The subsistence way of life and traditional subsistence practices are threatened by the privatization of key subsistence areas and resources. One of the most threatened places is Redoubt Falls near Sitka, where Alaskans harvest sockeye and coho salmon to fill their freezers and feed their families throughout the long winter. To really understand how important subsistence is to Alaskans and the Alaskan way of life – and to understand why we need to fight to preserve these rights – listen to the segment from Richard Nelson's radio program "Encounters" in which he fishes for sockeye at Redoubt Falls.
Ricky Sablan is a law enforcement ranger with the Sitka National Historical Park. He joined the SCS Wilderness crew on a Community Wilderness Stewardship Project expedition to South Baranof Wilderness in the summer of 2012. Be sure to check out his videos from the trip below.
Walking onto a boat called "The Gust", we loaded up our kayaks and supplies in preparation for an adventure. I looked backwards to see the orange transport ships from the cruises ship pass by as we set our courses to the open waters. Light grey clouds painted the sky, but the rain was holding back. Off in the distance, a hump back whale shot a burst of air from his blowhole and I realized I was no longer in man's world. I was to spend the next five days in the South Baranof Wilderness with three strangers I had only met a few days ago during briefing. Ray Friedlander an intern with the SCS, Jonathan Goff our botanist, and team leader Adam Andis were to be my new friends as we headed into the wild. Our plan was to be dropped off in Whale Bay with a satellite phone, an emergency SPOT gps tracker, and a USFS radio linking us to the rest of the world. Our goal was to assist the USFS in collecting data reports and observations in preserving the wilderness in Whale Bay. Some hours had past as we came to rest upon a nice bay located near Port Banks. We unloaded all our gear and the kayaks on the shore and watched as The Gust slowly faded away off in the distance. We took our first paddle down to Port Banks and began taking notes of all the planes, jets, and boats that we observed and heard in the wilderness. As we paddled to shore, we observed an old recreational site where people had left some old trash. We packed up the trash and headed back to camp to burn what we could. It was our duty to take notes on the conditions of these old sites and for the next few days we would paddle up the large arm of whale bay visiting recreational site to recreational site and writing down our observations on the human impacts of the area. Jonathan would collect samples of invasive plants and he would educate us what types of plants were edible and native to the area. As the days past by, we quickly became immersed into a majestic routine paddling for miles soaking up the wilderness and all it has to offer. Safety was always considered a priority, but having fun was a mandatory part of the trip that we embraced. Taking a dip in the cold clear water felt refreshing after a long paddle on a hot summer day. We had the experience of watching nature at its finest as a brown bear had caught a salmon that was running up one of the creeks. Otters would crack shells on their bellies while a doe and her fawn walked to the shore to observe our brightly colored kayaks pass them by. No need for television, computers, or cellphones to entertain our minds, the wilderness in God's great country was all we needed. The volunteer experience with the Sitka Conservation Society was something I'll always remember.
When I was 21, I headed to the Sierra Nevadas for two months as a part of my forestry degree, studying the scientific and professional dimensions of forest and wildland resource management. I received training in simple field orienteering principles, ran transects, cruised timber, and assessed the ecological conditions around Quincy, California. Being out at Starrigavan this past Friday with SCS's Scott Harris and Kitty LaBounty and Foresters Chris Leeseberg and Craig Bueler, I felt nostalgic as we also ran transects, assessed forests for deer habitat, and sampled gaps for regeneration of herbaceous layers however there was something quite different about this experience—instead of university peers, we were working with students from Sitka High whose ages ranged from 15 to 19.
The Forest Team emerged unofficially three years ago as an occasional field trip opportunity to Starrigavan and False Island in Kent Bovee's Field Science course, yet there is talk of having the program adopted into the curriculum for Sitka High's Life Science course. This would guarantee every 10th grader field-based instruction on forest and wildland resource management topics in the hopes that these students will develop a better understanding of public stewardship and what this stewardship means for the forests that sustain us.
What these students get to learn in the field is an experience many of us do not have until college. I watched the teachers hand off GPSs to the students, while the three stations they visited—the riparian stream station, the gap station, and the quick cruise station—equipped the students with transects, compasses, a plot mapper, and prisms to come up with data needed to assess the health of riparian and forest habitats. The gap vegetation monitoring the students did will eventually turn into a long term study about understory plant regeneration and will be published with the intent to spread awareness on the importance thinned forests have for growing winter deer food.
Streams and forests together determine the health of Tongass watersheds. Sharing knowledge through field-based instruction gives high school students a clearer, scientific understanding of what goes on in the woods and also sheds light on career opportunities they could have as Tongass stewards.
The value of salmon fisheries for ecosystems, industry, personal, sport, and traditional use is unquantifiable in Southeast Alaska. The lakes and streams of the Tongass National Forest contribute the vast majority of this pivotal resource- producing 79% of the annual commercial harvest, about 50 million salmon each year. In its efforts to manage the Tongass for salmon, the US Forest Service invests in a variety of projects that ensure continued high productivity of fisheries and watershed resources. 'Fish Pass' installation has proven to be a powerful and effective option- an integral component of the Forest Service's tool-kit to boost salmon production from Tongass systems.
'Fish passes' are constructed to bridge waterfalls that historically restrained salmon from accessing quality upstream spawning and rearing habitat. To protect the natural integrity of this lush national forest, the Forest Service adheres to a 'minimalistic yet effective' construction policy- minimizing environmental alteration while maximizing fish access. The vast majority of watersheds in the Tongass remain unaltered with only the most strategic and promising barriers selected for fish pass installation. Passes take many forms varying from nonstructural 'step pools' blasted out of natural bedrock to the Alaskan Steeppass 'fish ladder' that harnesses water current to push exhausted salmon to the top of barrier falls. Whatever the type, Fish Passes follow the same basic principle- allow more fish access to more area.
Increased spawning and rearing habitat translates into less competition for space and nutrients with more salmon surviving to adulthood. Following this basic principle, the Forest Service has successfully improved production of Tongass fish. Fish Passes have opened access of 443 stream miles and 4,931 lake acres to spawning and rearing steelhead and salmon. Exact fish counts produced by increased area are difficult to calculate and are estimated by projecting the average number of fish produced given particular habitat quality by the amount of increased area. Conservative estimates suggest an average of 86,855 coho and sockeye and 227,500 pink and chum salmon adults added each year as a direct result of this increased area made available by fish passes. At the current rate of a dollar and ten cents per pound for coho and sockeye and forty two cents a pound for pink and chums, fish pass produced salmon add an impressive estimated $8,598,930- over eight and a half million dollars- to Southeast Alaskan economy over a ten year period.
Unfortunately, like everything man-made, structural fish passes require maintenance to remain effective. There are approximately fifty fish passes across the Tongass- about fifteen operating in the Sitka Ranger District alone. The majority being between 20-30 years old, structural fish passes are reaching the point in their lifetime where they require considerable work. Managing this forest and recognizing that salmon are one of the most important outputs that benefit both humans and the overall ecosystem means continued investment in projects like fish pass construction and maintenance.
We are fortunate to have learned from mistakes made across other regions of the world where wild salmon populations were pushed to extinction. We are even more fortunate to boast a talented fisheries staff and a holistic fisheries and watershed program that manage and protect the future of this valuable resource. Fish passes are one of the significant activities within this program that ensure wild Alaskan salmon continue to sustain the communities of Southeast Alaska and that the Tongass continues to rear the salmon that are base of the last remaining sustainable fisheries in the world.
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, beforeculminating 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.
Ican feel Edgecumbe in my muscles, and in certain parts of my feet and hips, I can feel the mountain in my bones. We planned this trip a week ago, and the sun agreed with a sky so blue and cloudless. A quarter to seven brought us to Crescent Harbor, and with a few safety instructions and tugs on our lifejacket straps, Alison and John Dunlap brought us to Fred's Creek. The Dunlaps are the owners of Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, and are long time Sitka residents who understood how fortunate we were to make it out to Mt. Edgecumbe on Sitka's eighth day of summer.
"Last time I was out here I saw a bear over there," says John as the skiff settles into the sand with help from the incoming tide. We each jump out, confidently landing our hiking-boot-xtra-tuff feet on Kruzof not only as interns of Sitka Conservation Society, but as folks from Sitka and from down South—as folks in love with experiences that could only be labeled "Alaskan." There were six of us—Ashley Bolwerk, Elizabeth Cockrel, Helen Schnoes, AJ Shule, Jonathan Goff, and myself—who chose water bottles, trail mixes, muskegs, forest patches, ups and downs, sun kissed skin, and deep inhales and exhales for our Tuesday. At times I was in front, feeling eager to reach the base in a couple hours, but we each took turns switching off who led, switching off who called water break, switching off who exclaimed "how beautiful is this." Jonathan, an SCS botanist intern, would pause frequently to get closer looks at the plant life along the wood plank trails, at times even getting down on his knees to smell Deer Heart flowers and other blooms. Helen, one of SCS's Sustainable Salmon Specialists, discovered her camera had a panoramic setting, and often one could see her body pivot in a circle as she tried to capture all of us within the wide landscape.
"Thank you for waiting so patiently for us Edgecumbe," I exclaimed as we got approached the rock steps at the base of the mountain.
Mountains take time. Mountains take meditative foot placements, sweat and salt from your body, and critical thought, but they also give. Edgecumbe inspired us to give each other this experience, to give a potential to our bodies that our minds might typically resist. I did not drink coffee that morning, or eat my lunch beforehand but something made me keep moving as I brought myself over those rock steps, immerging bright eyed to the sun hitting the red, powdered soil.
Mountains also give you the wisdom to not hold on to expectations. The bleached white posts that lined the minimal trail up Edgecumbe became my pacemakers, and in the beginning I would approach each post thinking I was almost to the top only to see six more in front of me, six beautiful yet spread out ribs of the earth. This pattern of me expecting the top to be there I soon learned to stop and instead I began to enjoy the gradual rise up. Enjoyment eased my mind, and allowed for a creative fire to develop from my muscles and mind. I began to visualize every post as a person I had deep feelings for, letting them take on the forms of my siblings, my parents, my sweet, sweet friends. I even visualized a post as myself, laughing briefly at what my former self would say if she could see me up there. To be honest, I even began hugging these tall markers and used them as I would with a dependable friend to glance back at Baranoff and the sea.
At the top, I kissed a rock I had found along the way and placed it in a pile started by other travelers who ritualized this experience. I carried my body on the flat earth to a spot that felt right, took off my pack, and gazed down into Edgecumbe's naval, crescent-filled with white lint snow. Sitting down felt exotic. Eating lunch felt indulgent. Really, to be sitting on top of a dormant volcano with my shoes and socks off on a sunny day in Southeast Alaska, overlooking forests, mountain ranges, ocean, and even seeing Sitka—this called for poetry, for odes, for screaming, and for all you yogis out there, this experience called for a happy baby. You cannot help but look and feel epic, you cannot help but feel your mind and body fused.
"How do people seem pre Edgecumbe and post Edgecumbe?" I now ask Alison Dunlap.
"Well I think whether it's sunnyor whether its cloudy they are pretty happy about it." Alison says that beforehand people excitedly talk in anticipation of the hike and then afterwards reflect on how amazing it was, much like how the six of us were on our Edgecumbe trip.
"Mostly people want to do more. They want to do something different or do the same thing. They just want more of it—insatiable."
Alaskan landscapes are addicting in that way. This land gives us reasons to go out and be amongst ourselves in wildness. It gives us reasons to get out of bed much earlier, gather with friends, support local businesses, and charter ourselves to experiences that get the spirit energized with meaning--not to mention all the awesome photo opportunities Alakasa gives, which will make you have one of the coolest profile pictures on Facebook.
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 castfor 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!
[tentblogger-vimeo 48769359]In July of 2012, thirteen undergraduate students from Knox College embarked on a 15-day wilderness expedition into the wilds of Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The trip was part of a semester long course entitled "Alaska: Forest, Fisheries, and the Politics of Wilderness". The course entailed an in-depth study of the history of natural resource management in Southeast Alaska. The first part of the course took place on the Knox College campus in Galesburg, IL with a thorough exploration of the literature regarding natural resource extraction in Southeast Alaska. This classroom based study of Alaskan resource management was complimented with a 15-day field expedition to the region the following summer. This was the "hands on" component to what they had learned in the classroom.
The students arrived in Sitka, Alaska on June 27th, 2012. After a few days of preparation they embarked on a 100 mile kayaking expedition guided by Latitude Adventures, a local kayak guiding operation. For many of these students, this was their first experience camping, not to mention their first experiences in the great Alaskan wilderness. After ten days on the water, exploring the intertidal zone, watching bears, eagles, and whales; the students arrive at False Island on Chichagof Island. There the students then spent five days working side by side with the United States Forest Service restoring salmon streams that had been degraded by industrial logging. They also had the opportunity to participate in a variety of scientific surveys aimed at understanding the complexities of young growth forests.
This expedition was so unique because it allowed the students to experience the places that they had learned about in the classroom, first hand. For many, this was a trip of a lifetime.
Opportunities like Knox College's course are available for colleges and universities throughout the nation. It is the goal of the Sitka Conservation Society and the Sitka Sound Science Center to connect courses like these with our local assets. We can connect you and your students with our local experts, guides, interpreters, and organizations to facilitate your course's Alaskan education.