Photo by Molly LeeBove.
Written by Stephanie Hewett
Last summer, SCS hosted artists at the Phonograph Creek property left to us by Eric and Pam Bealer. The intention of this project was to connect artists to the Tongass who hadn’t experienced it before, as well as inspire them to create art from their experiences, continuing the Bealers’ artistic legacy drawing from Southeast Alaska. These words were written by Stephanie Hewett, an artist and dancer who joined us on this retreat, as she reflected upon her time in the Tongass.
A rare sunny day welcomed us at the edge of summer. Our first attempt at landing in Phonograph just a day before was thwarted by wild winds and lack of visibility. We were denied. Yet on our second try we peacefully landed on the beach, in our newly purchased xtratufs, feeling tricked from the stark contrast between both seaplane journeys. We smiled our way into Pam and Eric’s house, still so amused and grateful to have arrived in one piece. Against a calm wind the sun ushered us out into this new terrain full of mystery and deep beauty.
Our first day working with the land heightened my senses in new and exciting ways. I was taught not to fear the neighboring bears, but to understand their patterns in relation to time. In having to train my eyes to see them, I saw so
much more of my surroundings. The face that appeared in the mountain across the water reinforced the sacredness of the land. I perceived the face as a Tlingit ancestor welcoming me as a visitor. I felt affirmed in my being there. Before navigating the space through an intentional movement exploration I felt called to remove my shoes. The ground was cold yet welcoming. With each step I felt as though I could fully see all of the life beneath me. I could feel the movement not just in my body, but in the land. I rooted myself in the feeling of this soft soil beneath my bare feet, and was reminded to give thanks and deep praise before I am back to stepping on city gravel.
Days later, momma appeared in full force. Her mist became specks on my glasses and even though she began to cloud my vision I could still feel her presence. I couldn’t help but think about what beings lay beneath. I remember the salmon we met in Juneau before Phonograph. A few wedged into the earth yet still alive through movement. I observed a marathon with moments of sprints. A final lunge forced into a slow, committed death, knowing the goal is to birth new life.
Photo by Andrew Thoms.
Written by Heather Bauscher
Last summer we were fortunate to host some very special guests at the Phonograph Creek property bequeathed to us by Eric and Pam Bealer two years ago. The homestead at Phonograph Creek is located 3.5 miles outside of Pelican, Alaska and is accessible only by boat or float plane. We are honored to have the responsibility of putting this place to use while stewarding the lands and waters of the surrounding Wilderness. Our intention is to not only connect people to the majesty of the Tongass but also to inspire their creativity. We hope to find diverse and compelling ways to share these artistic manifestations and engage new audiences as we continue widening our circle. This work is a prayer that the transformative power of the Wilderness can be shared and ripple outward to inspire others to feel compelled to protect this place. Part of the power of Eric’s artwork was to do just that. So it is appropriate to continue his legacy this way, to do work for the West Chichagof Wilderness in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, the home of Eric and Pam, and to “protect this place they so loved.”
Many people have helped us prepare the property for use in sharing the magic and majesty of this beautiful spot. The house has rustic charm and a character that can only be attributed to Eric’s unique artistic style and aesthetic. It is set back in a field off of a point that sits alongside the mouth of Phonograph Creek and across from the sentinel of mountains that line Lisianski Inlet. We wish to utilize this site to provide a place where people can experience Wilderness in different ways. Although there is more work to be done, we were able to host our first guests there this summer.
The collaborators who took part in this pilot creative retreat were chosen for their interest in the experience of the West Chichagof Wilderness and their desire to help amplify the need for action given the recent threats to the Tongass and the repeal of the Roadless Rule. We were given an opportunity to partner with Ayana Young of For the Wild who has shown interest in this project, the Bealer’s story, and has supported Tongass advocacy in the past. At her suggestion we invited Brontë Velez of Lead to Life. Bronte is a black/Latinx social justice activist, artist, poet, dancer, and creatrix. Brontë also brought their partner Jiordi Rosales, a cellist, composer, and lutherie. Jordi is part of the Emergence Project and Steal A Way; a ritual learning-journey fellowship organized by Jiordi and Bronte collaboratively. To compliment the music and spoken word, Stephanie Hewett, a dancer from New York City, also joined them. For the Wild’s production team included Molly Lebovee, photographer and videographer, and Jade Begay, photographer and writer of NDN collective.
Photo by Heather Bauscher.
From Juneau they took a float plane to Lisianski Inlet and began almost a week of immersion at Phonograph Creek. We were blessed during those peaceful beautiful days: it felt like the only week of sunshine this summer! With help and support from Bagheera Sailing and S/V Snowdragon II, we departed by sailboat and traveled through the open ocean, and the scattered islands and waterways of the Tongass. We slowly worked our way back to Sitka exploring various bays and learning about karst terrain and the differences between an Old-growth forest and a clearcut that was never thinned.
We also took a detour to Glacier Bay to witness the impacts of climate change. Much like the tradition of Chuck and Alice Johnstone and Jack Calvin, our goal was to immerse our guests in the wilds and the waters of the Tongass to show them what it means to deeply experience this place (and then send them back home as activist ambassadors!). Throughout the trip this dynamic collection of individuals used art, music, movement, ritual, and spoken word to lean into complex issues around the history of the Environmental Movement and Wilderness Stewardship. These artists have helped us begin to dig deeper and connect with new audiences, while expanding our network of advocates for the protection of our ancestral forests.
Upon their emergence from the wilderness of West Chichagof, news that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and decision to remove protections on the Tongass was announced. The group was so moved by their recent experience they immediately mobilized to spread the word on social media, posting videos and even creating a mini film to inspire and connect people to the Tongass. They included a link to our comment tool and we had more than 100 new action takers practically overnight. Post production on the various multimedia pieces of the creative retreat will continue through the winter and likely will be released next year in 2021.
The overall experience of the few weeks we spent together in the Wilderness was life changing and spirit cleansing for all involved. To observe our guest’s awe as they moved through these ancestral forests, as they stood before these elder trees, as they began to comprehend the scale of these great mountains and glaciers, and as they grappled with the magnitude of our human impact was so incredibly moving. These moments of sharing are so deeply meaningful and important. There is a deep connection that is formed through the experience of a wild untamed place. We need to continue to find ways to immerse people in the Tongass, in order to open up new doorways and new relationships, to widen our circles and expand our network of advocates for fish habitat and forest conservation.
To pull this off during the COVID pandemic was no easy feat and I wish to express tremendous gratitude to all who helped move this project along. Thank you to all who have provided support in any stage of maintaining this property, to all those who helped organize this creative retreat, and to support the various Wilderness Monitoring trips. Thank you to Brenda Berry as the very first pilot artist! Thank you to all who helped with the physical work on the property and to all who helped with any leg of transportation of people or goods for these projects. To all of the folks in and around Pelican or connected to the Bealers, we will never be able to express how grateful we have been for your help and your support throughout this journey. It is with gratitude we will present these artistic manifestations as offering and prayer that this forest will be protected and the Wilderness will always remain.
Photo by Molly LeeBove.
Photo by Lione Clare
It was supposed to be a day trip. But, as is typical of late November in Southeast Alaska, Mother Nature had different plans.
While much of Sitka was still recovering from the hustle of Thanksgiving, naval architect Erik de Jong bustled around his workshop with haste, in preparation for another trip down to Goddard Hot Springs. After several delays due to weather and fabrications of materials earlier in the week, he was eager to return to complete the water delivery system improvements that the Sitka Conservation Society Community Conservation Corps had been tasked with completing, made possible by the City of Sitka’s allocation of CARES Act funding. The City of Sitka contracted Sitka Conservation Society to develop a transitional employment program to not only relieve the economic burden placed on individuals and families as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also to create new community assets and alleviate the backlog of public works maintenance projects.
By headlamp, de Jong loaded up his boat with shovels and a Pulaski and tool bags and, crucially, a package of bacon. But this wasn’t just any skiff. It was the S/V Bagheera, a 52-foot steel sailboat that de Jong had built with his father during university in the Netherlands, where he grew up. Its distinctive black-and-yellow exterior shone in the cold, early morning, bobbing next to de Jong’s personal dock.
Photo by Lione Clare
Along with Greta Healy, an SCS Corps member, Erik de Jong began the trip to Goddard Hot Springs. Located 16 miles south of Sitka, Goddard boasts two public soaking pools housed in cedar bathhouses maintained by the City of Sitka. Its proximity to town makes it an accessible and popular location for locals and visitors alike. The natural temperature of the hot springs, however, hovers around a scorching 150℉. An enjoyable experience, especially during warmer months, requires a supply of cold water to better control the tub temperatures. The small storage pond, behind a 30-plus year old dam of decaying wood, would regularly run out of cold water.
In an agreement with the City and Borough of Sitka, Sitka Conservation Society set out to design and construct a new wooden dam, tripling the capacity of the previous dam. Dan Jones and Dean Orbison, engineers in Sitka, and Barth Hamberg, a local landscape architect, were key to devising and planning the new and improved structure. Erik de Jong was hired on as the on-the-ground project lead.
Covid-19 negatively affected de Jong’s sailing business, preventing clients from travelling to Sitka and resulting in all of his chartered sailing trips being cancelled this past year. When the SCS Community Conservation Corps needed a project leader with a means of transportation for the Goddard project, de Jong’s wealth of experiences working in remote places and well-appointed sailboat seemed to be the perfect combination. Ever in motion and constantly eager to help out, Erik was just the type of person the City of Sitka was hoping to put to work through the CARES Act-funded SCS CCC.
Photo by Amy Li
During a work trip to Goddard in late October, the Corps deconstructed the existing dam, brushed out vegetation to minimize sediment deposition, expanded the holding pool, and built a new, larger dam using nearly 1,500 pounds of lumber. The tools, building materials, and Corps members required for the multi-day construction effort were all transported on the Bagheera. However, after the initial work week, the dam still required a liner to prevent leaks and reduce subsurface flows.
And so, moments prior to departure in the early morning frost, de Jong found himself hoisting the final piece of equipment aboard—a 250-pound heat-welded liner, custom constructed and donated by Sitka’s CBC Construction Inc. Chris Balovich, owner of CBC Construction, chose to donate the liner, which otherwise would have cost several thousand dollars, for its value to many Sitkans.
“Goddard is important to the community as it is a good stop after a long day of hunting,” Balovich explained. “It really warms you up.”
With the hum of the engine melding with the soft lapping of the tide, de Jong and Healy set out into the gray morning. Once anchorage was dropped in Hot Springs Bay, the dinghy was loaded with materials and the crew set to work. The rest of the day was spent hauling the liner over icy wooden boardwalks where patrons of Goddard generously lent a helping hand. Once at the site, the two-person crew painstakingly installed the stiff, heavy liner along the dam, screw by screw.
Progress was slow but steady. By midafternoon, the sun was already setting but the liner was finally close to being secured along the dam’s wooden planks. Water, however, was still escaping from under the liner. Undeterred, de Jong secured his tools at the worksite and plans to return and finish the next day were made.
Photo by Amy Li
The next day brought about little work. Instead, gusts of 70 knots rocked the Bagheera for the better part of the work day. Valuing safety first and foremost, de Jong spent the morning cooking up bacon pancakes before cozying up to a triple feature from his extensive movie collection—an apparent prerequisite of sailboat ownership. As evil child-eating giants were defeated in The BFG, heavy rains thundered down upon the Bagheera’s hull.
In the drizzly, but calm, morning that followed, de Jong began work in earnest. He and Healy set to work in ankle-deep water, weighing down the edge of the liner using heavy rocks and shovels full of earth. Gradually, the cold water tank’s water level inched higher and higher. By early afternoon, de Jong was chest-deep in the chilly pool of muddy water. With a final few flourishes, their work was complete.
Photo by Amy Li
The day trip-turned-weekend work trip, replete with stormy seas and plenty of setbacks, was finally a success. The Goddard Hot Springs renovations exemplify how difficult and unpredictable field and construction work can be in Southeast Alaska. Nonetheless, SCS and the City of Sitka took on this challenge and many others because of the need for employment opportunities. This is just one of a dozen projects the SCS Community Conservation Corps took on this season, employing nine Sitkans and a dozen contractors like Erik and working on important community assets on City property.
Opinion: Trump and the U.S. Forest Service undermine the truth, putting Alaskan ways of life at risk
Photo by Wild Agency.
The Trump administration has ignored scientific truth from the beginning of his presidency, and at dire cost. Our governments late and lax response to the global pandemic has contributed to the deaths of over 200,000 Americans, and continues to put millions more at risk. This blatant disregard and open disdain for scientific truth has worked greatly in his self-interest, and with the election around the corner, he continues to stoke the flames of his campaign at the detriment of the citizens he claims to fight for. Most recently, along with the U.S. Forest Service, Trump set his sights on the Tongass National Forest.
At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in America, and acts as a natural carbon filter equivalent to removing 650,000 cars off of the road annually. It is home to approximately 70,000 people in 32 different communities, including nineteen federally recognized tribes. The Tongass is vital to fighting climate change and essential to the Alaskans who live there, and at the order of the Trump administration, the Forest Service has just undone environmental protections that have protected the land for nearly 20 years.
The 2001 Roadless Rule virtually ended all logging and road building\reconstruction in over 58 million acres of undeveloped national forest land. These protections were met with massive public support and involvement nationwide, and Alaskans made their voices heard as well, sending in over 1.6 million letters on the issue. Contrarily, the results of the U.S. Forest Service’s most recent Environmental Impact Statement for the Alaska Roadless Rule lazily presents dishonest and misleading results, which have allowed them to exempt the Tongass from further protections, opening the door to logging and mining industries. Sen. Dan Sullivan and the Forest Service claim these industries will bring economic revitalization to the Alaskan economy, when in reality fishing and tourism are the economic powerhouses of the Southeast region. They provide good-paying, sustainable long-term jobs, supporting a combined $2 billion dollar economic impact, while timber and mining industries have proven themselves as sinkholes for taxpayer money and negative for the natural environment.
Trump’s contempt for scientific data has cost Americans greatly, and we may lose an irreplaceable landscape and carbon sink because of it. We as citizens deserve proper and honest representation that is responsive to our concerns. The inspiring work of Alaskans to continue to protect the Tongass National Forest represents the importance of Americans to assert ourselves and protect our own common interests. The actions of the Forest Service and the Trump administration aim to make these efforts feel futile and discourage people from asserting their concerns, but we all have a say and can make our voice heard. Please get out and vote to protect the treasures that truly do make our country great.
Noah Hospodarsky lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Sitka’s youth are stepping up and speaking out for a healthy planet and a healthy future. During an assembly meeting in February, members of Youth for Sustainable Futures gave public testimony urging the Sitka assembly to pass a resolution declaring a climate change emergency. Though it did not pass, it gave them more visibility as a group and inspired discussion and ideas of compromise. Now, with the drastic changes put upon us by COVID-19, YSF realize that preparation for global catastrophes like these is key. And, because of quarantine, they are reminded that the outdoors is always waiting for us, even when much of our life has been stripped away, so it is vital that we all look after it.
Due to the current pandemic these leaders have unfortunately been forced to leave the classrooms and for some at Mt. Edgecumbe High School forced to leave Sitka. Still, Youth for Sustainable Futures is committed to advocacy and civic duty. We want to express our deep gratitude for the Alaskan youth who have been stepping up in times of hardship, both as we tackle this pandemic and the actions they have taken in the last few months for a more sustainable future.
We also want to share the inspiring words of Mt. Edgecumbe students Kate Zaczkowski and Abbie Fish, who both wrote public commentaries for KCAW Raven Radio, speaking passionately about the importance that our community come together in solidarity to advocate for a more sustainable and healthy future.
We encourage you to take a moment and listen to these youth for words of action and inspiration. As Kate says in her commentary, “My outlook on the future is becoming positive. I see a lot of people ready to learn about the effects of climate change such as ocean acidification, land erosion, increase in wildfires, glacial melt, and rise of sea levels. I also see people ready to make changes to become more sustainable and to reduce their emissions, which will lead to better outcomes for our state. This is inspiring to see and I believe that the youth of Alaska will do what Alaskans do best and come together for the sake of our beautiful state.”
Video and photo by Muriel Reid.
Fishermen in Redoubt Bay. Photo by Ellie Handler
Boats bobbed under a blue sky in Redoubt Bay. Beneath the boats, thousands of sockeye salmon had congregated to fight their way up the rushing outflows of Redoubt Lake, Kunaa Shak Áayi. It’s a convenient spot for fishermen from Sitka, who only need to take a 12-mile boat ride to dipnet and snag them.
Salmon and other wild foods are major parts of Alaskan diets. In rural Southeast Alaska, each person harvests an average of over 100 pounds of fish every year. On public lands and waters, this harvest of fish and wildlife is supported through the Federal Subsistence Management Program, established for rural Alaskans by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980.
Sockeye salmon filets at Redoubt. Photo by Lione Clare
Redoubt Lake is home to one of the largest subsistence sockeye fisheries in Southeast Alaska. Sitkans catch up to 70% of their subsistence sockeye at Redoubt. “It’s a hugely important subsistence fishery,” said Chris Leeseberg, fisheries and wildlife biologist for the Sitka Ranger District of the Tongass National Forest.
The fishery hasn’t always been managed well. The run suffered from overfishing during the 1800s and 1900s, and the fishery collapsed. In the 1980s, the Tongass National Forest and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began a partnership to manage the run. For nearly 40 years now, the Sitka Ranger District has monitored the run to inform the State’s catch limits.
“By monitoring, it allows for better management of subsistence, sport, and commercial harvest,” Leeseberg said.
A dipnetter at Redoubt Lake. Photo by Lione Clare
During a low return, the State might reduce catch limits or even close the fishery for the year. This happened several years in the 1980s, when fewer than 10,000 fish made it into the lake.
Conversely, “If the numbers are really good, we can open it up for larger harvest,” Leeseberg said. This happened in both 2018 and 2019. In 2019, the Forest Service counted 60,000 sockeye entering Redoubt Lake. In response to the productivity of the run, the State increased its subsistence catch limits and opened the fishery for commercial harvest.
This monitoring is just one way the Forest Service works to support our subsistence way of life on the Tongass.
Cora Dow, a senior at Sitka High School, gave an incredible testimony at the U.S. Forest Service Roadless Rule Subsistence hearing in Sitka on November 12, 2019. She’s shared it with us, so we all can draw inspiration from her words in writing our own comments.
Read Cora’s full testimony below:
My name is Cora Dow, I am a senior at Sitka High School, and my family relies on a subsistence lifestyle that would be greatly affected by Alternative 6.
The justification used by the Department of Agriculture is that logging will provide economic benefits and that roads for the logging will connect communities. However, both of these are completely inaccurate.
First of all, the Tongass economy is not dependent on logging. It’s dependent on fishing. According to the SeaBank annual report, seven out of the top 100 fishing ports by value in the entire country are Southeast Alaskan communities. Sitka’s seafood port alone makes a net value of $75,400,000 and is ranked as number 10 in the country. A huge amount of this value depends on intact watersheds. Also, subsistence fishermen rely on fish for a huge portion of their food. My family depends on subsistence hunting and fishing every year, as do most families who live in the Tongass rainforest. Why would we trade people feeding their families for access to old growth timber for out-of-state logging companies?
In addition to being dependent on fishing, tourism makes up a large portion of Southeast Alaska’s economy. Southeast Alaska hosts two-thirds of all state visitors, making it the most visited region in the state. The southeast conference’s 2017 annual economic report identified the tourism industry as Southeast Alaska’s top private sector industry in terms of both jobs and wages. Pristine and remote locations are the basis of this entire industry. No one wants to come to Southeast Alaska to drive down a logging road, boat past giant clear cuts, or wade through polluted waters. Our economy is dependent on the protection of our intact wilderness.
Lastly, I would like to dispel a point that the USDA keeps using. Removing the roadless rule will not provide more opportunity to harvest energy or connect communities. There are exemptions under the current roadless rule for clean energy, connecting communities, hatcheries, utilities, and even mining. 57 projects under these exemptions have been proposed, and none have been rejected. Additionally, the draft environmental impact statement itself states that logging roads will be decommissioned after use, so even those roads won’t be of any use to the public for subsistence hunting.
The only possible justifications for passing the full exemption are extremely short sighted. We need to take into account our unique economy and subsistence needs, and protect it to the fullest extent possible.
Feel free to draw inspiration from Cora’s words!
We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect – Aldo Leopold
Stewardship of the Tongass National Forest means working with our local communities to connect citizens in a meaningful way to the natural environment while solving ecological or economic problems in a sustainable and healthy way. SCS works hard with land managers and the broader community to think creatively about habitat restoration, local economic development, timber sales, recreation opportunities, environmental education and monitoring, local contracting, and more. By doing so, we push land managers to ensure that our local needs and ecological values are consistently integrated into their decisions.
See the articles below for more information on our most recent work or take a look at our blog.
The Tongass Transition was announced in 2011 by leaders of the Department of Agriculture to shift industrial logging focus away from old-growth clear-cutting and toward development of a viable second-growth industry. The Sitka Conservation Society has been pushing hard to keep this transition on track since we firmly believe that the Tongass should be managed in a more holistic manner.
Most of the oldest and largest trees on the Tongass were cut in the decades following World War II. The patches of old growth that do remain may never be safe from danger. The Sitka Conservation Society strives to protect the remaining old growth forest and to advocate for wise and sustainable development of alternative Tongass resources such as salmon, second-growth timber sales, and tourism.
The extensive clear-cut logging in the Sitka Ranger District created new forest of quickly-growing, uniformly-aged conifers. This dense "second growth" forest impairs forest habitats by creating such an efficient sunlight block that forageable understory is virtually non-existent. Alaska’s salmon streams were also negatively impacted by logging. Approximately 500 miles of streamside habitat in Southeast Alaska were logged.
As we hunker down during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s natural to feel cooped up, isolated, and nostalgic for “normal” life. These are difficult, uncertain times. At the Sitka Conservation Society, we want to support you in new worlds of living, working, and learning.
That’s why we’ve released The Salmon Forest for free viewing, with everyone from families to globe-trotters to fishermen to daydreamers in mind.
The Salmon Forest celebrates what hasn’t changed during the outbreak: the incredible lands and waters of Southeast Alaska, and the salmon’s return to their home streams.
About the Film
The Salmon Forest is a 30-minute documentary film that explores the connection between wild salmon and life in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States.The film follows Alaskan salmon on their epic migration from the streams of the forest to the ocean and back, revealing the various lives they impact along the way. Pull in a huge catch with commercial fishermen, explore the breathtaking landscapes that draw in millions, watch as a mother bear lunges into a stream to feed her cubs, visit a native Tlingit community to better understand salmon’s cultural significance, and meet the people who work day and night to ensure this public resource is protected for generations to come.
Filmed in stunning high definition, The Salmon Forest highlights one of the last healthy homes for salmon on Earth, and provokes a deeper understanding of this complex and beautiful ecosystem. Ultimately, this film celebrates the unique role public lands play in salmon production and reminds us that proper management is vital to sustain the future of commercial fisheries, subsistence, recreation, and our forests.
This film was made in partnership between Sitka Conservation Society, the U.S. Forest Service, and Wild Agency to share the interdependence of the Tongass National Forest, wild Pacific salmon, and the communities of Southeast Alaska.
Continue the Entertainment!
With parents and families in mind, we’ve made a Fin-Tastic Activity Packet that contains a coloring page and worksheets. Learn more about the life cycle of a salmon, create your own food web, and see how salmon are an important part of the Southeast Alaskan way of life in these activities that are fun for the whole family!Read more
In a large, old, wooden building on the waterfront at Sitka Sound Science Center, a group of women gathers around a central table. A spotlight leans over their shoulders, lending light to a delicate creative process. Dressed in bright pink, Audrey Armstrong strains her eyes and carefully aligns mind, material and dexterity as she pierces a tiny needle through glittering scales.
Audrey, who is Athabaskan, is teaching a new generation of creatives the ancient technique of fish skin sewing. She has been sharing her skills and knowledge for over a decade, and this is her fifth summer teaching this particular course in Sitka— after four at Sheldon Jackson Museum this is her first year at the Sitka Arts & Science Festival.
As Audrey tells it, almost any Alaskan fish skin can be used for this craft, but she favors salmon. Salmon is the fish that sustains her family and culture, and it was a silver salmon that inspired her, 15 years ago, to learn this utilitarian art form.
“It was cloudy on the stream in early September, and I caught my first one for the day. It was all soft and gushy so I let it go. Then I caught my second one and the sun was starting to come out and it just shined on the salmon, and all these gorgeous purples, pinks, and dark colors were revealed and I just fell in love.”
This late Coho run inspired Audrey’s interest in fish-skin sewing. “I said, ‘Wow, I know my ancestors such a long, long time ago probably used fish skin,’ but there was nothing written on it.”
She got to work and started researching. She went to the Smithsonian in Anchorage with others interested in skin sewing and found that while the Yupik were more prolific in their technique, the Athabaskan also made use of fish skin. “The only Athabaskan things I saw were made in 1849: a pair of gloves and a little purse made out of fish skin from our region.” Audrey expanded her research and studied different techniques. “Then I just started experimenting with it and doing different things and that’s how I started, trial and error.”
In 2009, Audrey took her interest to the next level. In Kasitna Bay, Audrey and a group of 13 attended Fran Reed’s first and only class. Reed was a prolific skin-sewer famous for her revitalization efforts in the field as well as for her baskets that include seal gut, salmon skins, fins, ferns and more.
“She had terminal cancer and she was very adamant that this continued. I took her first class and it was her last class even though she had been studying it for 25 years,” says Armstrong.
“When she was teaching us she was very ill, so we would set up a big chair for her and we called it ‘the queens chair’. She would sit and talk to us and we would bring things up to her and she would tell us what to do next. Kind of like what I’m doing right now in this class,” laughs Armstrong as she turns to offer advice and to tie beads onto one of her student’s pieces.
“In that same year, Fran died and we promised her before she died, that the following year after the class that all 13 of us would have an exhibit in her honor. We would show all different kinds of fish skin works: masks, capes, necklaces. And, we did. I made a big berry bucket,” recalls Audrey.