Film maker Ben Hamilton has captured the essence of the Sitka Community Use Area in this video. In just two minutes find out what makes the Tongass so remarkable:
The Tongass National Forest is the largest forest in the National Forest System. Weighing in at 17 million acres, it encompasses almost the entire Southeast Alaska Panhandle. The Southeast is sprinkled with small towns that have built economies around the resources that the Tongass provides. As a community, Sitka is no different, and is intrinsically connected to the Tongass National Forest. We rely on its resources and all management decisions have repercussions that resonate within the community socially, economically and ecologically. Once a typical timber pulp town, the community now concentrates on the other assets and experiences the Tongass has to offer. At SCS we focus on an area of the Tongass known as the SCUA, Sitka Community Use Area. Ecosystems are never constrained by manmade boundaries, but the SCUA encompasses what Sitkans consider to be their backyard. The SCUA is important to Sitka for jobs, recreation, subsistence, renewable energy, economic development, clean air, clean water, cultural and traditional uses, and our overall quality of life.
SCS is optimistic with USDA Secretary Vilsack's recent announcement, reiterating a commitment to the Transition Framework, that there will also be renewed focus on all of the assets the Tongass has to offer. For us, this commitment means prioritizing the health of the forest and supporting local businesses that rely on the Tongass to keep our community afloat. A diverse Forest Service budget that focuses on watershed health, fisheries, recreation and the visitor industry is paramount to preserve the core aspects of a new economy for Sitka and other communities in the Southeast. SCS continues to support and highlight projects that clearly demonstrate attention to the Transition in ways that are lacking in other programs and projects on the Tongass.
Today's episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Carina Nichols about growing up fishing. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Carina's stories, read on...
Carina Nichols is 26 years old, and is currently working to become an optometrist. Behind the desk of the local vision clinic Carina seems perfectly ordinary. However, she is not like other optometry students. Her career path took took a long detour on her family's commercial fishing boat. She and her twin brother Ryan were seven weeks old when they started fishing. They eventually became the crew of their family's freezer-troller, and they spent every summer fishing out of Sitka, Alaska. So how did Carina find herself interested in optometry?
"I have really bad vision," she says, "And my parents were really struggling with getting me to be excited to go for walks or be out on the boat." What they didn't realize was that Carina literally couldn't see what they were trying to show her. "They would tell me ‘Look at the whales!' and I would be looking and looking, and I would see a stick float by the boat, and I would think, Wow, that must be a whale, they sure are boring." When Carina finally got glasses, her whole world changed: "Some humpback whales were jumping by the boat and I went crazy. I couldn't believe that that was a whale. I had to go wake my mom up and say ‘You gotta come see these! This is just the most amazing thing!'" Carina's experience gave her a huge appreciation for being able to see the world around her.
When Carina talks about her plans for the future - optometry school, working to help people, spending time outside, probably even fishing - she is calm and collected, unlike many people her age who are struggling to find direction in a gloomy economic climate. When we ask about her positive outlook, she attributes some of her focus to her years on the boat. "I'm definitely am not afraid to work hard for what I want. Fishing is a lot of diligent hard work, and you have to dig in if you want to be successful with it. My parents were really big proponents of working for what you want instead of just getting it." She laughs. "We had rain gear real young."
And Carina says she hasn't left fishing forever. Her ideal future? Work in the winter and spring, go fishing in the summer. Maybe when her twin brother Ryan gets his own boat, so the two of them can finish what they started at seven weeks old. She would love to come back and work in Sitka, she says, and being out on the water has never stopped being important to her; she feels closest to her home when she is out on the boat and away from the lights of town.
The Summer Boat Tour Series continues on Tuesday August 13th, from 5:30 to 8pm, exploring Sitka's Salmon. Come learn about their life cycle, how hatcheries influence salmon populations, and how there are salmon in the trees!
TIckets can be purchased with cash or checks from Old Harbor Books 201 Lincoln Street for $35 or (if available) at the Crescent Harbor loading dock at time of the cruise. It is suggested that tickets be purchased in advance to assure participation. Boarding begins at 5:15 pm. at Crescent Harbor.Due to the discounted rate of this trip, we are unable to offer additionally reduced rates for seniors or children.
This cruise is great for locals who want to get out on the water, for visitors to Sitka who want to learn more about our surrounding natural environment, or for family members visiting Sitka. Complimentary hot drinks are available on board and you may bring your own snacks.Binoculars are available on board for your use.Allen Marine generously offers this boat trip at a reduced rate for non-profits.Questions? email [email protected]
This is a story of a small place - a sandbar -, in a big place - the Red Bluff River -, in an even bigger place - the South Baranof Wilderness -, and, well, we won't even get into the Tongass and beyond.
Over a week of work in Red Bluff Bay this week, we got to know the area very well. Three of our fifteen trip goals happened to require upriver travel, which we did on foot and by packraft. While upriver, we observed beavers, surveyed for owls and amphibians, and measured many giant trees, including a few spruce trees that were over 25 feet in circumference.
The Red Bluff River's productivity and diversity can be traced back to those giant trees; as they rot and fall they alter the course of the river, make homes for canopy and cavity dwellers, and open clearings for berries and deer. Sometimes, they create sandbars, and we decided to survey one of those sandbars in more detail.
On this small patch of gravel and dead tree - also an ideal spot for salmon to spawn - SCS botany intern was able to identify forty-seven different species of plants, including the rare Mimulus lewisii, of which we collected a sample for genetic analysis. Mimulus lewisii, more often known as the pink monkeyflower, has a very interesting, patchy distribution that may be linked to receding ice and snow cover. Here's a close-up of the flower: may it inspire you to go for a stroll in the wilderness!
I wake up groggy, almost hit my head on the fo'c's'le ceiling when I climb up the ladder into the pilot house. When Dad sees me, he says "Hey! Get your rain gear on! We need your help!"
And then ten minutes later, I'm out in the pit, my gloves wrist deep in the belly of a king salmon, no trace of breakfast in sight - not that I would be up for eating it if it was. The fish are pouring in over the side, and I think about my camera, laying abandoned in my bunk. Wasn't that supposed to be my tool here, not gaff hooks and knives? What was I doing covered in fish blood and salt water, in the exact place that, at the ripe old age of 14, I swore I would never come back to?
My dad has been a commercial salmon troller out of Sitka, our small town in Southeast Alaska, for the last thirty-four years. Other fisherman recognize me around town sometimes, stop me and shake my hand: "You're Charlie's daughter," they say. "Man. Your dad knows how to catch a fish." The last time he wore a suit was at his own wedding, almost twenty-five years ago: and his tie was shaped like a fish. I did my first stint as a deckhand at age eleven: cleaning and icing before I was actually strong enough to haul a fish aboard myself. My friends from the Lower 48 love this story, impressed by the romance of it all: this makes me feel a lot like I am deceiving them.
I hated fishing. I alternated seasick or bored. And to clarify: there is little romance in being eleven, or setting up a steady rhythm of puking over the side in between cuts. I wanted to escape salmon entirely. I quit fishing, and got a job on dry land. When I left for a college on the other side of the country, I was certain that there was nothing I would miss less than fish, whether spawning in the forest, stacked in the fishold, or cooking on the barbecue.
And then the dreams started. I have always loved the visuals of Southeast Alaska: they're part of why I became a photographer in the first place, but this was overwhelming. Three or four times a week I would close my eyes and I would find the ocean stretching out from the bow of the boat, salmon swimming through the air around me. I doodled salmon in the margins of my notebooks, wrote poems about salmon running upstream, essays on deckhands and sea lions. When I came home, I found myself photographing spawning salmon; the shape of fishing boats; the different colors of the ocean: it all rattled around in my mind, requiring my attention.
It drove me crazy. What was happening? I hated fishing, so how did I feel such a strong connection to salmon? And how could I feel so attached to a community that was economically and environmentally dependent on salmon, especially when I had left it three thousand miles behind?
That question was the reason I found myself back on the deck of the F/V Alexa K, gutting fish before breakfast, back to the place where my grudge against salmon had been instilled in the first place. After eight days of work - cleaning, icing, photographing, and a lot of thinking - I still didn't like fishing. But I realized that just because I didn't want to slay salmon on the high seas, it didn't mean that I could get away from them. The more I thought about it, the easier it became to justify why salmon were important to me, even if I wasn't fishing for them: whether or not I had a gaff in hand, I was born locked in to the salmon cycle of Southeast Alaska.
Salmon aren't just my family's livelihood. They're the backbone of our local economy. Southeast Alaska is the world's most productive and valuable salmon fishery in the world. If you were raised in the Tongass National Forest, chances are you're a newcomer to what has been the spawning ground of salmon ancestors for 50 million years. The influence of the salmon that die on the banks each year ranges so far it's impossible to trace them to an end. From fertilizing the forest, to feeding the wildlife, even changing the chemical composition of the soil, dead salmon help create one of the most unique and biodiverse biomes in the world - and they feed everything from Alaska's tourism industry to new generations of fish in the streams.
As a result, salmon are run deep in my conception of my community and my environment. There's a connection I have to the forest and the ocean that feels just as strong when I am thousands of miles away as when I am asleep in a bunk that rests below the waterline of the Pacific. So while my dad trolls for bites and poundage, I look for shots and frames. I can't make anything that would fill a freezer through the winter. But I can still have an affect on the resources on which we both depend: I can share the stories of people who make the Tongass their home, who make fishing their lifestyle. People like my parents. My dad will be the first to tell you - nobody gets rich trolling for salmon. You can only succeed at it if you love it, because otherwise it would drive you insane. But there's a reason that sustainable fisheries were written into Alaska's state constitution: not only do we care about catching fish this year, but we care about being able to catch fish twenty or fifty years from now.
The future of my family, and many families like mine, depend on the fisheries, which depend on the salmon, which depend on the forest. And it's only by making these connections visible to the rest of the world that we can help protect them - to sway federal management of public lands, to make sure logging doesn't ruin salmon habitat, to ensure sustainable catch practices. We're one piece in an environment that has been raising salmon, trees, and people in conjunction for longer than anyone can remember. And even if we seem small in the face of all that ecological history, the importance that comes with being a link in that chain is not one we can take lightly. If everyone made the mistake that I made, if we considered the forest, the fisheries, even our families, disparate parts, each part would suffer the consequences.
Which is why instead of struggling to get away from salmon, I now find myself arguing for them. I don't need to spend all my days on a boat to know that any chance we have to show the connection between the economy and the environment, the fisheries and the forest, is a chance to preserve the place that has always been home. In Southeast Alaska, the people, the fish, and the forest share a future. Just because I'm the world's worst deckhand doesn't mean that I can't help shape it.
Out on the ocean, where we're trolling past cliffs covered in trees, whose roots reach down to the rivers where the salmon spawn each summer, the sun is finally coming up. It's likely that no one has ever set a foot on land here, but it doesn't matter. Even without breakfast, even slightly nauseous, with water stretching to the horizon on three sides - it's impossible to feel isolated. Because that's what salmon do for the people of the Tongass: they make one the planet's most remote corners feel like a home.
The juvenile salmon behind the curved glass of the newest aquarium installation at the Sitka Sound Science Center are a pretty dour crowd. Their grey lips curl down in fishy frowns, or pucker around their next microscopic meal. But one doesn't need to look far to find a smiling face in this fish tank. A large bubble of glass is built into the bottom of the salmon's tank, allowing visitors to crawl under the aquarium and look up into the tank, smiling widely as they view the world from a salmon's underwater perspective.
This interactive aquarium is part of a larger exhibit called "The Salmon Connection" that opened last week at the Science Center. The new display includes the salmon tank, educational artwork by Ketchikan artist Ray Troll, and a Salmon Olympics competition. The exhibit is the result of a partnership between the Science Center and the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fisheries Science. It was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation that supports projects and organizations who communicate research to a public audience. The display highlights the work of UW researchers currently studying how a range of habitat variety in salmon streams can lead to healthier, stronger salmon populations, which in turn lead to healthier coastal communities. Science Center Director Lisa Busch says that the goal of the new display is to draw an ecological and educational connection between the Center's traditional exhibits focused on intertidal and marine environments, and its work running the Sheldon Jackson Salmon Hatchery. The exhibit will also include a video, under production, and a new game designed by Ray Troll that will be unveiled at Sitka's Whalefest celebration in the fall.
At the gala opening of the Salmon Connections exhibit, the aquarium's main room was crowded with visitors. Adults and toddlers alike slurped rootbeer floats and poked at the huge colorful starfish in the touch tanks. Locals and tourists mingled, examining the cleverly drawn interpretative signs and Ray Troll's beautiful painted mural on the back wall. Outside, competition was fierce as several dozen kids raced to perform "egg-takes," netting "female" water balloons out of holding bins, then transporting their slippery load across the yard to slice the balloons open and collect the precious "eggs" (pinto beans) that lay within. At the end of a frantic, wet 15 minutes, there didn't seem to be a clear winner, but everyone was having a great time.
Amidst all the bustle, I was drawn back inside to stand in front of Ray Troll's mural, which depicts the huge variety of rainforest flora, fauna, and fishermen that rely on Southeast Alaska's salmon runs. An illustrated salmon lifecycle chart frames the entire piece, encompassing the bears and gulls, trees and fisherfolk in a perpetual circle of death and renewal. The title arches across the top: "A Wild, Salmon-Centric World." It seems a fitting label for both the mural, and the Science Center itself.
My title for the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) is "Wild Salmon Conservation and Restoration Intern", and yet, outside of taking a couple of water samples, I have not directly worked with salmon or rivers. How is this possible? How can I spend a majority of my time in the forest while emphasizing in my title that my work is dedicated to conserving and restoring wild salmon? Well, many Sitkans know the answer. They will tell you that the salmon are in the trees. In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Greater Sitka Arts Council and Sitka Summer Music Festival held an art event called "Salmon in the Trees." This slogan is wonderful because we too often forget that all of our actions are connected to ecosystems, and the salmon and the trees reminds us about how we do have this connection. So as the salmon are in the trees, my work for salmon takes me to the forest.
The mutualism between salmon and trees is fascinating. Old growth forests provide great habitat to salmon by providing shade to stabilize stream temperatures, while fallen trees and broken branches form pools giving shelter to salmon. The trees benefit from the salmon as well. This is because as salmon swim upstream, they take with them the prefect fertilizer package, filled with protein, fat, nitrogen and phosphorus. Bears, eagles, and other dispersers move salmon throughout the forest, fertilizing trees far from the stream. So not only are the salmon in the trees, but the trees need salmon.
For Sitka locals, it's no surprise to walk through Totem Park in late July and see evidence of salmon. From the flopping in the river, to the eagles snacking on the banks, to the smell of rotting fish which permeates the air, the salmon cycle is a constant for summer in Sitka.On June 19th, visitors to the park also got a taste of how important salmon are to the forest. Instead of finding salmon in the river, they walked through the park to find fish hanging decorated in the trees - quilted salmon, copper-colored salmon adorned with pennies, salmon covered in poems - and instead of an olfactory reminder, there was an auditory one: the sound of strings from the Sitka Summer Music Festival, playing a concert on the old battlefield where Tlingit warriors defended their lands from Russian traders. "It's a natural amphitheater," said musician Tali Goldberg. "The acoustics are great. It sounds like a concert hall."
From celebrating our unique artistic and environmental history, or simply getting out in the woods to enjoy some music and Vitamin D, the 2nd Annual Salmon in the Trees event offered an interdisciplinary glimpse into how important salmon are to the people of Sitka. Drawing on the region's history of mixing art and environment, community members decorated 30 wooden salmon that were hung by volunteers (many of them from the Forest Service), giving a modern day twist to the long-standing celebration of salmon culture. Adding world famous musicians into the mix highlights just how much Indian River, named Katzdaheen in Tlingit, means to the people of Sitka. "People listen with their hearts and really absorb [the music]," said Joachim Eylander, one of the cellists.
And it's not just the music they're hearing: it's the raven calls between the movements, and the sounds of the river, which flows through the middle of the park. It has had salmon returning for thousands of years to spawn in the waters, from the estuary in what is now the Sitka National Historic park to the river's upper reaches deep in the Tongass National Forest. Salmon in the Trees is a chance to share with visitors how strong the cultural forces of salmon and the Tongass are to Southeast Alaskans, an opportunity to use art and music to celebrate the important relationship between forest and fish. It's a way to illustrate how that relationship, which begins in the rivers throughout Southeast Alaska can flow out to affect the entire community - just like the music in the trees.
In 2011, SCS began the Sitka Salmon Tours program. The goal of the tours was to give visitors a salmon's eye view from the forests where the salmon are born, to the ocean, the fisher and processor, and finally to our plates. We've discontinued the Salmon Tours for 2013. Instead, we have distilled all of the great facts, stories, and natural history from the tours into this manual, "Sitka: A Tongass Salmon Town." Now anyone can be an expert on wild Tongass Salmon. We hope that Sitka residents, guides, and naturalist will use this guide to share the miracle of salmon that attracts tens of thousands of visitors to this place each year.
Printed guides are available at the Sitka Conservation Society office. If you'd like us to mail you a copy, send a request to [email protected] Bulk copies are available for purchase at-cost (about $0.80 per copy).
Download a copy of the manual HERE.
Take action to protect your public lands HERE.The following letter was submitted to the Sitka Sentinel by SCS.
The current version of the Sealaska legislation is scheduled for a hearing on April 25thin the Senate Public Lands Subcommittee. This Sealaska bill is a threat to the public lands of the Tongass and to the ways that Sitkans use the Tongass. This legislation would transfer lands on the Tongass to Sealaska that are outside of the original boxes where they were allowed to select lands. The legislation would affect us in Sitka because the corporation is asking for in-holdings throughout the Sitka Ranger District that are some of the most valuable areas for access and use. The bill would allow the corporation to select in-holdings in North-Arm/Hoonah Sound, Kalinin Bay, Fick Cove, Lake Eva, Wrangell Island off Biorka, Port Banks, and many others. On Prince of Wales Island, the corporation has cherry-picked the lands that have the highest concentration of the remaining economically valuable cedar trees, the oldest and fastest growing second growth, and the timber stands that have the most investment made by taxpayer dollars in roads, culverts, and forest thinning.
The in-holding selections might seem familiar topic. The corporation is selecting them in the same process they are using for Redoubt Lake. It is claiming that fishing access areas are eligible for selection under authorities that were meant for cemeteries. In the case of Redoubt Lake that means that one of the most important sites for public use and subsistence on the Sitka Ranger District could be privatized and owned by a corporation that has a for-profit mandate and is run by a board of directors that has created its own closed circle of power (remember when Sitkans tried to get elected to that board). The CEO of Sealaska came to Sitka a few weeks ago and made many promises about public access. That all sounded good, but how long is he going to be around? None of the agreements they proposed are legally binding. What happens when their board of directors decides that they don't want to allow everyone to fish there anymore? What happens when they decide that they "are obliged to make profit for their shareholders" and the best way to do that could be to capitalize on the asset of Redoubt Lake and build a lodge on the island between the two falls? Promises made today don't necessarily stand the test of time when lands are not in public hands and are not managed by a publically accountable entity.
For all of the above reasons, SCS will be telling members of theSenate Public Lands Subcommittee that the Sealaska Legislation is not good for the Tongass and not good for Southeast Alaska. Information on how to contact members of that committee can be found on the SCS website:www.sitkawild.org.
Update: Sealaska Corporation's CEO recently issued a response to the above editorial. He also complained about the photos below. He called them "unethical," "mysterious," "misinformation."
Of course our photos of Redoubt Falls with no trespassing signs are fabricated, that is because (thankfully) this area is still in public hands where everyone, including Sealaska shareholders, have equal rights to utilize this place. The photos we didn't need to fabricate are the images of Sealaska Corp's logging practices on land they currently own on Dall Island. (Watch this Google Earth tour to see for yourself.*) But don't take our word for it; take a look at the short video Hoonah's Legacy, showing the massive clearcuts logged by Sealaska Corp that scarred that community's landscape. Or, visit the Sealaska Shareholders Underground's Facebook page to hear about shareholders who disagree with the Corporation, but who have so far been suppressed by Sealaska and prevented from allowing any new voices onto the Sealaska board of directors.
Based on history and the facts, it is hard to see how allowing a profit-driven corporation like Sealaska to take away public lands from Alaskans would be "good for Sitkans, the Tongass and for Southeast Alaska." If you agree, please consider writing a Letter to the Editor of your local paper and share this information with your friends and community.
* This is a Google Earth tour (.kmz file). You must have Google Earthinstalledon your computer to view the tour.Please encourage your friends and relatives living in states listed below to call their Senator.
Key Senate Public Lands Subcommittee Members:
Oregon-Senator Ron Wyden(202) 224-5244
Washington-Senator Maria Cantwell(202) 224-3441
Colorado-Senator Mark Udall(202) 224-5941
New Mexico-Senator Mark Heinrich(202) 224-5521
Minnesota-Senator Al Franken(202) 224-5641