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.
Is it possible to restore clear-cut areas of the Tongass National Forest back to their original composition? While this question will remain unanswered for generations, we do know some things about restoration in the Tongass. Trees regrow in logged areas, with the assistance of people or not. However, the natural succession of second-growth forest in the Tongass results in a dense forest filled with numerous spruce stems and little to no understory growth. The characteristic moss, fern, and shrub understory that illuminates the forest floor in old-growth forests is replaced with bare ground and needles. This not only decreases the biodiversity found on the forest floor, but it also provides poor habitat to many species. There are techniques being used to restore the ground cover of second-growth forest in the Tongass, and we at SCS are committed to making sure these projects continue to be implemented and monitored.
My most recent endeavor involving the restoration of the Tongass National Forest was at Kruzof Island. Kruzof Island is an important neighbor to Sitka that offers recreation activities, tourist attractions and an area for subsistence hunting. Still, this island is scarred from the clear-cutting that occurred in central Kruzof. Of course, as the forest on Kruzof Island regrows, central Kruzof Island becomes a great location for restoration work.
On my trip to Kruzof, Scott Harris (SCS's Watershed Program Manager) and I ATVed and bushwacked our way to artificial gaps cut in Kruzof's second growth forest. These gaps are part of a program to restore wildlife habitat in logged forests, and we were monitoring the effectiveness of these gaps. An effective gap would be filled with shrubs like blueberry for deer to browse on, while an ineffective gap would be overrun with salmonberry or hemlock flush. After collecting countless scratches on our arms from crawling through the dense spruce forest to get to these gaps, we were able to draw some conclusions about the forest succession occurring at Kruzof. Where thinning of the forest or artificial gaps were cut, the forest was filled with shrub thickets, while moss, ferns, and forbs covered the forest ground. Thus, these artificial disturbances appear to be working as designed! They are providing space for the young trees to grow, while improving shrub growth. However, there is still a lot of unthinned forest on Kruzof and some of the gaps are filling in, meaning there is still a critical need for further restoration work. If restoration projects continue to be implemented on Kruzof and throughout the Tongass, we may be able to catalyze the establishment of healthy secondary forests.
Logging Kruzof Island not only affected its terrestrial ecosystems, but the streams were greatly affected as well. While streams running through old-growth forest are filled with fallen trees and root wads which provide great habitat for salmon, the streams we walked through in central Kruzof are deprived of fallen trees, leaving the salmon habitat highly inadequate. These streams offer ideal locations for future stream restoration work. They are located near trails used by Alaska ATV tours (among other users) and allow easier access to possible restoration sites, allowing more restoration work to occur for less time and money. In order to restore Kruzof's terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, trees must be placed into the streams and the forest should be thinned. Thus, the trees cut to thin the forest surrounding the streams may be placed into the stream. In this way, both the stream and forest may be restored together.
Kruzof Island offers a great opportunity to implement restoration projects and bring a clear-cut island back to an island dense with shrubs, deer, and salmon. The time frame and viability of restoring Southeast Alaskan ecosystems back to their original structure may be unknown, but we are capable of propelling the process forward. As natural resources continue to deplete and climate change adds to the insecurity of the environment we live in, we must not watch the world go by. Instead, we must actively work together to help conserve and restore the Tongass National Forest, our forest.
After a summer of exploring, examining, and identifying, kids in the Alaska Way of Life 4H clubs are walking away from these 7 week clubs will a whole new skill set. During June and July, clubs in gardening, hiking, and kayaking met every week to build community, interact with their landscape, and learn new skills.
Gardening club spent every Monday at St. Peter's Fellowship farm learning how to plant, weed, water, harvest, cook, and de-slug. Every Thursday we explored other gardens in Sitka to learn different gardening techniques. We learned how chickens are helping Sprucecot Garden, saw how bees are pollinating plants at Cooperative Extension's Greenhouse, and the many different styles of gardening present at Blatchley's Community Garden. Kids walked away a little dirty and wet, but with smiles and plants in hand.
Kayaking Club incorporated more than just how to paddle a boat. We learned how to tie bowlines, clove hitches, and double fishermen knots. We had another 4H'er teach us how to build survival kits. Every kid learned how to use and put together their own kit to keep us safe on our kayaking journeys. Rangers at Sitka National Historical Park showed us why we have tides and how they change during the course of the day. Finally, after weeks of preparation, 4H'ers learned how to put on gear, get in and out of their boat, and paddle before we took to the water at Swan Lake and Herring Cove.
This summer's hiking club learned how to interact with the Tongass in new ways. We learned foraging skills and how to properly harvest spruce tips and berries. We collected leaves and flowers and created plant presses to preserve them. The kids learned flora and fauna of the muskeg before gathering labrador tea leaves. For our final hike, we learned how to use a compass and GPS to find treasure hidden in the forest. Even after learning all these new skills, we made time to hike seven different trails in Sitka.
25 kids participated in these three Alaska Way of Life 4H clubs over the summer with ages ranging from 5 to 12. These clubs were a great way to get outdoors and understand more about the amazing wilderness we live in. Look for more Alaska Way of Life 4H programs in the future! For more information or to sign up for 4H email [email protected]
Enjoy photos from the summer programs! For the full album, visit our facebook page.
Explore West Chichagof Wilderness
with Sitka Conservation Society and Sound SailingJoin us to explore the spectacular and wild coast of West Chichagof-Yakobi Island Wilderness aboard a comfortable 50' sailing yacht! And help raise funds for Sitka Conservation Society!
We will be travelling from Juneau to Sitka aboard the modern, fast, and roomy S/V BOB with Blain & Monique Anderson of Sound Sailing. Proud SCS members and US Coast Guard licensed and insured sailors; they are offering berths to SCS members for an incredible opportunity to experience the very best of Southeast Alaska. Past participants have encountered orcas, humpback and grey whales, innumerable birds, brown bears, and much more. We will also have knowledgeable and engaging SCS staff member(s) aboard to enrich our understanding of this special place.
Dates: August 24-30, 2013
Cost: $2575 per person (price includes all fare aboard and expenses).
Sound Sailing is proud to donate a substantial portion of trip proceeds to SCS.
Book your spot now! Space is limited to just 6 lucky passengers.
Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is the largest species of Spruce and takes its name from our community; Sitka, Alaska. Sitka spruce is prized worldwide for a high strength-to-weight ratio and unique characteristics. Its uses have ranged from seagoing canoes to ceremonial masks to housing structures for the Native communities of Southeast Alaska. In the more recent past it was used to manufacture a multitude of items such as ladders, building frames, paddles and windmill slats. Its light weight, combined with strength, that makes it so versatile have also made it the gold standard in the construction of instruments and wooden airplanes. Its resiliency and feathery weight led to it being used for wing structures and the fuselage of early airplanes. Sitka spruce also possesses a highly uniform fiber structure, leading to high quality sound resonance. This means it is sought out for use as sound boards in high end pianos, guitars and other instruments.
The rich and diverse history of the Sitka spruce is so important to remember. It wasn't long ago that vast stands were liquidated and entire watersheds became massive clear-cut wastelands. The trees were ground into industrial dissolving pulp and exported to foreign markets as a commodity product. That was the past. Earlier this month, USDA Secretary Vilsack outlined the future: he reaffirmed his commitment to conserving the remaining old growth temperate rainforests on the Tongass National Forest. He stated that this will be accomplished with a transition out of old growth and to the harvesting of second growth timber. Old growth will only be used for small scale, specialty value-added uses--- like musical instruments. With a renewed focus on creating a sustainable forest industry, and providing jobs and opportunities in Southeast Alaska, the plight of the Sitka spruce may well be coming full circle.
Enter the Sitka Summer Music Festival, currently in its 42nd year. The Festival now supports events in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but Sitka is where it began and is the home of the festival. World renowned classical musicians trek to Sitka every summer for the festival with their cellos and violins, adding to the forest's own beautiful repertoire of sounds. The festival's location in Sitka, in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, also allows musicians to connect with the original source of their craft and instruments. One of this summer's featured musicians is pianist Natasha Paremski who plays in Sitka on Steinway pianos that feature a Sitka Spruce soundboard. Natasha took time out of her trip to visit with SCS media intern Gleb Mikhalev and describes her connections to Sitka and the forest.
Link to the video: https://vimeo.com/70652583
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.
"I love how Fred's Creek comes into focus." My dad is talking about the way the blurred contours of Kruzof Island have shifted into misty green coastline, and, as we motor into the anchorage, the warm honey timber of the cabin appears out of the trees. It's the Fourth of July and my dad, our dog, and I are pulling up to the beach, ready to relax around a campfire with our plethora of nose flutes and a cooler full of black cod collars.
Over the years I've found that it's not just the shore that comes into focus when we pack up the boat and head out of town for the weekend. There is a clarity that comes with camping in Southeast Alaska. A repeated realization; remembering again and again why we live here. It's probably different for everybody, but for me it's the ability to walk out my door and into the heart of the Tongass whenever I feel like it. There are so many mountains I haven't climbed yet, and miles of water left to travel. Every day holds that celebrated promise of adventure. There is something about Southeast Alaska that gets to me, and it's not just the wilderness; I think it's the people. It's amazing what a little isolation and rainforest can do for a community. I feel so lucky to share my love of this place with a whole 14 miles of small town hospitality and charm. That "love thy neighbor" goodwill I've grown up with also comes into focus when we get to Fred's Creek. Later, my stomach full of black cod collars grilled over the campfire, I'll begin to think of it as "cabin culture."
Cabin culture, unlike the better known "cabin fever," does not have me itching to get out and gallop full speed into the nearest wide open alpine. Cabin culture is what keeps us grounded. It is the silent nod of freshly chopped wood piled next to the stove. It is the knowing smile of the cabin floor swept clean of sand and the sticky table wiped down and tidily tucked over its benches. It is the conspiratorial wink of a new rope swing tied up to replace a retired buoy. Cabin culture is our shared respect for the next boat load of escapees that will land on this beach and eat dinner around this fire. It's our quiet understanding of our common love of living with the land here in Southeast Alaska, and I think it deserves to be recognized every once in a while.As my dad pulls off the beach to tie our boat to the buoy, a full and brilliant rainbow breaks out, stretching from one end of Sitka Sound to the other. It hangs above the water where a few minutes earlier we had driven through a sheet of rain. Now, drying out under the warm sunshine of a textbook suckerhole, I lift my camera and bring the moment into focus.
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.
Every summer the Sitka Conservation Society lures a handful of unsuspecting, environmentally minded, intrepid folk into the Tongass. They come from all over the world, hoping to experience Alaska. Little do they know that upon arrival they will be introduced to a wilderness so vast they could not hope to grasp it in one summer, and a town so welcoming that they will be taken into stranger's homes and offered homemade rhubarb crisp. This summer our media interns are a mix of local and imported young people who love storytelling and adventure.
Alex Crook flew to Alaska straight from Cambodia, where he has spent the past 10 months working as a photojournalist and freelance photographer. So far he has accomplished his subsistence goals by catching his first King and making his first salmonberry pie. Alex's other goals include using photography to give a face to the alternative energy movement in Southeast Alaska. (photo by Gleb Mikhalev)
Berett Wilber grew up fishing with her family and photographing her Southeast Alaska home. Berett's focus this summer will be collecting stories from locals about the places they love. She's interested in how the people of Southeast benefit from conservation in the Tongass.(photo by Gleb Mikhalev)
Caitlin Woolsey, another lifelong Sitkan, is excited to be back on the trails. She hopes to spend the summer hiking and writing stories that illustrate the importance of a well-preserved Tongass in the lives of Sitkans and Alaskans in general.(photo by Alex Crook)
Gleb Mikhalev has lived all over, from the midwest, to Russia, British Columbia, and New York City, and he says Sitkans are some of the most welcoming people he's ever met. Last summer Gleb crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a 32 ft. steel sailboat. This summer he's found his way to the Pacific, and hopes to spend the summer getting to know the people of Southeast Alaska. (photo by Alex Crook)
Kari Paustian was born and raised in Sitka and has spent the last few summers working on the Forest Service Trail Crew. This summer she will be the SCS liaison with the Forest Service, managing projects and writing stories on restoration in the Tongass.(photo by Alex Crook)
Lione Clare, another Sitkan, joins the intern team as a photographer. She has loved growing up in Sitka, and feels lucky to have had the opportunity to explore and get to know her environment. She wants to work to conserve the Tongass by documenting the beauty that she sees all around her and sharing it with others.(photo by Ray Pfortner)
By the end of the summer, the interns hope to cover a variety of stories, from subsistence living on Prince of Wales to the Blue Lake Dam construction here in Sitka. Stay tuned for this team's photos, stories, and films about living with the land and building community here in the Tongass.