Brian McNitt has an incredible collection of stories from his years living in and exploring Southeast. To listen to him tell one of them, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Photo by Caitlin Woolsey
To hear this week’s episode of Voices of the Tongass, featuring Jonny KT, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Photo by Berett Wilber
It has stopped raining by the time Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins gets off the plane, but his feet are already wet. Why?
“Oh, I ran from Craig to Klawock this morning,” he says casually.
This is perhaps the best introduction to Jonathan that you could get. Born and raised in Sitka, Alaska, most of the people that know Johnny would say that he has always been unusually active. “In the beginning of high school I would start to go off on trips in the mountains in Baranof just by myself. I would pack my backpack and go off and explore,” he says. One of those trips? An attempt to trace the Kiksadi Survival March through the backcountry, from the northern tip of Baranof Island to the town of Sitka. “It rained every day and it was wonderful. I think about that trip all the time,” Johnny says. And when he tries to explain why, he gets down to the heart of something that many Alaskans can relate to. “We’re made to go from place to place, inherently nomadic in some way. When you complete a trip from A to B, it sounds so simple: why would you waste your time putting yourself through brush and discomfort? But it satisfies a very primal purpose, moving and accomplishing something in a locomotive way.”
The mountainous landscape of our archipelago has given Jonathan vast areas in which to satisfy the need to be active, and the landscape has become part of who he is. As a result, a relationship to place has become very important to him. “You want to fall in love with the place you live,” he says, comparing place to a life partner, “that is the same kind of relationship.” He feels his deep connection to place is unusual, and it keeps him coming back to Sitka, even if it’s hard to describe why. “Something I realized back East [at college] was that some of my classmates weren’t in love with a place. Perhaps it’s self-perpetuating, in that if you’re in a place where other people are committed to place, that sense of community perpetuates itself.”
We ask Johnny why he thinks people here become committed to place, and he responds, “Sitka is objectively breathtaking in its place in the natural world – mountains, the ocean, the outer coast, that’s the reason tourists come here, and it’s hard not to appreciate that. But it’s a difficult, perhaps unanswerable, philosophical question.That’s like asking why people fall in love – with a person, or with a place? I don’t know why. In some ways it’s just innate to us.”
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.”
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.”
Happy Halloween! This week Berett Wilber’s poem, Fishing Village Blues, takes us down to the docks and into the Pioneer Bar. To hear Berett read her poem, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Photo by Berett Wilber
fishing village blues
pictures of shipwrecks
cover all of the available spaces
on the walls of the Pioneer Bar,
the last haven in America
where it is it legal to smoke inside.
the old-time skippers sip whiskey in slow motion,
while the deckhands drink their piny beers in the vinyl booths.
surrounded by the misfortunes of the fleet -
two-ton diesel fires,
stainless steel bottoms scraping barnacles,
caught at low tide with their hulls on the rocks
like drunk and dangerous bridesmaids.
one more pair of salted hands
puts crumpled dollars bills on the bar
like a grizzled miner with a poke of gold and
Is This Love seeps from the jukebox.
this is the small-town time-machine:
Bob will never die.
Disco will never live.
after a few hours,
the deckhands will leave the bar,
duck their heads to clouds of orange and blue
that the rain makes with the streetlamps,
their rubber boots heavy on the wood down the dock.
their sleeping bags,
waiting up in the caves of fo’c’sles all over town,
will wrap the boys’ shoulders in downy embraces.
the boats in their moorings will lull
their beer-sweet breath even and their mouths slack,
the dock snoring gently from the the slow pull of so many ropes.
Charlie Wilber found his way to Alaska over 40 years ago, and it didn’t take him long to decide he wanted to stay. This week on Voices of The Tongass, Charlie shares what exactly has kept him in Alaska, and lessons he has learned along the way. To hear this week’s show, scroll to the bottom of this post. To continue the story, keep reading.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Charlie Wilber came to Alaska in 1971 as a smoke jumper, parachuting into remote areas of the interior to put out wildfires. “I’d hardly ever flown on an airplane. I got to Seattle and the state of Alaska had a person hired at the gate to try to convince you not to come to Alaska because there were no jobs…I thought I would only spend a summer here, but here I am, still here.” When smoke jumping got “boring,” it was time for the next adventure. “I wanted to make Alaska home,” he says. “I felt like there were a lot of opportunities here for a young person. I still feel that way. I tried to figure out what I could do so I could live here. By a weird series of coincidences I had a friend with a hand troller in Icy Strait. I worked with him for about a week, thought ‘Hey, this might be something’, and it took off from there. I bought my first boat in 1979 and never looked back.”
We had to clarify: “So you bought a troller and became a fisherman after only one week of fishing?”
“Yes,” he says, chuckling. “And I would not do that ever again, nor would I encourage anyone to learn that way. The smart person would become a crew member for an experienced fishermen. I said, ‘this looks pretty easy, I could figure this out,’ and it was fairly painful for a number of years. It wouldn’t be the first time I learned something the hard way. Someone told me once you aren’t really fishing until you have every penny in it, and you owe money. And then you are seriously fishing because failing really isn’t an option at that stage.”
In the process of collecting stories for Voices of the Tongass, we have talked to several “fishing kids.” Charlie is the first “fishing dad” we’ve interviewed, and we want to hear his perspective on parenting on a fishing vessel. “I suppose probably some of the most enjoyable times is when I had my two daughters on the boat with me. I’ve really enjoyed developing a working relationship with my daughters. One seemed to take to the water, and the other decided that probably wasn’t in her interest. And I think that’s a good thing, that the two of them have found their own path.” Through summers spent on the boat, Charlie has passed his well-weathered wisdom on to his kids. “You know, if nothing else, I wanted my kids to have an appreciation for the environment that we were in – for the ocean. Wanted them to have an understanding of what I was doing…and I think they do both have a real sense of appreciation for the environment. When they were little we would go somewhere and they could spend all day with their little nets checking out bullheads on the rocks. There’s not many places you can do that.”
And then we have to ask: What has he learned about fishing, in thirty-four years on the water? “In order to be good at it you have to be very observant,” he tells us. “A lot of it is by hunch: there are a lot of nuances. You can’t see the fish, but you can see the fishermen. You can learn quite a bit from that.”
We pepper him for the stories of the what else he’s learned and the unusual things he’s seen on the ocean: comets and waterspouts, trolling through herds of humpback whales, the northern lights, sharks, sunfish flopping on the surface of the water. But he makes it clear that one of the things that’s most important to him is not something you need to be out on the ocean to see. “Not a day goes by where I don’t still see the novelty of being able to walk out my door and be in the forest. And its not just recreation: I feed my family with deer, and obviously with fish. In order to have healthy salmon runs, the environment is very important. You can’t have successful fishing when there’s not habitat for the fish to spawn in. My living depends on having a healthy environment on land and on the ocean. The word sustainability gets used a lot these days, but it’s the honest truth. Fishing isn’t just a hobby. I’ve got a serious investment in equipment and everything else. It’s how I make my living. I want these fish runs to be healthy for a long time, for long after I’m gone, I hope. To see the salmon returning each year…it’s almost an inspiration. You can go to Indian River right now and almost walk across it without touching the water. It’s really phenomenal. How many thousands of years has that been going on?”
This week on Voices of the Tongass, Alaire Hughey takes us up into the alpine on her family’s annual opening day hunt. To hear Alaire’s story, and her views on subsistence living, click the play bar at the bottom of this post.
Today brings another poetry episode of Voices of the Tongass. Berett Wilber’s collection of poetry, Lesser Known Marine Mammal’s Lesser Known Love Songs, is inspired by her life in Southeast Alaska. To hear Berett read hear poem, The Contingencies of Chance, scroll to the bottom of this post.
the contingencies of chance
where does the outside end?
when the air enters your lungs?
in the beds of your fingernails?
let yourself feel
up against the edges
of your skin, fear
will rip your lungs into sails,
tear down the lines between things and
breathe yourself in:
the scent of lilacs at night,
the silver of the river at our ankles:
the oxygen in your blood is
already just air
and so you are
already just everywhere.
we are vessels, pitchers, open bowls
and the sheer strain of living
tears holes in us
that we cannot repair ourselves.
we can only fill each other:
give yourself away.
(you become hollow if you
board yourself up
if the walls inside of you echo,
splinter through them).
the tiny sutures of your eyes,
your voice: rope yourself to the world.
it will stain you irreparably and you
will build yourself into it,
stretching spindly bridges
until they crumble and fall.
in the moments
where you have to strip back the paper
of your walls, and
raze the scaffolding of your life
to the ground -
curse if you must.
but if you would like to keep yourself alive,
open your mouth
and pour yourself out.
the world will never demand less of you.
we were not meant to stand empty for long.
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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