Above: The West Chichagof Wilderness Area seen from Lisianski Inlet. Photo by Lione Clare.

Last summer we were fortunate to host some very special guests at the Sea Pony Farm property bequeathed to us by Eric and Pam Bealer two years ago. The homestead at Phonograph Creek is located 3.5 miles outside of Pelican, Alaska and is accessible only by boat or float plane. We are honored to have the responsibility of putting this place to use while stewarding the lands and waters of the surrounding Wilderness. Our intention is to not only connect people to the majesty of the Tongass but also to inspire their creativity. We hope to find diverse and compelling ways to share these artistic manifestations and engage new audiences as we continue widening our circle. This work is a prayer that the transformative power of the Wilderness can be shared and ripple outward to inspire others to feel compelled to protect this place. Part of the power of Eric’s artwork was to do just that. So  it is appropriate to continue his legacy this way, to do work for the West Chichagof Wilderness in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, the home of Eric and Pam, and to “protect this place they so loved.”

Many people have helped us prepare the property for use in sharing the magic and majesty of this beautiful spot. The house has rustic charm and a character that can only be attributed to Eric’s unique artistic style and aesthetic. It is set back in a field off of a point that sits alongside the mouth of Phonograph Creek and across from the sentinel of mountains that line Lisianski Inlet. We wish to utilize this site to provide a place where people can experience Wilderness in different ways. Although there is more work to be done, we were able to host our first guests there this summer.

The collaborators who took part in this pilot creative retreat were chosen for their interest in the experience of the West Chichagof Wilderness and their desire to help amplify the need for action given the recent threats to the Tongass and the repeal of the Roadless Rule. We were given an opportunity to partner with Ayana Young of For the Wild who has shown interest in this project, the Bealer’s story, and has supported Tongass advocacy in the past. At her suggestion we invited Brontë Velez of Lead to Life. Bronte is a black/Latinx social justice activist, artist, poet, dancer, and creatrix. Brontë also brought their partner Jiordi Rosales, a cellist, composer, and lutherie. Jordi is part of the Emergence Project and Steal A Way; a ritual learning-journey fellowship organized by Jiordi and Bronte collaboratively. To compliment the music and spoken word, Stephanie Hewett, a dancer from New York City, also joined them. For the Wild’s production team included Molly Leebove, photographer and videographer, and Jade Begay, photographer and writer of NDN collective.

Hewett, velez, and Rosales. Photo by Heather Bauscher.

From Juneau they took a float plane to Lisianski Inlet and began almost a week of immersion at Phonograph Creek. We were blessed during those peaceful beautiful days: it felt like the only week of sunshine this summer! With help and support from Bagheera Sailing and S/V Snowdragon II, we departed by sailboat and traveled through the open ocean, and the scattered islands and waterways of the Tongass. We slowly worked our way back to Sitka exploring various bays and learning about karst terrain and the differences between an Old-growth forest and a clearcut that was never thinned.

We also took a detour to Glacier Bay to witness the impacts of climate change. Much like the tradition of Chuck and Alice Johnstone and Jack Calvin, our goal was to immerse our guests in the wilds and the waters of the Tongass to show them what it means to deeply experience this place (and then send them back home as activist ambassadors!). Throughout the trip this dynamic collection of individuals used art, music, movement, ritual, and spoken word to lean into complex issues around the history of the Environmental Movement and Wilderness Stewardship. These artists have helped us begin to dig deeper and connect with new audiences, while expanding our network of advocates for the protection of our ancestral forests.

Upon their emergence from the wilderness of West Chichagof, news that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and decision to remove protections on the Tongass was announced. The group was so moved by their recent experience they immediately mobilized to spread the word on social media, posting videos and even creating a mini film to inspire and connect people to the Tongass. They included a link to our comment tool and we had more than 100 new action takers practically overnight. Post production on the various multimedia pieces of the creative retreat will continue through the winter and likely will be released next year in 2021.

The overall experience of the few weeks we spent together in the Wilderness was life changing and spirit cleansing for all involved. To observe our guest’s awe as they moved through these ancestral forests, as they stood before these elder trees, as they began to comprehend the scale of these great mountains and glaciers, and as they grappled with the magnitude of our human impact was so incredibly moving. These moments of sharing are so deeply meaningful and important. There is a deep connection that is formed through the experience of a wild untamed place. We need to continue to find ways to immerse people in the Tongass, in order to open up new doorways and new relationships, to widen our circles and expand our network of advocates for fish habitat and forest conservation.

To pull this off during the COVID pandemic was no easy feat and I wish to express tremendous gratitude to all who helped move this project along. Thank you to all who have provided support in any stage of maintaining this property, to all those who helped organize this creative retreat, and to support the various Wilderness Monitoring trips. Thank you to Brenda Berry as the very first pilot artist! Thank you to all who helped with the physical work on the property and to all who helped with any leg of transportation of people or goods for these projects. To all of the folks in and around Pelican or connected to the Bealers, we will never be able to express how grateful we have been for your help and your support throughout this journey. It is with gratitude we will present these artistic manifestations as offering and prayer that this forest will be protected and the Wilderness will always remain.

Left to right: LeeBove, Hewett, Rosales, velez, Young, Bauscher. Photo by Molly LeeBove.