"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="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.
We sat quietly in the colony struggling not to make noise for fear of scaring the birds. It was about ten o'clock at night and the sun was still setting. To the west the sun sank over the horizon and the last few flickers of light colored the approaching clouds. To our east and south the full moon rose in a brilliant orange, promising to illuminate our night's work. The scene was dreamlike, surreal.
Part of what makes Saint Lazaria so unique is its somewhat unusual land use designation. The island of Saint Lazaria is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Homer, AK. It is also a designated Wilderness Area protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System. Thismulti-level protection has kept the island in pristine condition.
My work with SCS brought me to Saint Lazaria to learn about Alexis Will and the research she is conducting on the island. Will is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she is working towards her Masters' of Science in Biology and Wildlife. For her thesis she is trying to determine the diets and foraging grounds of Rhinocerous Auklets (i.e., Cerorhinca monocerata). Will believes that by better understanding this species' diet and foraging grounds, we will better understand how these birds may adapt to an increasingly variable environment.
Will's research is also part of a bigger study. In recent years the population of five key groundfish species in the Gulf of Alaska have been significantly lower than in previous years. This is particularly alarming as these five fish species are all commercially important to the state. To determine what is causing this decline, the North Pacific Research Board is currently in the process of conducting a Gulf of Alaska-wide study. Their goal is to better understand the causes for these declining populations.
So how does Will's research fit in to this bigger project?
Here's the thing. Rhinocerous Auclets feed on the same fish that the five groundfish species feed on. If Alexis can determine where and how much fish the Saint Lazaria Rhinocerous Auclets are eating, then we will have a better picture of the food base in the Gulf, at least, theoretically. With better information on the health of the food base in the Gulf, the state of Alaska will have better science with which to base their fishing quotas. It's cool research and I was glad to have the opportunity to learn more about it.
However, what intrigued me most about Saint Lazaria was my experience in the Rhino colony. The Rhinoceros Auklet colony is located at the edge of a very steep and menacing cliff. Below the cliff we could see the commercial salmon fleet at anchor, protected in the lee of the island. As the Rhinos arrived at their nest to feed their chicks, the commercial trolling fleet sat below bracing for the approaching gale, and in the distance the lights of Sitka illuminated the night sky. As I sat in the darkabsorbing the night's activities, I was reminded of the simple fact that we are ALL part of this global ecosystem.
[tentblogger-vimeo 45955527]What comes to mind when you hear the term conservation? Petitions, polar bears, politicians, researchers? David Attenborough? Did heavy equipment tearing up a rainforest floor come to mind? Unlikely. Nestled deep within our earth's largest temperate rainforest- conservation takes unique form.
This summer, the Sitkoh River Restoration Project mobilized a team of heavy equipment operators on the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. The US Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game raised $318,000 and hired Aqua Terra Restoration to repair critical salmon spawning habitat damaged by clearcut logging in the 1970s. Logging adjacent to the river banks left the Sitkoh without adequate erosion control and the fallen timber salmon need. Dump trucks, chainsaws, and excavators converted blueprints and years of planning into wooden structures and a redirected riverbed that will return healthy fish habitat and stability to this damaged system.
Salmon habitat restoration is relatively new to the Tongass and constitutes a key part of the Forest Service's transition from old-growth logging to young-growth management, forest restoration, and investment in other industries-such as fishing and tourism. Across the forest, similar river and stream restoration projects are in various stages or have been completed with great success. Multiyear, complex, and dependent on powerful partnerships this rich form of salmon habitat restoration is by no means easy. However, in a land where salmon are lifeblood to both ecosystems and residents, protection of this critical resource is absolutely vital.
Habitat restoration benefits fish, fish-dependent ecosystems, and fish-dependent economies. It also provides career opportunities to skilled ecologists and equipment operators passionate about safeguarding our environment- people who prefer hardhats to suits, the company of bears to water cooler gossip and all in all want to build something good for our earth as opposed to something that's only good for industry.
There are over 70 damaged salmon-producing watersheds on the Tongass and the Forest Service estimates $100 million dollars are needed to repair them. Salmon and trout alone contribute more than $1 billion to Southeast Alaska's economy and employ some 7,300 people. It is critical that salmon become the top management priority of our country's largest national forest; managing for salmon employs restoration workers on the ground, benefits local subsistence and the fishing industry, and conserves salmon-dependent rainforest ecosystems.
The Tongass is one of the last remaining forests with healthy and abundant wild salmon runs. Making this species the Tongass' top priority makes sense for the ecosystem, the economy and anyone who loves to catch, eat or simply view wild salmon.
Hoonah Sound to Lisianski Strait to Goulding Harbor: A Chichagof Wilderness Expedition through Intact Watersheds
Anyone that tells you there is a trail between Hoonah Sound and Lisianski Strait because "it's on the map," has never been there on foot. This is because there is no trail there! An SCS Wilderness Groundtruthing team recently explored that area on the Tongass and confirmed that the only trails available are the ones made by deer and bear.
The purpose of this expedition was to look at habitat connectivity and bear use. Members of the expedition were wildlife biologist Jon Martin, mountain goat hunting guide and outdoorsman Kevin Johnson, photographer Ben Hamilton, and SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms.
SCS is interested in this landscape because of the protections given to these areas. The land between Hoonah Sound and Lisianski Strait is protected as LUD II – a Congressional roadless designation status meant to protect "the area's wildland characteristics." The lands between Lisianski Strait and Goulding Harbor are part of the West Chichagof-Yacobi Wilderness where management is to "provide opportunities for solitude where humans are visitors." Management language aside, the most important thing about these areas is that they are large, contiguous protected areas where an entire watershed from the high-ridges to the estuaries is left in its natural condition. This means that these watersheds are able to function with no impact from roads, logging, mining, or other human activities.
What this looks like on the ground is a pristine habitat teaming with bears, deer, and rivers and lakes filled with salmon and trout. There are also many surprises: on this trip, we found a native species of lamprey spawning in a river creek that no one in the group has ever seen before (and the group had over 60 years of experience on the Tongass). We also found fishing holes where trout bit on every cast, back-pools in river tributaries filled with Coho Smolts, forests with peaceful glens and thorny devil's club thickets, and pristine lakes surrounded by towering mountains.
If any place should be protected on the Tongass, it is these watersheds. The Lisianski River is a salmon and trout power-house and produces ample salmon for bears that live in the estuary and trollers that fish the outside waters. One can't help but feel grateful walking along the river and through the forests here, thankful that someone had the foresight to set this place aside. Clear-cutting logging wild places like these provides paltry returns in comparison to the salmon they produce and all the other life they sustain.
These watersheds that we walked through are success stories and teach us how the temperate rainforest environment works in its natural unaltered state and how much value they produce following their own rhythms. The actions taken in the past to set these areas aside give us pause to think about what we should be doing today to invest in our future and protect ecosystems that are similarly important ecologically.
Scientists have identified over 77 other watersheds across the Tongass that produce massive amounts of salmon and have ecological characteristics that need to be protected. Some of these watersheds are slated to be logged by the Forest Service. Even worse, pending Sealaska legislation could result in some of these watersheds being privatized, sacrificing protection for salmon streams and spawning habitat. With your help and involvement, SCS is working to protect those watersheds and landscapes so that we can ensure the consideration of long-term health and resource benefits from these watersheds over the short-term gains of logging, road-building, or privatization. It is our responsibility that we make the right choices and that future generations are grateful for what we leave them to explore and benefit from.
If you want to be part of SCS's work to protect lands and waters of the Tongass, please contact us and we'll tell you how you can help. If you are inspired, write a letter to our senators and tell them to protect salmon on the Tongass and manage it for Salmon:here
Above: TROLLERS, like the family salmon troller pictured above, made sure that TRAWLING was not allowed in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska. TRAWLING is an unsustainable method of fishing that results in massive bycatch. TROLLING is a much more targeted fishing method and is more sustainable. Credit: Berett Wilber.
The Sitka Conservation Society signed onto a letter raising the alarm that trawl caught fish were being purchased by a local fish processor. Trawling, the practice of dragging a net through the water or along the bottom of the ocean and indiscriminately catching everything in the path of the net, has proven to be one of the most wasteful types of fishing and one of the most environmentally damaging. Trawling has been outlawed in Southeast Alaska east of 140 degrees West Longitude thanks to theforesight and advocacy efforts of fishermen, conservationists, community members, and local government in 1998.
Trawl fishing is very different from the types of fishing employed in Southeast Alaska today. Not to be confused, trolling employs hooks and line and is one-hook, one-fish. Likewise, seining and gill-netting are highly targeted to specific places, times, and types of fish and is closely monitored to ensure fish harvest does not exceed the population needed for long-term population viability. Halibut and Black-cod Long-lining is also a one-hook, one-fish fishery that has tight controls on by-catch and harvest levels. Crab and Shrimp fishing in SE Alaska uses pot and traps and has little impact to the seafloor and does not kill the by-catch.
SCS is concerned about trawling because of the harm is can cause the environment and the threat that it poses to the local economy that Sitka has worked so hard to develop in ways that balance human needs and environmental protection. This is an issue that clearly demonstrates that protecting fisheries is both about protecting the natural environment of the Tongass Temperate Rainforests where salmon begin their lives and being vigilant on what takes place in the ocean ecosystems where the fish grow and mature.
To listen to a radio story on Sitkan's concerns on trawling and the threat it poses to fisheries, livelihoods, and the environment, click here.
To read the letter that the Sitka Conservation Society signed, click here.