The day we headed out from Hoonah was like most days in Southeast Alaska. Grey clouds diffused the light and an almost imperceptible rain left everything damp. We were headed to the Inian Islands, a cluster of knobby isles on the western end of Icy Strait, just inside the entrance to Cross Sound. Our trip held a dual mission: to conduct volunteer wilderness monitoring for the Forest Service and to gather traditional subsistence foods for the Hoonah locals on the trip: Owen James and Gordon Greenwald, our boat captains and wizened culture-bearers, two young men named Randy and Sam, and another adult volunteer, Kathy McCrobie.
The Inians along with two other large islands make up the Pleasant/Lemesurier/Inian Island Wilderness. The PLI Wilderness is one of 19 areas within the Tongass National Forest designated as Wilderness, the highest form of protection public lands can receive. The islands are also historic gathering and hunting grounds of the Huna Tlingit, the native tribe who call this section of northern Southeast Alaska home. Because the Inians are close to the open sea, they are rich with unique flora and fauna. A trip to these distant islands is an opportunity to collect delicacies not common in interior waters near Hoonah. For instance, one of our subsistence targets was black seaweed, a species that thrives in the cold, wave washed intertidal zone of the outercoast, but is rarely found more than a few miles into the Southeast archipelago.
The outside waters can be a harsh place in the summer and downright inhospitable in the winter. Although the Huna Tlingit are seasoned open ocean travelers and motorized skiffs make the 40-mile journey from the village of Hoonah to the islands much more manageable than a Tlingit canoe, it is still a sizable trip for locals. The same factors—difficult access and a short season—also make it difficult for the Forest Service Wilderness Rangers who are headquartered in Hoonah, to access these areas that they are tasked with managing and protecting.
On the first day of our trip we arrived at the Inian Islands after a few hours of skiffing over unusually calm waters. Our first stop was at lowtide on a rocky beach, the perfect habitat for Black Katy chitons, one of the traditional foods commonly called Gumboots which we hoped to return with.
The beach also looked like it could be a prime camping area, so while the rest of the crew flipped rocks and pried unsuspecting chitons from their hiding spots, I headed up the beach to look for recreational impacts. Monitoring impacts from visitors is one of the tasks the Forest Service has asked us to assist with. Wilderness areas are intended to preserve nature in its wildest state, but trash, campfire rings, and other signs of previous visitors detract from the wild character of these places. Also, once a site has been impacted, the trend is a downward slope to a trashed site. To prevent cumulative impact, we check known campsites and cleanup and naturalize any human traces we find. Fortunately, this site was in the same condition it's probably been in since it was uncovered by the glacier, so I spent some time flipping rocks and adding to the gumboots collection. As the tide neared its apex, Gordon pointed out a small rock island set apart from the larger Inian Islands. For generations, this rock had been the prize destination for Huna families. Set far from land and too small to support trees, the rock is the perfect nesting ground for seabirds like gulls and cormorants and we had timed our trip perfectly to harvest the new eggs. As we approached the rock in skiffs, Gordon and Owen explainedthe protocol: as the swell surges, we run the skiff up to the rock, one person jumps off, and he pulls the bow away before the swell drops the boat onto the shore, then reset and try again for the next person. Before they maneuvered the skiffs toward the rock, they carefully taught the boys the traditional method to appropriately harvest the eggs. If done in an ecologically responsible way, these practices will be able to continue forever. (Learn more about the regulation regarding egg collection by Alaskan Natives).
As we approached the rock in skiffs, Gordon and Owen explained the protocol: as the swell surges, we run the skiff up to the rock, one person jumps off, and he pulls the bow away before the swell drops the boat onto the shore, then reset and try again for the next person. Once on the rocks, Gordon instructed Sam and Randy to only take eggs from nests with multiple eggs, always leaving one behind.
Sam was the first to make the jump. The birds immediately erupted in a cacophony of squawks and feathers. Randy and I traded apprehensive glances. I made an excuse that I needed to pack my camera gear in drybags before I could jump...really I just wanted one more chance to see how it was done. Randy landed an impressive leap, despite receiving a bootfull of water. I followed him up the rock. As a non-Native, without subsistence rights to the eggs, my job was to enjoy the view. Blankets of birds flapped above us. The few green tufts of grass made a stark contrast to the guano-bleached stone and the blue-grey sky and water. It took no time for Sam and Randy to collect plenty of eggs to share with family and elders back in Hoonah. With concentration, steady boat handling, and good timing, we all made it safely back aboard the skiffs.
As the day went on, I was impressed with the way Owen and Gordon pointed out new landmarks to the two young men. Every remark about a headland or bay included not only geographicalreferences, but also historical, cultural, and subsistence context.
That night, while we ate chowder made with local salmon, smoked octopus and cockles, I reflected on the education Randy and Sam had inherited on this trip. I have no doubt that they were more interested in learning about hunting spots, edible shellfish, and traditional stories than they were about the Wilderness land designation of their home. But, I would like to think that by relating the cultural values and subsistence practices of the Inian Islands along with the Wilderness values that will continue to protect this place for those practices, they have a better chance of retaining a favorable perspective of public lands, too.
In the end, the idea and values of Wilderness are stories, stories that must be repeated and retold to maintain their relevance. Gordon and Owen have endeavored to pass those stories to Hoonah youth. My esteem and thanks goes out to them for including the value of respect for public lands in the stories they tell.