PHOTO BY BERETT WILBER
Standing on top of one of the Pyramid mountains, gloved hands stuffed into my orange raincoat, I look out over a sea of pink and yellow clouds as the sun sets on the low evening ceiling that settles over Sitka Sound. Alaska is not always the easiest place to call home, but moments like these make me forget the rain and cold. They fill me with awe that presses out against my ribs, bringing up a line from a James Wright poem, A Blessing: "Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom."When the sun shines in my hometown, Sitka, I know I am in the most beautiful place on earth. Sitka is a bustling rural metropolis hugging twenty miles of shoreline on Baranof Island, in Southeast Alaska. The southeast "panhandle," sandwiched between British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska, is made up of eleven hundred islands called the Alexander Archipelago. Baranof is one of the largest, reaching one-hundred miles long and thirty miles across at its widest point. Like almost all of the other large islands, Baranof is covered in mountains and has year-round ice fields at high elevations.
Southeast Alaska is in the Tongass National Forest. Just shy of seventeen million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the country, and is part of the largest area of temperate rainforest on the planet. Temperate rainforest is a very specific and interesting ecosystem, defined by high annual precipitation, mild climate, and tree populations that do not require fire to regenerate.
Fifty degrees and overcast with a seventy percent chance of rain could be the forecast any day of the year in Sitka. Sitka gets about eighty seven inches of rain per year, and there are other towns, both north and south of us, that get up to one hundred-fifty inches annually. Rainfall varies throughout the region due to mountains and wind patterns.
Climate also varies throughout Southeast, but in general it is pretty mild. The ocean keeps the islands cool and wet in the summer, and warm and wet in the winter. Air temperatures range between forty and sixty degrees fahrenheit in the summer and twenty to forty degrees in the winter. Warm Japanese ocean currents keep the water around forty-five to fifty-five degrees, depending on the season.
Finally, temperate rainforests have little to no forest fires. In some places, like California, fire is part of the life cycle of the forest that allows plants to regenerate and be productive. In Southeast Alaska, wind is the change agent that keeps the forest going. In October and November, our stormiest months, straight winds of up to eighty or ninety miles per hour sweep through Southeast, taking out power lines, keeping people off the water, and blowing down trees. When trees get knocked over, the canopy opens up, allowing young trees to grow and providing light to the ground cover plants. The fallen trees themselves become "nursery logs," providing nutrients to new trees and plants.
While Southeast is not the dramatic icy tundra that many people imagine when they think of Alaska, its majestic mountainous islands make it beautiful in its own way. The mountains are one of my favorite features of the islands, and they have an interesting history. The islands did not all form in the same way, but are the result of a few different geological processes that gathered together over millions of years. At one point, the whole area was covered by glaciers, resulting in the topography we see today.
The Alexander Archipelago is made up of three different types of islands called Wrangellia, Stikine, and Alexander. Two-hundred and twenty million years ago, all three "terranes" were scattered off-shore, separate from each other. The Stikine terrane, made up of volcanic flow, paleozoic sedimentary rocks, and marine sandstone, probably started out as a chain of volcanic islands much like Hawaii. As the plates shifted 200 million years ago, the chain collided with ancient North America at what is now British Columbia. Wrangellia also started as a volcanic chain, but these islands sank below the surface and became a shallow reef covered by marine shale. After a while a rift in the ocean floor produced a large amount of volcanic basalt that covered the reef. Later still, copper was deposited on Wrangellia, and that is why today, the Wrangell mountains have copper deposits. The Alexander terrane, distinguished by its marble and limestone, joined up with Wrangellia off shore in the Middle Jurassic period. Together they made a subterrane that collided with the North American plate in a region of subduction. The collision caused metamorphic and igneous rocks to be formed, and the was begining of the region's mountains. Over the next 200 million years the land continued to shift, with rocks being added, and some rocks breaking off, forming the archipelago. Today the mountains are still growing, possibly rebounding from ancient glaciation or as a result of continued subduction. The Alexander Archipelago is defined by its deep channels and steep mountainous islands. The channels, like Chatham Strait, often mark fault lines between chunks of islands. Their depth, and the dramatic contrast with the mountains, is a result of ancient glaciation. At the height of the ice age, Southeast Alaska was covered in thick glaciers that scoured the islands down to bedrock. The only exposed habitat, called refugia, were small areas of coastline and rocky nunataks that stuck up above the ice at high elevations. Both types of refugia were islands of rock in a sea of ice, and supported life, including mountain goats and bears that still inhabit the islands today . When the glaciers melted, the channels flooded and the tops of the mountains became islands. Looking across Baranof Island on a clear day, you can pick out the sharp rocky peaks that must have survived above the ice, as well as the rounded mountains that were scoured down and made smooth by the heavy ice. There is a lake south of town, Blue Lake, where the deepest point is actually below sea level, probably because the valley was once hollowed out by ice.
It used to be believed that the islands were totally inhospitable during the ice age (Wisconsin glaciation), and all flora and fauna populations arrived and spread in the past 10,000 years . However, because of fossil findings, we are now fairly confident that refugia supported life during the ice age. Sea level was about 300 feet lower, and the coastline was lifted in response to the pressing down of the ice. This created the coastal refugia where plants and animals survived. These areas existed on islands we still see today, but it also connected some landforms that are now separated by water. Fossils of black and brown bears have been found in caves along the coast, dating back to the time of the ice age. Arctic fox, caribou, and ring seal bones have also been found in coastal caves, which leads scientists to believe Southeast Alaska used to look a lot like Northwestern Alaska does today. No polar bear remains have been found, but ring seals are their main food supply, so it would make sense that they would have been in the area as well. 
During the ice age, species were isolated and then they distributed in different directions when the ice melted. In this way species variation developed. Coastal brown bears and grizzly bears are the two main subspecies of brown bears, but depending on who you talk to there are up to ninety subspecies. Coastal brown bear DNA is surprisingly close to polar bear DNA. Baranof Island had some coastal refugia during the ice age, and today the coastal brown bears on the island are their own subspecies . Brown bears live on islands in the northern part of the archipelago, while black bears inhabit southern islands. After the ice age black bears spread south and inland, and the interior bears are now a distinct subspecies separated from the coastal bears, but by studying their lineage we can trace their movement and separation over time .
Southeast Alaska is not biodiverse, but it very diverse in the sense that there are many different ecosystems that exist closely with each other and form complex relationships. There are old growth forests, muskeg, alpine, coastal estuaries and more habitats that are home to many of the same flora and fauna. Because the same species exist throughout the ecosystems, the connections between animals and their environment can be seen, and sometimes they are surprising. The relationships between species and habitats also accentuate the impact of global warming in the Tongass.
The warming of the earth is a global phenomenon that disrupts localized ecosystems around the world. According to a study done by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Alaska's seasonal average temperatures have increased by as much as 5.6°F from 1949 to 1998. In Southeast Alaska, the temperature in the Tongass has gone up by 1.5-3°F in this time. The most warming was seen in winter and spring, and the only cooling was recorded in the fall . The impact of climate change in Southeast Alaska is clear, but it can pop up in unexpected ways.
For example, let's look at salmon. There are five types of Pacific salmon that spawn in streams throughout the Tongass. Around Sitka, there are a few pink salmon streams, a king salmon hatchery, and a great sockeye run at Lake Redoubt which is just a boat ride away. When salmon spawn in late summer, they return to the same river where they hatched, and swim up all the way to about the same spot where their parents spawned before. If they are not caught by fishermen or bears or impeded in some other way, they bury their eggs under the gravel in a hole called a redd, and then they die. The eggs have to survive in the streambed through winter, and in the spring the baby salmon hatch and grow until they are ready to swim out into the ocean. They live in the open ocean for one to seven years, depending on the species, and then they return again to their original stream to continue the life cycle. Global warming, however, is bad news for salmon populations. Because of global warming, the temperature of the streams has been increasing, and precipitation patterns have been changing. In the past few years Southeast Alaska has experienced periods of drought that are believed to have affected whole generations of salmon. A study done for the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, in 2009, looks at cases of poor pink salmon returns and their correlation to changes in climate. The pink salmon returning in 2006, which would have been eggs in the run of 2004, saw unpredicted low returns. According to the study, "Drought conditions and high stream temperatures in the late summer and fall of 2004 may have contributed to the poor year-class strength of pink salmon." The drought conditions in late summer would have meant less water in the streams, making it difficult for salmon to swim up river. The warmer water may also have presented a challenge to the eggs that were laid. They concluded that "poor marine survival as well as adverse freshwater conditions affected the 2006 returns." Three years later, in 2009, Sitka experienced a warm dry summer that caused concern among locals that we would have another poor fishing season down the road . I remember that summer because it was "the summer of the bear." The early returning pink salmon (salmon who come from parents who returned early in the season will also return early) came late and couldn't run upstream when they normally do because of the poor stream conditions. The bears (coastal brown bears) were not aware of the change in schedule, so they came down off the mountains in August just like they always do, expecting to gorge on salmon. Instead there were no salmon, and no berries either because of the dry weather. Grumpy and hungry, more bears than usual found their way into town. A mother with four cubs caused quite a lot of excitement around Sitka. Outside of town we saw bears everywhere. It was the summer of the bear. The returns in 2011 (the generation of eggs from the 2009 run) were not poor at all, if you look at the pink salmon harvest data recorded by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game . However, the same data reveals that every return of the 2004 salmon descendants has been poor (2006, 2008, 2010). It is probably only a matter of time before climate strikes again and debilitates another batch of salmon.
Salmon are full of nutrients that bears store to make it through the winter, and the same nutrients support the terrestrial ecosystem in the Tongass. In Southeast Alaska there are over 5,000 salmon streams. Because there are so many streams, "47% of the forested area within the Tongass falls within 0.5km of a salmon stream and over 90% within 5km" . Research is still being done on the effect of salmon derived nutrients in the Tongass. So far, we know that salmon bring in nitrogen, phosphorus, lipids, ammonia, and other nutrients that are consumed and distributed through many different pathways . Studies have been done to try and trace salmon-derived nitrogen (15N) and carbon (13C) isotope distribution in the Tongass, but it is a challenging study. It is almost impossible to trace the phosphorus, but that doesn't mean it is any less important. The problem is that we still don't really know how salmon derived nutrients are used by in terrestrial ecosystems in the Tongass, but there is no doubt that they are there. At this point it is hard to know how the forest will be impacted if salmon populations continue to decline, but it is undeniable that, like so much of the world, these systems are intertwined with each other.
I would like to think that if everyone could wake up in the morning and see what I see outside my front door, more people would be passionate about conservation. Our social habits that are detrimental to the environment would be easier to change, because if you can love a place, you will want to make sure it is always there. That's how I feel about Sitka, but I'm lucky. I grew up in a place where you can't avoid the smell of spawning salmon, and bear sightings are small town gossip. The mountains are literally right outside my door; I don't even have to get in a car, I can just climb to the top, eating blueberries along the way. I'm lucky that I can love my place first hand, when so many people don't get the chance to develop a personal connection with the natural world. Even if you aren't from a place, or have never even been to it, you can still fall in love with the mystery and beauty of a wilderness. More importantly, you can share your passion with others and spread appreciation for our planet. While Southeast Alaska is an isolated place of intricate connections, it serves to remind us that the entire earth is made up of a vast web of interacting ecosystems. When human impact disrupts one part of the system, effects radiate out in a chain of related reactions. If the whole world found its mountain sunset, real or imagined, maybe that would be enough to tip the scales of conservation and balance our delicate ecosystems for another few hundred years.
Sources:  "2012 Alaska Department of Fish and Game Southeast Alaska Pink Salmon Harvest Forecast. ." Alaska Department of Fish and Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/fishing/PDFs/commercial/2012_se_pink_salmon_harvest_forecast.pdf>.
 Connor, Cathy. " Geology of Southeast Alaska: With Special Emphasis on the Last 30,000 Years." . Raptor Research News, n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://raptors.hancockwildlife.org/BEIA/PAGES/Section-7.pdf>.
 "Evidence of Climate Change in Alaska." Climate Change. N.p., 2009. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <http://alaska.fws.gov/climate/inak.htm>.
 Gende, Scott M. , Richard T. Edwards, Mary F. Willson, and Mark S. Wipfli. "Pacific Salmon in Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems." Evergreen State College. Ebsco Publishing, 2002. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <http://academic.evergreen.edu/curricular/ftts/downloads/gende.pdf>.
 Heaton, Timothy. "Mammal Fossils." University of South Dakota. N.p., 2002. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://orgs.usd.edu/esci/alaska/mammals.html>.
 Schwing, Emily. "Drought Could Mean Decline in Pink Salmon." KCAW. Raven Radio, 2009. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <http://www.kcaw.org/2009/07/24/drought-could-mean-decline-in-pink-salmon/>.
 Waits, Lisette, Sandra Talbot, R.H. Ward, and G.F. Shields. "Conservation Biology." jstor. Society for Conservation Biology, April 1998. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2387511?seq=6>.
 Wertheimer, A.C., J.A. Orsi, E.A. Fergusson, and M.V. Sturdevant. 2009. Forecasting Pink Salmon Harvest in Southeast Alaska from Juvenile Salmon Abundance and Associated Environmental Parameters: 2008 Returns and 2009 Forecast. NPAFC Doc. 1202. 19 pp. (Available at http://www.npafc.org).
 Woodford, Riley. "Alaska Black Bears and the Ice Age Newcomers to the Interior but Long in Southeast." Alaska Department of Fish and Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlifenews.view_article&articles_id=509&issue_id=98>.
 Woodford, Riley. "Uncovering mysteries: New research reveals much about life, history of Baranof Island goats." Juneau Empire. Alaska Fish and Wildlife News, 26 November 2010. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://juneauempire.com/stories/112610/out_741885388.shtml>.
"Should I wear these pants or my stretchy ones?" Tracy Gagnon is sitting on the floor of my living room, hunting gear spread out around her, holding up a pair of lightweight hiking pants. Today is a momentous day for Tracy. Not only is it the day after her twenty sixth birthday, but it is the morning of her first ever hunting trip. She has sighted in her thirty aught six at the range, and her head is full of the philosophy of subsistence hunting.This is a big step for Tracy, who is originally from Las Vegas, and moved to Sitka a year ago to run the SCS program, Fish for Schools. "People in Las Vegas don't have guns!" she tells us (we laugh because that's probably not true), "no one hunts, at least no one I know." Actually, she says, her fifth grade teacher did make the class venison sloppy joes one time. And come to think of it, there was an ex-boyfriend who had an unsettling set of deer antlers mounted above his bed...but other than that, Tracy feels that she has had very little exposure to subsistence hunting culture.
Since moving to Alaska, things have been a little different. Tracy decided to start hunting because she wants to be responsible for her food, and up here, hunting seems like a good way provide for herself. A friend of hers once explained that he never feels more connected to the land than when he is hunting. Never more connected to the animal until he has lifted his gun to fire. Now we are in the car on the way to the harbor, and Tracy tells us she is awed by subsistence hunters in Alaska. "They know the place...they know how to read the wilderness, and they have a deep respect for the process," she says. She has heard so many stories of the rituals of respect that people have with hunting, reassembling the carcass after harvesting the meat, leaving a lock of hair on the mountain, always thankful to the deer for being in the right place in the right time, and standing still instead of bounding away. "I've never had those experiences," Tracy says, "so my main underlying reason [for hunting] is practical, but I'm also excited about the process.
We make it to the beach by nine, and we are up the ridge in an hour. We are getting a late start, but the extra sleep was worth it. The day could not be more beautiful. As we hike up through the trees, morning sun glints on the edge of each false summit, until we finally break out onto the alpine, where our ridge stretches out in front of us, and snowy peaks block out the horizon. We all agree that we are unbelievably lucky to live in the most beautiful place on earth. Our hunting location will remain unnamed, but I will tell you that we were in the Tongass, and not too far from Sitka. We see two float planes all day, and not a single other person. "Can you believe we woke up this morning and got to do this?" Berett (the photographer) asks. The ridge is about three miles long as the crow flies, and slowly climbs in a meandering curve up to a frozen lake nestled in a deep bowl. We hit snow after five hours of slow hunting, and the dog lies down to cool off. We go a little farther, then start down, still not giving up the hunt. It's hard to feel discouraged when you have such a glorious landscape to distract you.
Unfortunately, Tracy didn't bring her beginners luck, and we make it back to the beach at seven without sighting a deer. My mom, the experienced hunter on the trip, tells us not to be disappointed. "Subsistence hunting is like a kind of religion. Most religions have some aspect of faith in that which you cannot see." She tells us about a time when she was looking down a hillside, and she knew there must be a deer down there because the dog was going crazy, sniffing the air and prancing around like it was Christmas morning. Mom rested her gun on a boulder and looked and looked and couldn't see anything through the scope, and finally, growing impatient, the dog ran around the boulder and spooked the deer that had been laying there with it's back against the warm rock. "Deer surprise you when you are at your lowest and feel like giving up."
We don't come home with a deer, but we are not entirely empty handed; Tracy found some bright orange Chicken of the Woods mushrooms that she brought home for dinner, Berett got lots of great shots, and the dog brought back a forest's worth of sticks matted up in her fur. Back in the living room thirteen hours later, Tracy is still excited; "I actually think I've never seen a more beautiful view in my entire life. Twenty-six is a good year!"
Photos by BERETT WILBER
Berett Wilber was born and raised in fishing family in Sitka, Alaska. Currently studying as a junior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, the photography skills that she developed as a kid running around Baranof Island have developed into a dedicated interest and professional tool. Although she's worked in many interesting places, from the steps of the capital in Washington, DC to the prairies of the Midwest, the Tongass is still her favorite place to shoot.
[doptg id="26"]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.
Honored in tradition, loved, feared and respected across every ocean on earth, killer whales have tantalized our curiosity for lifetimes. I had the opportunity to face these intelligent animals on Alaskan waters while cruising with Pauli Davis of Gallant Adventures. The encounter was humbling, unforgettable, and reminded me that truly wild places like Sitka Sound are absolutely unique, and that it is imperative that we protect wildlife on these pristine coasts so that we can continue to have interactions like these. Seeing these whales helps us retain our connection with the natural world and instills a respect for the animals with which we share it.
Enjoy the little video I put together on the encounter.
[quote]"Perhaps one of he most beautiful things about killer whales is that they are always going to be a haunting, formidable and utterly mysterious presence moving somewhere at the dark watery edge of our world." Richard Nelson[/quote]
[doptg id="25"]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.
August is an amazing month for deer in Southeast Alaska. During August, there is food for deer everyplace. The estuaries have copious amounts of sedges and grasses; berry bushes are filled out with green leaves, blueberries, and Red-huckleberries; ground forbs are in full growth. The vegetarian deer are literally wading through a full salad bowl of nutritious greens and tasty treats and can take a bite of of just about everything they pass and munch it down!
With all the plants available, the deer can afford to be choosey about where they hang out and what they eat. Obviously, they pick the best place to go: the high alpine. In the high alpine they find the newest and most nutritious growth. This summer, after a heavy winter, there are many patches of alpine where the snow has only recently melted and new grass and deer cabbage is just starting to grow and begin to blossom. These new shoots are tender and the deer graze hard on these to fatten up to get through the leaner winter months.
Deer also like the high alpine because they have both the cover of the stunted mountain hemlock trees as well as long vistas to keep a lookout on what is around then. There is often a breeze in the alpine and on the ridges that helps the deer keep the bugs from biting. I'm not sure if this is a factor or not for the deer, but the high alpine of the outer coast is also amazingly beautiful and has some of the most spectacular views in the entire world!
Sitka Black Tailed Deer are an amazing creature of the temperate rainforests. They are one of the most treasured species in Southeast Alaska. The work of SCS to protect the forest habitat of the deer and conserve intact watersheds ensures the long-term conservation of this amazing creature.
[doptg id="23"]Have you ever wanted to can salmon but haven't been able to find good instructions?
Brian Hamilton, a local fisherman and connoisseur of wild foods, is here to help. He has put together a very detailed explanation of the process he goes through when catching, cleaning, brining, smoking, and canning salmon.
My hope is that these instructions help others in their quest to preserve some of our local delicacies.
Here are Brian's instructions:
"A Brief Outline of Catching, Cleaning, Brining, Smoking, and Canning Salmon.
- Once fish is caught (and killed), cut or remove gills to allow blood to drain from fish.
- Keep fish cold. ( I run a stringer through their gill flap and tie them to a rock making sure their bodies stay submerged in water).
- Once fish are caught, clean them as soon as possible.
Cleaning: (this is done easily in a double sink with a large counter space next to it)
- Rinse each fish in cold water removing any large external debris.
- Place fish on counter. Hold tail with non-dominant hand and use a sharp fillet knife to cut a shallow incision from the anus to the fish's bottom lip.
- Gently remove all organs from stomach cavity, being careful not to rupture the intestines or rectum (they contain green waste that spreads quickly and could damage the quality of the fish meat).
- Use the tip of the fillet knife to cut open the thin membrane that covers the spinal fluid. (Spinal fluid resembles thick, coagulated blood).
- Rinse out spine and stomach cavities thoroughly with cold water.
- Cut two spine deep slits on each side of fish: 1 behind the gills and the other just in front of the tail
- Cut fillets off each side (I hold the tail with my non-dominant hand and run the fillet knife from tail slit to gill slit, keeping knife lightly pressed against the spine. Try to remove as much meat as possible. Bones are ok.)
- Cut fillets in half and rinse thoroughly. Dry scale side down with a paper towel, removing as much slime as possible.
- Place fillet halves into brine (see recipe) and discard fish carcasses. *
Brining- water, sugar, salt
- In 2 quarts cold water, add just enough salt to float and uncooked egg and then thoroughly mix.
- Then add 2 cups brown sugar and thoroughly mix again.
- Add fish and let fish sit in fridge for 12 hours.
- After fish has set in brine for 12 hours, remove from brine and thoroughly rinse. Set rinsed fillets, scales down, on clean smoker racks (leaving about 1 inch between fillets helps smoke rise).
- Pat fillets with paper towels and then let them sit for 30 min in a cold, dry, clean place.
- Load fillets into smoker, starting with the top rack.
- Fill the wood chip pan with wood chips.
- After about 2.5 hours, check wood chip pan. DO NOT REMOVE THE ENTIRE FRONT COVER. If chips are exhausted, discard and refill wood chip pan.
- After another 2.5 hours, unplug smoker.
Supplies- Mason jars w/ lids and rings, pressure cooker.
- Thoroughly wash and rinse mason jars, rings, and lids and set them out to dry. (It takes about 1 jar per 2 fillet halves, but have extras just in case).
- Remove lowest tray of smoked salmon fillets from smoker and set on counter.
- Remove as much skin as possible from each fillet, then pack fish into jars. Bones are okay!
- Fish can be lightly stuffed into jars but make sure there is at least 1 inch of empty space between top lip of jar and the highest point of fish in jar.
- Place seal lid and ring onto each jar and lightly tighten each ring. Rings should just barely "catch" before you stop tightening. This will allow heat to escape jars during pressure cooking.
- Place jars into pressure cooker and stack if your pressure cooker is large enough. Make sure a rack is in place (included with pressure cooker) so jars aren't sitting directly on the bottom of the cooker.
- Fit as many jars as possible in the pressure cooker.
- Follow instruction manual for pressure cooker for amount of water and vinegar to add.
- Run a paper towel along the top rim of the jar to thoroughly clean off any debris.
- Place lid on pressure cooker and latch close, heat escape vent should be open and/or uncovered.
- Put pressure cooker on a stove and heat on highest setting.
- Once water boils, steam will emit from the heat vent. Once steam is emitted in a strong, steady stream place cover on heat vent. Once pressure builds up, the pressure stop will rattle around and eventually pop up.
- Pressure will slowly build on the pressure gauge. Once 11 psi is reached, turn down heat setting and try not to allow pressure to exceed 11 PSI.
- Start a timer for 100 minutes and constantly adjust stove heat up and down to keep pressure at 11PSI.
- After 100 minutes, turn off stove heat and move pressure cooker to a non-heated stove surface. Pressure will slowly decrease.
- After about 30 minutes, pressure will reach zero and the pressure stop will drop, carefully remove lid from canner making sure to keep the steam away from your face and arms.
- Jars are extremely hot. Using hot gloves or a folded towel, remove each jar slowly and place on a towel or heat resistant surface. The fat from the fish will be built up in the jars and still boiling. Some jars may be broken, so carefully remove those jars from the bottom with a metal spatula or similar tool. (As long as shards of glass are not present and jar breakage looks clean, the fish should be safe to consume.) Leave jars to cool for a couple of hours at room temperature.
- As jars cool, the lids will compress and seal with popping sounds, which completes the sealing of the jar. If any jar is cooled and not sealed, they are not safe for storage and should be refrigerated and consumed soon. Sealed jars are usually safe at room temperature for at least a year or two.
- Store jars in a cool, dry place.
- Eat often.
[doptg id="22"]Salmon fishing is a pillar of life in Southeast Alaska. A few of us at the Sitka Conservation Society tried our hand at subsistence gill-netting in Sitkoh Bay, on the southern end of Chichagof Island, hoping to fill our cupboards with fresh, vibrant sockeye. Sitkoh creek has a well-known sockeye run, and draws fishermen from Sitka and Angoon when the fish start running in mid-July. Tlingit communities have been harvesting here for millennia, and today, Alaskans of all backgrounds come to fish this rich stream system. This is one story of a fishing trip in Southeast Alaska, including a few lessons learned on the water from some first-time subsistence gill-netters.Preparation
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game oversees all fisheries, and is the primary resource for fishermen curious about regulations, requirements, and guidelines of personal use fishing. We acquired our free subsistence permit in just a few minutes at the local ADF&G office, and familiarized ourselves with legalities of the fishery before we left. Subsistence and Personal Use Salmon Fishing permits are granted to Alaska residents. There is one permit allowed per household, and each management area specifies a limited amount of salmon that may be harvested. While we chose to use a gill net, other legal fishing methods include beach seining, dip netting, gaffing, and spearing.
After procuring the right tags, and letting ADF&G know when we were going to be fishing, we put together a set of equipment to prepare ourselves for fishing. We brought mending twine and a needle in case we needed to repair the net. A friend lent us a fish pick, which is a plastic-handled tool with a small metal point, and helps to smoothly remove gill net from even the most entangled fish. The most important gear item is of course the net. Sockeye eat plankton, so they can't be caught on hook and line like King or Coho salmon. These red-fleshed beauties must be netted. A gill net is typically made of a fine filament sea-green mesh, and hangs vertically in the water. The net dangles from a line of floating corks, and the bottom of the net is weighed down by a heavy rope, called the lead-line. Flotation on top and weight on the bottom create a wall of net that salmon swim into headfirst, fatally catching their gills when they try to swim away. Our net was lent to us by a local troller, the type of person who keeps a three hundred-foot gill net in his backyard, along with other marine miscellany typical of Sitkans who harvest their own food. The net on its own was heavy and large; it required at least three people to lift it and move it from yard to car, to net shed, to boat, and finally to ocean. Before taking the net out fishing, we stretched it out in the net shed adjacent to Crescent harbor. We familiarized ourselves with the net, made sure it was the legal length of 50 fathoms, and mended some salmon-sized holes before taking it fishing.
Gill-netting Lesson Number One: the net does not belong on the bottom of the ocean.
We left Sitka on an overcast Tuesday in two heavily loaded skiffs, four deckhands deep. The crew: Phyllis Hackett, a salty Sitkan who lives on a roadless island just off of town; Stacey Woolsey, accomplished hunter, backpacker, teacher, and thorough Alaskan; Matt Dolkas, photographer, former NOLS instructor, and SCS intern; and me, a former commercial fisherman and current intern for SCS.
By the afternoon, we finally set our net near the mouth of Sitkoh creek. "Should we be setting the net this shallow? I'm not sure it's supposed to be on the bottom..." Stacey wondered aloud, dubious of laying a 25-foot deep net in 9 feet of water, as the tide ebbed. Despite her wise premonitions, we continued to set in the shallows, thinking that the nearer the creek we were, the fishier our net would be. May you learn from this mistake! We hauled in the net by hand, heavy with an array of unexpected sea-floor biota. Dungeness crabs tangled their pincers in the web. Mussel-laden rocks, heavy sticks, and a vibrant display of seaweed also found their way into our net. We thankfully caught a few salmon as well, but picking out all of the non-fish was time-consuming and exhausting.
Lesson Two: A gill net has a mind of its ownAnother difficulty we encountered was controlling the net's shape and location, as it tended to wrinkle and wander at the whims of the wind and tide, Ideally, the net is kept somewhat taught and in a straight line, maximizing the surface area for fish to swim into. In a set gill net fishery, one would simply anchor the ends of the net, solving this problem. It is not legal, however, to use an anchor while gill netting in Sitkoh bay. So, it seems best to leave one end of the net connected to your boat, allowing you the freedom to drift the net behind you as you like. This has its own set of difficulties: the net is quite heavy, placing strain on low horsepower outboards, and one must be vigilant about keeping the net away from the propeller. Lesson Three: Read the tide book
We set up camp on a rocky beach, our tents flattening tall stands of sedge. As I lay in the tent exhausted, Stacey and Phyllis kept watch on our anchored boats, and monitored the incoming tide as it neared our tent. I could hear the water lapping nearer and nearer as I fell asleep, and wondered in my exhaustion if I would even get up if the water started to trickle into our shelter. Smelling of fish and camping in bear country, tide inching closer to us, the reasons to sleep lightly piled up. Simple as it seems, checking the tide book would have saved us some worry.
Lesson Four: The work doesn't stop after you've caught the fish
We brought supplies to clean and ice our fish onboard, until we could process them fully at home. Phyllis used a wedge-shaped plywood tool as a base for cleaning her fish, a useful item for holding the slippery fish in place as she made the proper incisions. We sliced the salmon's bellies from anus to gill, and scraped out the guts, careful not to bruise the bright red meat, the prized object of our labor. Then we made a shallow cut down the bloodline of the fish, scraping out blood and any remaining detritus. The end product was a clean gutted fish, whose belly would be carefully stuffed with ice. We brought ice from a local fish processor before leaving town, and brought along coolers and Rubbermaid totes to store our catch.
While cutting the dorsal fin off of a salmon, per ADF&G subsistence regulations, Stacey's hand slipped, and sliced a tendon below her knuckle. In hindsight, sheet metal scissors would be a better tool than a knife for cutting this bony fin. Though she resiliently kept quiet about her injury, Stacey's cut tendon was a serious concern. As Matt put it, "If you were one of my NOLS kids, I'd probably get you out of the field." Considering this wise counsel, and that we hadn't caught nearly enough fish to fill our quota, we decided to pack up camp and head home. We returned to town salty, sweaty, and smelling of sea. Stacey drove her skiff 60 miles back to town with a splinted finger that would later be operated on, and I blinked away the stinging jellyfish in my eye. Remnants of blood splattered the decks of our boats, a gory testament to our harvest of salmon, and to Stacey's severed tendon. Despite our bruises and cuts, and the steep learning curve inherent in fishing, subsistence gill-netting was a richly rewarding way to harvest our own food. The salmon we caught were hand picked out of our net, and we saw them through the entirety of harvest, processing, and consumption. Truly, it is hard to think of something more gratifying than eating the fish of your labor.
The final step of our subsistence journey (before eating, that is) was to process our salmon. In the cozy haven of Stacey's home kitchen in Sitka, we cut all of our fish into steaks and canned them. After spooning salt into the jars with the steaks, we put them in pressure cookers with boiling water. The steam and heat cooked and softened the salmon, leaving it tender, juicy, and preserved for winter days when salmon are harder to come by. I found canning to be simple, time consuming, and meditative. Harvesting fish is something I grew up with, yet have rarely given deep thought to. As I sliced flesh and tightened jars, I considered the meaning of harvesting such important and life-giving animals, and inwardly thanked them for their lives, and the nourishment they provide.Restoration: Taking care of the Tongass
Gill-netting is just one way to harvest the bounty of Alaska's waters, and to enjoy the natural riches the Tongass provides. The sockeye run in Sitkoh Bay is only possible because of the temperate rainforest ecosystems of the Tongass National Forest and the protection and responsible management of its watersheds. Fish need the habitat provided by these forest streams in order to survive and continue their life cycles. We in turn need this remarkable Tongass habitat, so that we may continue to harvest salmon to feed our friends, family, and ourselves. Harvesting one's own food is a way of life in Southeast, and salmon are a mainstay of the subsistence lifestyle.The Sitkoh River and Sitkoh lake restoration projects are important steps in the direction of repairing salmon streams that have been harmed by past logging practices. These projects are joint efforts between the Sitka Conservation Society, Trout Unlimited, and the U.S. Forest Service. Jointly, these organizations are working to restore natural conditions to damaged salmon streams. This summer, Sitkoh River has been returned to its natural path, and large wooden structures have been added to create spawning and rearing grounds for coho salmon. Restoration work such as this means better salmon habitat, and thus more production of salmon and improved future livelihoods for Southeast Alaskan fishing communities. For the sustainability of the incredible salmon runs that support this wild land and its communities, it is critical that we protect their habitat in the Tongass National Forest.
Restoring the Sitkoh River(Juneau Empire)
[doptg id="21"]In Southeast Alaska, bald eagles are commonplace; they perch on spruce trees, swoop over parking lots, and glide over the vast expanses of water that define this landscape. Ravens are another constant here in Sitka, sometimes called Raven town, ever-present on car and buildings, and an ancient trickster in Tlingit myth. These birds are so common that it is sometimes easy to forget our impact upon them, and that many end up injured because of human activities. The Alaska Raptor Center, located in Sitka, has been rehabilitating injured birds since the eighties. The idea began when a local falconer and conservationist began caring for injured birds in an old tool shed and gained momentum when he was able to successfully return some of the birds to the wild.
The center has since evolved into an expansive and high-functioning facility that includes a dozen outdoor habitats, a spacious indoor flight center where recovering birds build wing strength, a small presentation room, a vet clinic, office space, and spaces for the various owls, hawks, falcons, eagles and ravens that are full time residents. Current eagle patients include Lucky, who earned his name after crashing into a float plane but suffered no broken bones, Vulcan who lost one eye to a beebee gun, Jackson who became hypothermic and too depleted to fly after falling through thin ice, and Bug, a two-month-old who fell out of the nest. The Center recently hosted conservationist Jeff Corwin, of Animal Planet fame, to release one of the centers fully recovered eagles.
The Alaska Raptor Center's mission is threefold: to educate the public, to rehabilitate birds, and to conduct research. The Center not only helps conserve and treat intelligent and majestic birds like bald eagles, but is also a significant employer of local Sitkans. Eight people work at the center year-round, and that number doubles in the summer when tourism is in full swing. The Center is located on 17 acres of land adjacent to the Tongass National Forest. Between 100 and 200 birds become patients there each year, and while many are able to be released into the wild after rehabilitation, some are so severely injured that they become resident raptors. These birds are able to live healthy and productive lives on the Center's grounds, giving visitors the opportunity to see and appreciate raptors up close.
Executive Director Debbie Reeder encourages the public to become aware of the influences that humans have over our environment. "Many people don't realize that a thing as simple as a building can have an impact on birds," she says. About 85% of the injuries treated at the raptor center are caused by humans, though indirectly. Injuries will commonly occur from collisions with windows, buildings, power lines, and cars. By building awareness of the impact humans can have upon raptors, the Raptor Center increases public consciousness of raptor ecology.The Alaska Raptor Center is an organization that illustrates the potential for conservation to build community, reach out to the American public, and to support local economies. So stop by and show your support for another local conservation non-profit!
[doptg id="20"]This has got to be one of the coolest hikes I've ever done!This last July I was able to participate in the Sitka Trail Works Mt. Edgecumbe hike (i.e., climbing our local volcano).The trip began with a boat ride across Sitka Sound to the trailhead at Fred's Creek Cabin.After unloading and organizing our packs we began our 7 mile and nearly 3,000 vertical feet climb up the mountain (and that's just one way!).
The first part of the trail winds through a giant stand of old growth hemlock and spruce.After a few minutes zigzagging through the trees we broke out into the open muskegs where the majority of the trail is located.The muskegs of Kruzof Island are a truly amazing site as they are some of the biggest in the area,stretching across most of the island.
After roughly 4 miles of fairly flat terrain, we arrived at the three-sided shelter.There we found a number of other trip participants resting and nourishing themselves for the climb to the top of the volcano.From the three-sided shelter to the top of the volcano it isroughly 3 miles and nearly 2,000 vertical feet.It's by far the hardest part of the hike, but also the most rewarding.
About two miles from the three-sided shelter we broke through thetreeline.At that point the trail dissipates and we were left with an assortment of cedar posts stuck in the ground as trail guides.At first glance the cedar posts marking the trail seemed a bit overkill, however, when the fog rolled in we were happy to have them.
From thetree line we climbed for about twenty minutes completely engulfed in a thick layer of fog.Just as we began to crest the rim of the volcano, the clouds broke and we could see where we had wandered.Below us lay the muskegs of Kruzof Island andits rocky outer coast.To our east and south we could see the peaks of Baranof Island and the small speckles of civilizationin Sitka.At that moment, we couldn't think of anywhere else we'd rather be.