I wake up groggy, almost hit my head on the fo’c's’le ceiling when I climb up the ladder into the pilot house. When Dad sees me, he says “Hey! Get your rain gear on! We need your help!”
And then ten minutes later, I’m out in the pit, my gloves wrist deep in the belly of a king salmon, no trace of breakfast in sight – not that I would be up for eating it if it was. The fish are pouring in over the side, and I think about my camera, laying abandoned in my bunk. Wasn’t that supposed to be my tool here, not gaff hooks and knives? What was I doing covered in fish blood and salt water, in the exact place that, at the ripe old age of 14, I swore I would never come back to?
My dad has been a commercial salmon troller out of Sitka, our small town in Southeast Alaska, for the last thirty-four years. Other fisherman recognize me around town sometimes, stop me and shake my hand: “You’re Charlie’s daughter,” they say. “Man. Your dad knows how to catch a fish.” The last time he wore a suit was at his own wedding, almost twenty-five years ago: and his tie was shaped like a fish. I did my first stint as a deckhand at age eleven: cleaning and icing before I was actually strong enough to haul a fish aboard myself. My friends from the Lower 48 love this story, impressed by the romance of it all: this makes me feel a lot like I am deceiving them.
I hated fishing. I alternated seasick or bored. And to clarify: there is little romance in being eleven, or setting up a steady rhythm of puking over the side in between cuts. I wanted to escape salmon entirely. I quit fishing, and got a job on dry land. When I left for a college on the other side of the country, I was certain that there was nothing I would miss less than fish, whether spawning in the forest, stacked in the fishold, or cooking on the barbecue.
And then the dreams started. I have always loved the visuals of Southeast Alaska: they’re part of why I became a photographer in the first place, but this was overwhelming. Three or four times a week I would close my eyes and I would find the ocean stretching out from the bow of the boat, salmon swimming through the air around me. I doodled salmon in the margins of my notebooks, wrote poems about salmon running upstream, essays on deckhands and sea lions. When I came home, I found myself photographing spawning salmon; the shape of fishing boats; the different colors of the ocean: it all rattled around in my mind, requiring my attention.
It drove me crazy. What was happening? I hated fishing, so how did I feel such a strong connection to salmon? And how could I feel so attached to a community that was economically and environmentally dependent on salmon, especially when I had left it three thousand miles behind?
That question was the reason I found myself back on the deck of the F/V Alexa K, gutting fish before breakfast, back to the place where my grudge against salmon had been instilled in the first place. After eight days of work – cleaning, icing, photographing, and a lot of thinking – I still didn’t like fishing. But I realized that just because I didn’t want to slay salmon on the high seas, it didn’t mean that I could get away from them. The more I thought about it, the easier it became to justify why salmon were important to me, even if I wasn’t fishing for them: whether or not I had a gaff in hand, I was born locked in to the salmon cycle of Southeast Alaska.
Salmon aren’t just my family’s livelihood. They’re the backbone of our local economy. Southeast Alaska is the world’s most productive and valuable salmon fishery in the world. If you were raised in the Tongass National Forest, chances are you’re a newcomer to what has been the spawning ground of salmon ancestors for 50 million years. The influence of the salmon that die on the banks each year ranges so far it’s impossible to trace them to an end. From fertilizing the forest, to feeding the wildlife, even changing the chemical composition of the soil, dead salmon help create one of the most unique and biodiverse biomes in the world – and they feed everything from Alaska’s tourism industry to new generations of fish in the streams.
As a result, salmon are run deep in my conception of my community and my environment. There’s a connection I have to the forest and the ocean that feels just as strong when I am thousands of miles away as when I am asleep in a bunk that rests below the waterline of the Pacific. So while my dad trolls for bites and poundage, I look for shots and frames. I can’t make anything that would fill a freezer through the winter. But I can still have an affect on the resources on which we both depend: I can share the stories of people who make the Tongass their home, who make fishing their lifestyle. People like my parents. My dad will be the first to tell you – nobody gets rich trolling for salmon. You can only succeed at it if you love it, because otherwise it would drive you insane. But there’s a reason that sustainable fisheries were written into Alaska’s state constitution: not only do we care about catching fish this year, but we care about being able to catch fish twenty or fifty years from now.
The future of my family, and many families like mine, depend on the fisheries, which depend on the salmon, which depend on the forest. And it’s only by making these connections visible to the rest of the world that we can help protect them – to sway federal management of public lands, to make sure logging doesn’t ruin salmon habitat, to ensure sustainable catch practices. We’re one piece in an environment that has been raising salmon, trees, and people in conjunction for longer than anyone can remember. And even if we seem small in the face of all that ecological history, the importance that comes with being a link in that chain is not one we can take lightly. If everyone made the mistake that I made, if we considered the forest, the fisheries, even our families, disparate parts, each part would suffer the consequences.
Which is why instead of struggling to get away from salmon, I now find myself arguing for them. I don’t need to spend all my days on a boat to know that any chance we have to show the connection between the economy and the environment, the fisheries and the forest, is a chance to preserve the place that has always been home. In Southeast Alaska, the people, the fish, and the forest share a future. Just because I’m the world’s worst deckhand doesn’t mean that I can’t help shape it.
Out on the ocean, where we’re trolling past cliffs covered in trees, whose roots reach down to the rivers where the salmon spawn each summer, the sun is finally coming up. It’s likely that no one has ever set a foot on land here, but it doesn’t matter. Even without breakfast, even slightly nauseous, with water stretching to the horizon on three sides – it’s impossible to feel isolated. Because that’s what salmon do for the people of the Tongass: they make one the planet’s most remote corners feel like a home.
Over the last year, the Sitka Conservation Society has offered lots of exciting Alaska Way of Life 4-H programs! In 2012 4-H kids learned how to track deer, make devils club salve, identify wild mushrooms, harvest berries, and much more! 4-H kids were able to walk, touch, eat, and experience everything the Tongass has to offer. 4-H is an amazing program that focuses on four H’s: head, heart, hands, health. Head refers to thinking critically, heart focuses on caring, hands involves giving and working, and finally health emphasizes being and living. Every 4-H class builds community and enhances our understanding of our natural environment by learning these skills together through hands on activities in the Tongass.
By living in Sitka, we must be invested in the Tongass because hurting it would mean damaging our own home. 2012 was filled with dedicated 4-H members who wanted to dive into the Tongass and learn all about its beauty and complexities. As a community, we all were able to experience these things through Alaska Way of Life 4-H clubs. Thank you to all 4-H participants for a terrific year! Please enjoy a sneak peak of our slideshow celebrating the wonderful skills we learned together in 2012! To see the full album with all the pictures from the year check out our facebook page.
It’s never too late to get involved with 4H! We are always excited to welcome new members to participate in our clubs and workshops that explore the natural world. In the next few months, members will get to go on night hikes, identify wild edibles, monitor beaches, and much more! If you are interested or want to get involved in 4-H please contact Courtney at [email protected] or 747-7509.
Chef Rodey Batiza was recently named one of Madison Magazine’s “Best New Chefs.” He’s known in Madison for his culinary creativity and versatility, having mastered regional Italian, Japanese ramen and dumplings, and classical French cuisine. He’s worked at many of Madison’s finest restaurants, including Madison, Club, Johnny Delmonico’s, Magnus, and Ocean Grill. He now is chef at Gotham Bagels, an artisan sandwich and meat shop on the capital square.
I’ve been a chef for over 15 years in Madison, Wisconsin, and what I’ve noticed more and more in the last few years is that my diners increasingly expect not only great ingredients but also ones that are sustainably produced. It’s not enough anymore that food tastes good. It must come from sources that are doing everything in their power to produce food in an environmentally friendly way.
For these reasons, I jumped at the chance to partner with Sitka Salmon Shares and Sitka fisherman Marsh Skeele to host two, four-course salmon dinners this past week at my artisan meat and sandwich shop, Gotham Bagels. I know that Alaska’s fisheries are managed as sustainably as any in the world and I also know that getting fish directly from fishermen in Sitka, Alaska, provides the type of transparency and accountability that I like to have when I source any of my products.
The dinners were an astounding success as both were filled to capacity. Our guests enjoyed coho salmon lox, caught by Marsh Skeele in Sitka Sound. It was dusted with pumpernickel and served with pickled squash. Our second course was seared sockeye salmon, caught on the Taku River by gillnetter F/V Heather Anne. We presented that with pancetta ravioli and pureed peas from our Farmers’ Market. Finally, to cap the night, we created a horseradish-crusted king salmon from Sitka’s Seafood Producers Cooperative. We served that with curried barley and Swiss chard.
All of my guests these evenings knew that we were not only eating the world’s best wild salmon but they also understood that the wise management of natural resources in Alaska should mean that we have these wild salmon on our plates for years to come. To reinforce that point, the Sitka Conservation Society sent everyone home with coho salmon caught by Marsh Skeele and literature to help them get involved in protecting the habitat of wild Alaskan salmon for future generations.
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, before culminating 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.
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 cast for 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!
The hatchery employees at the Medvejie Hatchery located south of Sitka exemplify what it means to be “living with the land and building community in Southeast Alaska.” They are the living link between the community of Sitka and the robust salmon fishery that supports the community. Their good work helps sustain healthy wild runs of salmon and healthy Alaskan communities. Without hatcheries like Medvejie, the Alaskan salmon industry would not be what it is today.
By the 1970’s, the state’s wild stock of salmon had been severely damaged by overfishing. In response to this crisis, the state developed a hatchery program intended to supplement, not supplant, the wild stocks of salmon. For this reason, there is a litany of policies and regulations that guide the state’s hatcheries in order to protect the wild runs of salmon.
One of the policies developed to protect the wild runs of salmon was the mandated use of local brood stock. “Brood stock” are the fish a hatchery uses for breeding. Requiring that the “brood stock” be “local” means that the fish used for breeding must be naturally occurring in the area versus fish from outside the region. This requirement is designed to help maintain the natural genetic diversity of the run.
This August I had the opportunity to participate in Medvejie’s brood stock propogation of Chinook Salmon (i.e., King Salmon). This involved the physical mixing of a male Chinook salmon’s sperm with a female’s row. We were, quite literally, making salmon.
However, it wasn’t just salmon that was being cultivated that day, but a resource to sustain the local community. In recent years, Medvejie has had the most successful Chinook program in Southeast Alaska. In the last ten years, the hatchery’s runs of Chinook have averaged 34,000 fish. Most of these fish, an average of 9,500 over the last ten years, are harvested in May and June by Sitka’s commercial trolling fleet. The sportfishing fleet benefits as well, reaping an average of nearly 1,950 fish in this same period. While the associated economic impacts from these fish are beyond measure, it is safe to say that they are essential to the health of the local economy.
My experience taking brood stock at Medvejie taught me how fortunate we are to have such a well-managed fishery in the state of Alaska. I also learned about the fragility of this resource. Without such strict policies regulating the fishing industry, we would not have a resource that provides so much for our community. Salmon fishing is the cultural and economic backbone for many communities in Southeast Alaska. In the future, we must remember this fact to protect the resource that makes the community whole.
Much has changed at Sitkoh Lake since the late 1970’s. What was once an epicenter for industrial logging is now a center of activity for forest and watershed restoration. During the summer of 2012, the Sitka District of the United States Forest Service (USFS) went into the Sitkoh Lake Watershed to restore tributary streams and repair some of the damage that was caused by industrial logging. This logging occurred at a time when we didn’t understand the value of the yearly returns of salmon compared to the short-term gains of clear-cut logging.
In the late 1970’s the area around Sitkoh Lake was heavily logged and many roads were constructed in close proximity to the nearby streams. Unfortunately, the resulting degradation in wildlife and stream habitat made survival more difficult for the area’s Sockeye, Coho, Pink, and Chum salmon. To rectify this issue, the Sitka Ranger District of the USFS has invested resources to restore and monitor these important streams.
Rivers and streams in old growth forest naturally have large logs and other root masses that create ideal habitat for juvenile salmon that spend the first years of their lives in this slow moving, deep water. These natural structures help to create deep pools, oxygenate the water, and provide cover from predators. When the area around a stream is heavily logged, the natural material that can create this salmon habitat is lost. As a result the stream becomes straighter, shallower and less ideal for juvenile salmon.
To fix this problem the crew from the US Forest Service installed a number of man-made structures called “upstream V’s” that replicate these natural structures. These upstream V’s help channel the stream’s flow and create deeper, slower moving water ideal for juvenile salmon. However, these are temporary fixes that will hold the stream bank together until the trees along the stream grow large enough to naturally create this habitat diversity for spawning salmon.
This project in the Sitkoh Lake Watershed is important because these salmon runs help support many of our local communities. Many commercial seine and troll fishermen depend on these fish for their livelihoods. These runs also support our local subsistence fishery that so many residents depend upon for their sustenance. Considering these qualities, it’s fair to say that these streams are the lifeblood for the nearby communities of Angoon and Sitka.
Forest Service projects like this that “manage the Tongass for Salmon” are extremely important investments in both the ecosystems of the Tongass as well as the economy of Southeast Alaska. But this project is just a start. There are still hundreds of miles of salmon streams that have been impacted by historic clear-cut logging that still need restoration.
SCS is working to make sure that this project is only the beginning of a long-term focus of Tongass management that focuses on our Wild Alaska Salmon Resource.