and Labrador tea, which are all found in the muskeg. We also had a lesson on the Leave No Trace (LNT) wilderness ethics, which guide an explorer to travel with intention in the wilderness. It is an important practice to live by in the wilderness.
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest values of simple living, community, spirituality/reflection, and justice were very present on this trip into the wilderness. Although I thought we were living in luxury with a wood stove and outhouse in the forest service cabin, it was still a lesson in simple living! We talked about how little we need to survive in the wilderness: warm layers, rain gear, and Xtratufs take care of the basic need to stay warm in this coastal temperate rainforest. It excites me how simple living ignites creativity and shared talents. We were able to share a common space to build community without the distractions of technology and excess: a space for songs, games, and philosophical discussions. Taking time to reflect on your life, where you place value and priorities, seems to come naturally when you gaze across an alpine lake glimmering with a rainbow.