Doug Chilton and The One People Canoe Society
A decade ago, when his canoe team was invited to race at the Quinault Indian Reservation in Washington state, Doug Chilton was thrilled. The team had trained for weeks and raised enough money to cover travel expenses from their home in Juneau. But when they drove into Quinault, ready to cream the competition, they were surprised to find that they were a day early. When they woke the next morning, they were not greeted by vans full of trophy-hungry canoe teams, like they had expected. Instead, that morning they arose to find the bay filled with canoes which had been paddled from reservations across Washington and Canada. Some had come hundreds of miles.
“What we didn’t know at the time is that it wasn’t about racing for them,” Chilton explained to me, “it was about the journey.”
Over the course of the week in Quinault, Chilton was moved by the way the canoe journeys were building community and reconnecting the native community in Quinault with the paddling culture that their ancestors had flourished with for thousands of years. Chilton was overwhelmed and inspired. He came back to Southeast Alaska with a refreshed goal: he wanted to build a canoe-community in his home waters and reconnect the native community in Southeast with the paddling traditions of their Tlingit and Haida forefathers and mothers. More importantly, he hoped to build a movement that would bring together native tribe-members of Southeast Alaska in ways he had witnessed in Washington.
Flash forward. Doug managed to empower a team of people to paddle from Hoonah to Juneau for Celebration, a biennial festival celebrating Haida, Tlingit and Tshimian traditions and culture. While it was hard to garner support prior to the the trip, Chilton told me that the team received an outpouring of enthusiasm once they reached Juneau. People were intrigued. Many doubted that the journey would ever come together. Once they witnessed Doug and his team successfully overcome the obstacles, they began to believe others could do it too. “Over the years, it’s been growing a little bit more and a little bit more, and sometimes it didn’t feel like it was growing at all. But we were staying busy,” Doug told me.
Since the first paddle to celebration, canoe journeys throughout the state have been taking off. Eleven canoes asked permission to land in Juneau at Sandy Beach for Celebration this year: the most canoes since Doug started paddling a decade ago. Doug and his team started reaching out to others to get them excited about the canoes. In 2005, they started the process of creating a nonprofit, calling themselves the One People Canoe Society. As the One People Canoe Society, the group started giving paddling workshops throughout Southeast. During the workshops, participants carved paddles from yellow cedar carving blinds and also learned the basics of paddling as a canoe team. “During the workshops, we’re putting together the group that’s going to paddle the canoe,” Doug explained to me, “and the idea is to get them started paddling together as a unit… Now during the paddle workshop we are trying to build the excitement and keep the excitement level high.” And it’s working.
Wooch.een: We Work Together
Doug Chilton and the One People Canoe Society was the spark that ignited a wildfire of enthusiasm for the canoe movement in Southeast Alaska. Now, there a number of new leaders, like Stormy Hamar and his Kasaan canoe team, running with the banner. After connecting with Doug, Stormy decided to organize a canoe journey to the re- dedication of Chief Shakes House in Wrangell in 2013. His first challenge, however, was to find a way to fill the 38 foot fiberglass canoe with people from the community, the first of whom were members of his family. The Hamars told me that it was initially difficult to get other folks in town to take the plunge and sign up for the journey. Many were concerned about safety and organization. The Hamars and their friends handed out fliers, stopped people on the street, and used a variety of other tactics to recruit volunteers. Finally, they were able to reel in fifteen people of all different ages and backgrounds, some with Haida heritage and some without. After carving their own paddles from yellow cedar, practicing paddling as a team for a a few hours, and pulling together last minute details, the day finally came to cast off. Many on the team were unsure if they would ever make it to Wrangell “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Stormy’s daughter Stephanie told me, “We half expected to go down in the bay.”
Much to their surprise, the team was able to paddle 34 miles the first day and were able to camp for a few nights on an island. Tim Paul Willis Junior was a pace-setter up at the front with his girlfriend Stephanie. He explained to me that his team mates far exceeded his expectations, not just with their paddling speed but with their enthusiasm. “I was surprised that a couple people ever made the journey, “ he told me, “It was kind of impressive to see the different personalities of people come out through their actions.” Stormy, who skippered the boat, agreed that people on the team were able to show a different side to themselves. By the end, he told me, the group had become a significantly more cohesive community though in many ways, paddling in a canoe forced them to become more unified.
“In the canoe, people have to learn how to work together,” he told me, “There’s all this kind of simple stuff that you don’t really think about. Everybody has to learn how to paddle in the same direction. When you’re turning the boat, even when you’re docking the boat. We even had to learn how to get in the boat.”
This sense of re-connection extends far beyond the rim of the canoe. In his spare time, Ken Hoyt is a part of a team that is building a strip-bark canoe in Wrangell. He told me that everyone, not just the paddlers, involved in organizing the canoe journey has a stake in it and wants to see the team succeed. “The journeys aren’t simply just paddling,” he told me, “There’s a huge amount of logistics involved, a lot of people involved. You know every canoe might take fifty or a hundred people to get everything together, to get every last logistic taken care of, every bag packed and every little check list checked off.” Equally, the inspiration and sense of achievement, Ken told me, extends across the community; from the team on the water to the crowds of people singing traditional songs, dancing and cheering as the canoes come on shore to their final destination.
Listen to what Ken Hoyt says about how the different communities support the canoes here.
“People support the canoers in a big way,” he said, “They pray for the canoers, when we roll up to any community or leave any community they roll out the red carpet, or they’ll host a potluck and the dance groups show up. It’s powerful for the villages and the towns and the cities. Everyone celebrates the canoes in their own way. Like when we go to Juneau, they do that by having thousands of people on the beach. And when we go to Angoon, they do that by having a traditional foods potluck or a dance group. Kake woke up early in the morning to see us off. A lot of people were out on the dock with us. Just trying to help us out, whether it was picking up the canoes and helping us get them in the water, or if people forgot stuff at the house or they brought little last minute gifts for the trip.”
If wilderness, as its definition attests, is supposed to stand “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape,” then the Kootznoowoo Wilderness of Admiralty Island is serving its purpose well. To camp on the island with the highest density of brown bears on the continent and kayak through waters in which humpbacks are breaching and gray whales flapping their flippers, it’s hard not to feel humbled as a human, and concede that there are areas of this earth where man does not, and should not, hold sway. The migration of salmon swimming upstream; the beautiful, yet haunting, call of a loon; the sight of an undisturbed doe resting on the beach – upon witnessing all these simple joys not manufactured by humans, how can one not agree that there are places on our planet where the rest of nature should dominate?
SCS coworkers Mike Belitz, Bethany Goodrich, Sarah Stockdale, and myself spent the last week of August checking up on the Kootznoowoo Wilderness Area of West Admiralty Island. Kayaking the coastline of Hood, Chaik, and Whitewater Bays, the majority of our time was spent surveying for invasive plants and monitoring visitor use patterns, ensuring that the “untrammeled” character of this land was being well preserved. Wilderness, like all public land, is a shared space. But it’s also, for many, a symbolic and sacred place. A big part of our task was thus making sure that, 50 years out from the passage of the Wilderness Act, and 34 years out from the 1980 designation of this particular wilderness area, the sanctity of Kootznoowoo was still intact.
Not all people would agree with the above assertion though. In his (in)famous article,“The Trouble with Wilderness,”published over twenty years ago, the renowned environmental historian William Cronon critiqued this tendency of people to view nature as sublime, considering it a perspective of the overly romantic. Quoting Muir on Yosemite and Thoreau on Mount Katahdin and Wordsworth describing the Simplon Pass, Cronon writes that “all three men are participating in the same cultural tradition and contributing to the same myth – the mountain as cathedral.” He argues that by using such religious rhetoric to describe these spaces, we’ve abstracted wilderness, transformed it into a concept merely fit to serve our cultural and emotional needs. Thus, to him, seeing God or something spiritual in nature is a problematic aspect of how humans have historically and continue contemporarily to conceive of the outdoors.
But I disagree. To me, using such spiritual speech isn’t a romanticization or abstraction of the wilderness as much as it is an expression of the awe, reverence, and humility that these men, among many others, have felt in nature. Shelton Johnson, a park ranger featured in Ken Burns’ National Park series, may have communicated it best when he said: “When I think of a grove of giant sequoias, I think of a cathedral, or a church, or a place where you’re not necessarily worshipping the name of something, but the presence of something else. There’s no need for someone to remind you that there’s something in this world that is larger than you are, because you can see it.” In other words, the outdoors is space in which we as humans cannot be deceived into thinking we are infallible, and almighty, and always at the top of the totem pole. It’s a space where we are forced, with what’s before our eyes, to see our vulnerability, and co-dependence, and reliance on existences and processes bigger and beyond us, be those scientific, spiritual, or both.
So, despite Cronon’s objections to it, I think there is something apt regarding the religious language often used to describe wilderness. Man’s place in and relation to nature, and wilderness in particular, has always been difficult to define. A hotly contested question, my definition will have no more claim to conclusiveness than any other. But it’s always made sense to me to think of wilderness as a religion with many churches, a religion with many places and manners of worship. Like any church or synagogue or mosque, it’s a space deserving of respect, where there are some rules as to what you can and cannot do, and some strictly defined parameters. But within those, there is also the freedom to make meaning and find inspiration as you wish. It’s a place where people can go for different purposes and pursuits, but, regardless, it should be treated with the deference and due regard you would accord your own or someone else’s place of worship.
As we face growing environmental challenges and crises in the 21st century, having such humility and respect for the temple of wilderness, for these places untrammeled by man, for these spaces in which we do not dominate, will, I think, only serve us well.
Thank you to everyone who has kept up with SCS’s wilderness program this summer and read along with the blog posts. Your support has meant a lot.
The Tongass National Forest is entering a new era with a focus on young growth management and a more robust and cohesive approach to balancing the social, economic and ecological needs of the region for current and future generations.
The task is daunting. However, the Forest Service is not alone. Developing and strengthening partnerships helps leverage funding, build capacity, and better integrates local knowledge and community priorities into management and project design. Navigating through the complex steps necessary to realize partner-rich projects on the ground is also daunting and complicated. However, success stories sprouting up across the region are a powerful reminder that it can be well worth the effort. The work carried out in the Kennel Creek watershed is one such story and elements of this project can serve as a valuable template for future work on the Tongass.
The Hoonah Community Forest Project
Located on North Chichagof Island with a population of around 780, Hoonah is a remote community with over 60% Alaska Native population. Like other rural communities in the Southeast, a contentious history of resource extraction on public and private lands continues to influence community dynamics. After the pulp industry ended, career prospects in the timber industry evaporated and many families were left jobless, with high energy prices and other burdensome expenses associated with living in an isolated rural community. Much of the surrounding landscape on which residents depend on for subsistence, recreation and cultural vitality has been affected by timber activity and needs to be restored. The challenge of balancing natural resource based economies with ecological resilience and cultural well-being remains an unsolved puzzle. However, the fervor of community members and their dedication to the prosperity of their community and the landscape in which they are embedded is firm.
Brought together by a common interest in improving productive fish and wildlife habitat while supporting local economies, a diversity of community members gathered to map out a vision for their forests and streams in 2005. During the Hoonah Community Forest Project, traditional land users, local mill operators, hunters, fishermen and naturalists partnered with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council to develop this vision. Kennel Creek was recognized as a top priority watershed for habitat restoration. Members voiced concerns about the ecological impacts of past timber extraction and sought treatments that could restore deer habitat and improve overall watershed health. Importantly, the group wanted to achieve these goals while also developing local capacity for land management. Turning this collective vision into a reality would require a level of cooperation and partnership new to the Tongass.
Turning a Collective Vision into Action
In the aftermath of the the timber-boom era, Congress introduced ‘Title II’ funding to the region and established community led Resource Advisory Committees (RAC) to disburse funds to rural towns that had relied on receipts from timber sales for public services. The intention of these funds is to “protect, restore, and enhance fish and wildlife habitat; improve the maintenance of existing Forest Service infrastructure; protect and enhance ecosystems on the national forests; and restore and improve land health and water quality”. The Lynn Canal/Icy Straits RAC includes Hoonah Ranger District. The committee welcomed the Kennel Creek project proposal whose outlined goals were to restore wildlife habitat in previously logged areas while developing local capacity for land management activities in the process.
In 2011, Forrest Cole approved the RAC’s recommendation to fund the project at $235,000. Agency specialists would outline the prescriptions to be carried out, answer questions about the work and ensured restoration efforts emulate the best available science and expertise of the region. All that was needed was a local team who were dedicated to carrying out the work on the ground. The Hoonah Indian Association (HIA) natural resources work crew was born.
The work crew pruned dense second growth stands, pulling down dead branches to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and grow understory vegetation for wildlife. Where thick impenetrable layers of woody slash blanketed the forest, the crew cut trails to improve the permeability of these stands for wildlife. The project was completed in 2013 and received a gold star of approval from Chris Budke, USFS Forestry Technician who provided contract oversight and general support to the crew. But how does one actually evaluate project success and measure the benefits of a project whose goals included building local capacity for resource management? Start by asking the people involved.
Measuring Success On the Ground: Speaking with the Crew
Bob Leuband is the crewleader of HIA’s natural resources crew. When asked about the benefits of this program he explained,
“Keeping the knowledge local. Not losing that knowledge… If somebody comes in from the outside and does the work around here and then leaves. Well then what they learned, goes away with them. So, if we can keep this local, and always have it local, the knowledge will not be lost and the same person might be here for 30 or 40 years. So, that knowledge will be here for [at least] that length of time.”
The sharing of knowledge is reciprocal. The crew learns from the USFS and the USFS learns from the community crew.
Art Burbank is the district ranger of Hoonah,
“We are very fortunate in Hoonah to have the Hoonah Indian Association to work with. They provide logistical support for us. They provide hands on the ground. They provide an intense knowledge base, which we have some of but, they have a different perspective… The Forest Service is for sure, a relative newcomer to the Tongass. The Tlinglit people have been here for a long time and they have an understanding of the forest that we are doing our best to understand and integrate into management. Honestly they look at it from a different perspective. When we might look at it from a commercial perspective, they look at it from a personal perspective…they are much more tied to the land and the sustainability of themselves and their family from the land.”
While the USFS seeks to better engage with native interests and integrate community priorities and knowledge into project design, the thinning crew integrates the best available science into an existing place-based knowledge that spans generations and centuries.
John Hillman is the Natural Resource Director of HIA. John helped build HIA’s Natural Resource program and continues to enjoy watching the work crew learn and grow into a powerful team of land stewards,
“I think just in the short time they work there, they see the importance of coming in here. When they first came to this particular site, they were like, ‘Why are we doing this, pruning these trees up a third of the tree height?’ At that time, these forests didn’t have this green vegetation, it was just like a desert in here. In just this short period of time, once they actually see hands on improvements to forest health, they are starting to take pride in what they are doing. They want to be the people working on their lands here and they want to stay here for years to come. A lot of my crew is young.”
Hillman reflected on the pride of returning land stewardship and a feeling of ownership to the community. He also emphasized the significance of the program for providing jobs to a community that needs them. “I want to see it continue because the crew, they could retire without even moving from Hoonah doing this type of work.”
The crew has secured thinning, wildlife treatment and pruning contracts with the USFS, Huna Totem and SEALASKA. The application of their experience and knowledge is thus truly integrated across public and private lands and scaled at the landscape level. Currently, the crew is applying for an NRCS grant so they can continue to grow, potentially expand with a second crew and advance their toolkit to include salmon habitat restoration and enhancement activity, road maintenance and projects to enhance the cultivation of non-timber resources, like berries, for a growing cottage industry. The crew is also improving their capacity for monitoring and the adaptive management of their work. With a second crew, the group could grow to an employment base of 20 people. This is significant to a community of less than 800 residents especially because a healthy demand for work is promising job security and room for future growth and expansion.
The Future: Community Based Natural Resource Stewardship on the Tongass
Moving forward, what does the case of Kennel Creek mean for the Tongass? Accomplishing the transition to a holistic forest approach that includes young growth management will require continued silvicultural and wildlife treatments combined with the restoration of previously damaged watersheds. Kennel Creek serves as a template for accomplishing these goals by leveraging the funds and partnerships necessary for effective, locally-rooted, landscape level stewardship. Encouraging and stimulating local natural resource management ensures that work carried out on public lands more clearly reflects community priorities. By supporting local work crews, the USFS and its partners also keep the knowledge and nuances of natural resource management local. In this way, natural resource managers can continually learn from projects, iteratively evaluate techniques and adaptively manage our public lands. As the Tongass enters the first generation of actively managing young growth forest stands on a large scale, strengthening the capacity for adaptive management will prove more and more critical. .
By encouraging community-based resource management we also support local stewardship of public lands and stimulate job formation in rural communities that need sustainable natural-resource based economies. The Tongass Transition seeks to better align forest management with community priorities while striking a balance between local economies, ecological integrity and cultural well-being. Stories like Kennel Creek are empowering examples of how the USFS can work with communities, local tribes, and village and regional corporations to turn these common goals into a reality.
Early last month, when the tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia breached releasing 10 million cubic meters of contaminated water into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, southeast Alaskans woke up to the possibility that other BC mines could pose the same threats to southeast Alaskan fisheries.
Tailings dams are built to hold the waste rock that is extracted from ore during mining. These toxic tailings are often stored under-water and the dams are built to keep the waste from spreading to the surrounding environment. Because the waste rock can be so harmful, tailings dams need to be maintained forever.
The tailings dam at Mount Polley Mine was only 14 years old.
As more new mines are built along the BC and Alaska border, Alaskans now know the risks mining accidents pose to the people and ecosystems sitting downstream. And they can do nothing to protect themselves.
The Transboundary Mine Issue
Mining has been a part of the British Columbia economy for more than 9,000 years, since First Nation peoples first started trading obsidian. When Europeans arrived in the 19th century, mining took on a more prominent role and there are no signs of activities slowing down.
BC premier Christy Clark promised to bring eight mines in four years to the province when she was elected in 2011. With the recent completion of the Northwest Transmission power line up the western border of BC, it looks like she can make good on her promise.
The first mine to make use of the new power line is the Red Chris Project, which is set to begin operations by the end of the year. The Red Chris Project tailings dam is located near the Iskut River which is one of the main tributaries of the Stikine River – the largest river by volume in the Tongass National Forest and one of the largest producers of salmon.
The tailings dam at Red Chris is set to be 330 feet high and needs to hold 183 million tons of toxic tailings. The mine will process 30,000 tons of ore per day for 28 years, according to owners, Imperial Metals Corporation. The Imperial Metals Corporation is the same mining company that built the Mount Polley Mine.
All of the proposed mines will process tens of thousands of tons of ore per day with the largest mine, Kerr Sulphuretts Mitchell (KSM), set to process 120,000 tons of ore per day for 52 years. Most of the proposed mines will be in operation for less than 25 years.
And, the Red Chris isn't the only mine threatening southeast Alaskan watersheds. The major salmon-producing watersheds in danger from the new mines are the Stikine, Unuk and the Taku. Commercial and sport fishing are a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska and salmon is also important for tourism and subsistence in the Tongass. Should a tailings dam breach or another mining accident occur, these watersheds and southeast Alaskans that depend on them will bear the brunt of the risk.
Alaskan senators, fishermen, conservationists and natives alike recognize the risks these new transboundary mines pose for southeast Alaska and the livelihood of the Tongass National Forest. But, because Canada is the sovereign country, southeast Alaskans have no way to protect themselves from the dangers upstream.
The Boundary Waters Treaty places responsibility for any pollution in Alaskan waters from the mines on Canada, but little is required for pre-emptive action to prevent the pollution from ever occurring.
And it's not just a major catastrophe like what happened at Mount Polley that Alaskans should worry about. Dust from the mines could smother salmon eggs. Leaking chemicals could kill salmon foods sources. Increased copper in the water is believed to impair fish hearing and make them less able to avoid predators. All of these side effects affect the survivability of the salmon before a major accident happens.
Preserving the last frontier
The Tongass National Forest is the largest in tact temperate rainforest in the world. The forest is home to about 70,000 people that all depend on the healthy and sustainable fisheries found here. Salmon is a part of the Alaskan way of life. From commercial and sport fishing to subsistence, the five species of Pacific salmon are a lifeline for the culture and people.
As the FDA continues to test the limits of genetically modifying fish and more and more farmed fish make it on to American plates, we should be fighting harder to protect what wild and sustainable fisheries this country has left. Fish that can grow bigger and fatter faster pose unforeseen threats to American health and only fulfill the wasteful desires to always have excess. Fresh, wild fish should not be the delicacy, but the norm.
And finally… Alaska is America's last frontier. We are a nation of explorers, of entrepreneurs and innovation. Part of that identity comes from the wilderness within our borders, the adventure that can be had in our own backyard. But that wilderness is quickly disappearing and these mines might destroy the little that Alaska has left. America needs wildness and should fight hard to protect it.
Almost three months have already gone by since I started my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society, under the supervision of Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Directorat SCS. It is now the start of September and I cannot believe how fast time flies by when I am truly enjoying my eye-opening opportunity. It still feels as though only yesterday I landed in Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Nowadays waking up every morning to rhythmic pulses of the rain droplets and the fresh aroma of the soothing ocean breeze has become a part of my daily life.
Along with the overwhelming invasion of nature in my life, I also get a chance to spend the majority of my time here in the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. The Tongass is one of the last few forests untouched by industrialization and remains as the largest temperate rainforest on earth. The forest encompasses part of the Northern Pacific coastal forests along with the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia. Due to its vast size, the forest hosts a number of various types of trees: western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock. The forest is also home to five species of salmon, brown and black bears, and Bald Eagles.
My days at Sitka are often filled with a variety of outdoor activities- all of which have constantly kept me marveling at the great nature I am surrounded by. From hiking up mountain trails to kayaking upstream against the swift tides, my internship projects have led me to explore different parts of the Tongass while having the opportunity to meet other biologists, conservationists, and interns. One of my projects involved monitoring a conservation and restoration project implemented by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) in the Starrigavan Recreational Area. I am conducting vegetation surveys in these forest gaps and collecting data from trail cams to monitor deer activity within the gaps for tagging purposes. The workers of the USFS cut oval forest gaps with anarea of 100 ft in diameter to mimic natural disturbances in the forest. The purpose of this is to encourage the growth of shrubs and ferns, which are another type of food sources for deer and bears. Starting since the 1950s, a significant percentage of the big trees (old growth) in the Tongass were logged and when the second generation of trees grew, they left little space for sunlight to reach to the ground. Thus, without these gaps, the growth of shrubs and ferns will decrease, thereby lowering the food sources for the deer, which may lead to a decline in the deer population in the future. Within the gaps, there are also deer enclosures to monitor how deer foraging affects vegetation growth.
From the peaks of the mountains to where streams meander across the landscape, my weekly duty takes me to a stream that flows through the community of Sitka. Once a week I would ride my bike down to Indian River to collect water samples from the river. According to the protocol, I would filter the water from the river and pour them into two sampling bottles. The Sitka Conservation Society is a part of SALMoN (Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network) and participates in the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO). GRO documents water chemistry from rivers around the world in order to understand long-term ecological changes to freshwater ecosystems. To document the water chemistry, GRO analyzes nutrient concentrations, dissolved organic carbon, and the isotope ratio of strontium. Local streams such as Indian River will be studied alongside the great rivers such as Amazon, Yangtze and others. The program started when Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the founders of GRO was a Scientist in Residence at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
My days often began with journeys packed with wilderness adventures. I went on a five day camping trip to West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness which is located about 55 miles away from Sitka and it takes around 3 hours to get there by boat. This trip by far is the longest period of time that I've been out camping. The purpose of this project is to install temperature loggers into five different streams in order to monitor the health and the quality of the stream waters. To arrive at some of these streams, we had to bushwhack through the forest while making noises to alert the bears. Some trails were challenging and tedious with rugged and slippery mud-covered grounds but they were all fun. Once we've reached the streams, we conducted a variety of analyses such as installing temperature loggers and recording the stream width. We also measured the flow of the streams and noted down the dissolved oxygen levels. While performing these tasks, it was fascinating to see thousands of salmon fish swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water. The end of each day was an even bigger adventure for me since we would move from one campsite to the next. Before the sun sets, we would spend about 30 minutes, cruising around the ocean in our boat, searching for a safe spot to camp. We camped on different parts of the forest each night and got to explore the wonders of the old growth wilderness in the dark, quiet night.
From sampling streams, my internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake where its top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake.Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before at Sitka. Not only was it the longest camp trip, it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake where I had a chance to work with the Forest Service. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season. Once the fish pass through the weir, they head up to the northern tip of the lake and travel up streams to spawn. Through out the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies become bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time, before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It definitely was a biological process worth observing.With large amount of ocean surrounding the island comes the freshest seafood. The most important resource of Southeast Alaska is salmon. There are five different types of salmon here: king, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon. Here, salmon is fished for industrial purposes and plays a major role in sustainable fishing as well. Out of the five different types of Salmon, I have already tried three of them, which are King, Sockeye and Pink. The two that I haven't tasted yet are Coho and Chum. Most people here prefer the King and I have to agree with them on that. I also got a chance to try deer meat, which tasted like beef but leaves a trace of gamey palate in your mouth.
Despite the nature explorations that were required for work, I also had a chance to enjoy the beautiful picturesque landscape of Alaska. The town of Sitka is small with a population of 9000 people, yet it is lively and vibrant with esthetically decorated small vendor shops. Sitka is surrounded by the sounds of clashing waves and mountains varying in heights. During my leisure time from work, I went on hikes on the mountains with friends and enjoyed stunning landscapes from the peaks of the mountains. Along the way, I met other interns and co-workers who were passionate about conserving the natural beauty that the Tongass has to offer.
On the 28thof August, I completed my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society and had the opportunity to gain hands on conservation experience that I have longed for. Within the past three months, I learned so much about the importance of conservation methods, and my internship gave me a chance to work with land managers who are working on making important conservation decisions. I learned new research and conservation approaches and methods as well as the importance of social outreach to the community for our conservation works. Overall, this internship has given me invaluable knowledge and taught me to have even more respect for the beautiful wilderness and the natural wonders of the earth. This was truly an eye opening experience and certainly, one that I will never forget.
Sitka School District schools have been serving locally-caught fish in their school lunches for three years. But starting today, kids will be eating coho caught right in their own backyard every Wednesday!
Fish to Schools was a brainchild of the fall 2010 Sitka Health Summit and a pilot program began in the spring of 2011 with Blatchley Middle School serving fish in school lunches once a month. Since that time, the program has expanded to become a state-funded initiative that brings locally caught fish into public school lunches all across Alaska.
The Sitka Conservation Society has been an instrumental part of the program development, with Tracy Gagnon leading the charge.
"It's a viable way to connect the fishing fleet to young people," Gagnon said. "It connects fishermen to the classroom."
Gagnon said that they did not advertise as much for donations this year, but the support that came in was overwhelming. They received double of what they asked for in this year's donation drive - 1,000 pounds of fish."Overall it's very exciting," Gagnon said. "What a generous fishing fleet!"
With state funding, the Sitka School District will be able to start paying fishermen to have their catches served in school lunches.
"Donating actual coho is so much more meaningful than writing a check," Beth Short-Rhoads said. She is one of the coordinators of the Fish to Schools program. "It's like giving time on the ocean, the excitement of landing a gorgeous fish, and the satisfaction of working hard for a way of life they love," she said.
Today, Wednesday Sept. 2, marks the first day of a fully year of fish lunches on Wednesdays. Lunches will be offered at Baranof Elementary, Keet Gooshi Heen, Blatchley Middle School, Sitka High School, Pacific High Schools, Mount Edgecumbe High School, SEER School, & Head Start.
"There's a certain poetry that people eat food from the lands and waters around them. In Alaska, that means fish caught fresh from the Pacific and not fried chicken from Kentucky," Alaska House Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said.
My internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake, wherethe top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season.
Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before in Sitka. Not only was it the longest trip of my internship (a total of 6 days out in the field), it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake and tohave a chance to work with the Forest Service. Throughout the entire trip, we lived in a small cozy cabin that is built on an island completely surrounded by water. Every morning, I was up by 6:30 and the day officially started off at 7:00. Through the quiet serene waters,we boated towards the weir, the morning silence broken by the Forest Service employees yelling,"Hey Bear" and the sound of the blow horn. The Forest Service runs a mark and recapture study of sockeye returning to the stream. In addition we sampled the fish, which entailed weighing, measuring and collecting a scale sample.
Sitting at the weir and counting fish as they pass through was quite an experience. It was fascinating to see thousands of salmon swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water as they fought against the downstream currents. While there was a feast of action packed beneath the waters, the above grounds were active with local dip netters at the outlet of the lake and hungry bears that roamed around the surroundings. One day, as I was sitting at the weir and counting fish with Janelle Horstman, a Forest Service employee, a bear snuck up to the end of the weir. It was a chilling experience, yet quite incredible to see a wild bear within 20 feet. With the gush of rapids pouring out at the outlet, I barely heard the bear coming down from the island. It made me appreciate the rugged beauty and graceful movement of these magnificent grizzly bears.
Once the fish pass through the weir, they headed up to the northern tip of the lake and traveled up-stream to spawn. Throughout the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies became bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It was definitely a biological process worth observing.
The scenes at Redoubt Lake were pretty mesmerizing. The sight of glassy black pearly water reflecting the clouds above and nearby mountains created a dreamy ambiance. The sounds of nature and refreshing ocean breeze swirled around the lake, creating a perfect blend of serenity. With its picturesque landscape and its importance to the subsistence fishery of Alaska, Redoubt Lake is definitely one of the most precious landmarks of the Tongass National Forest.
Tourism is a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska, fueled by visitors coming from all over the world to view the glaciers, bears, eagles and to experience the wilderness. But, they also come for the whales!
The population of North Pacific humpback whales in southeast Alaska used to be a lot higher, but humans actually almost hunted the animals to extinction. Whale oil is very fuel efficient and used to power much of Juneau. But, after whaling began, a population of 15,000 humpbacks reduced to only about 1,000. Today, the whales are protected and even tour companies have regulations to keep from disrupting feeding patterns of the animals.
North Pacific Humpback whales can be seen around Sitka all summer long. The humpback whales that inhabit these waters all summer likely spend their winters in the warmer waters surrounding Hawaii, Mexico, or in the western Pacific. If you are looking for whales on the horizon, best to try and spot a surge of water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and maybe a little bit of whale snot shooting into the air. The spouts that humpbacks send up into the air are exhalations of breath than can be at speeds of 300 miles per hour! If you look carefully enough, you can see these spouts from shore!
Why Alaska in the spring and summer? There is so much food for them to eat!Speaking of food, North Pacific humpbacks feed on herring and krill. They take in tons of water into their mouths, and then as the water is released, their teeth act as filters and catch the fish in their mouths. Despite the size of the animals, their throats are only the size of grapefruits. So they eat lots of really tiny food to fuel their big bodies.
Why are they called humpbacks? Oh, that's easy! There is a large hump along the back of the whales. Humpback whales also have very long flippers. They can be distinguished from other whales from the size of their flippers which can be up to 25 or 30 percent of their body length. Now for whales that can be up to 50 feet long - those flippers are rather large! Humpbacks also weigh about one ton per foot of length. That means a 50 foot whale can weigh 50 tons!
The National Ocean Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can actually keep track of the individual whales that make their way up to southeast Alaska every year. The flukes (or tails) of humpbacks are unique to each individual. They are like fingerprints and NOAA has names for individuals it has identified from photos of flukes. Maybe next time you're out on the water looking for whales you can snag a picture that NOAA can use to name a new whale visiting the southeast for the summer!
The soft morning sunlight shined upon as I rode my bike to the Crescent Harbor, making my way towards Scott's Boat. Today was the very first overnight camping trip of my internship, and that fact alone had already made the trip exciting. As I got to the boat, Scott was already there, making sure that the boat was ready for the journey to Kruzof Island. A few minutes later, Mary Wood showed up to the boat. Mary is the Living with the Land Jesuit Volunteer, and since she has had a lot of camping/ backpacking experience, she will be my guide for the overnight trip. I was glad to have such a reliable guide as I felt nervous at the thought of my first, real camping experience. The only time I camped was my first year at Knox College where we went to a forest reserve and spent the night in a cabin with bunk beds. I was psyched about spending the night in a tent since it was something I had never done before.
At about 11:00 in the morning, we departed from the harbor and ambled our way to Kruzof Island. With each coming wave, we headed out to sea; the boat hurdled up and down, dancing along the rhythm of the waters. Forty-five minutes into the trip, our boat approached the island. With a gush of excitement, I set my foot on the Kruzof Island for the very first time. The salty soothing ocean breeze rippled across my face as I took my first breath of cool gentle air of this uninhabited nature. It was a stunning panorama, with trees that danced along to the wind and rhythmic ocean waves. After taking it all in, we unloaded our camping gear from the boat and headed to the campsite. Two graduate students from University of Michigan greeted me. They had been conducting surveys regarding resource management and social dynamics on the island, and were creating a monitoring plan for a section of Shelikof Creek. That night, we sat next to the warm fire, and as the sun slowly disappeared into the horizon, the excitement of the first day faded away as well.
The next day, we woke up at around six in the morning to get ready for work. Our morning fuel consisted of a warm bowl of oatmeal, topped with a generous squirt of honey and fruits and by 6:30 we were ready for work. In order for us to get to the work site, we had to drive ATVs and since Mary knew how to drive one, I went along with her. Riding the ATV was like a thrilling roller coaster ride as it tense over the uneven rocky trails. After 30 minutes of the ATV ride and another hour of bushwhacking through the dense forest, we finally reached our destination.
It was a serene beautiful sight, surrounded by trees while a meandering river cruises across the landscape. The United States Forest Service (USFS) was performing salmon habitat restoration work in the stream. In the past, forest management practices allowed logging all the way to the stream banks. Now we know that was a mistake because large-tree riparian forest provide valuable benefits for salmon and other wildlife. So now we're putting logs back in the stream to provide rearing and spawning habitat for salmon. While assisting, I had the opportunity to be control of the wench, a tool used to pull in logs from the banks. These logs would provide hiding places for the salmon from natural predators such as bears and eagles. It was a magnificent sight to see these huge timeworn logs getting pulled into the waters.
Meanwhile, Chris Leeseberg, Fisheries and Wildlife Biologist at the USFS, was trimming down the forest near the river to prevent overcrowding of the second-generation growth. This would allow trees to grow without any competition and will allow shrubs to grow on the bottom of the forest floor. By the time we finished with placing the logs into stream, it was about five in the evening thus we headed back to our base camp.
Although this was only a two-day trip, this experience further enhanced my knowledge regarding salmon habitat restoration work. Salmon plays a major role in the lives of the people of Alaska in both industrial and subsistence fishing. Organizations such as the USFS and SCS implement restoration projects in an effort to protect the salmon, a reminder of the important and highly valued fish. Many respect and appreciate the importance of the work done by the Forest Service and I am glad to be have been apart of this restoration work.
Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms is a member of the Tongass Advisory Council, a group of 15 stakeholders from all over the Pacific Northwest, including fishermen, timber salesmen, Alaska Native groups and conservationists.
Thoms traveled to Ketchikan last week for the first of many The Tongass Advisory Committee meetings that will discuss strategies for implementing a new management plan for the Tongass National Forest. The goal of the new plan is to shift from old growth to young growth timber harvesting.
"This committee is leading the way in figuring out how land and resource management can sustain and benefit communities while also conserving intact ecosystems," Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society and a member of the committee said. "It is natural that this is being done in Southeast Alaska because all of us who live here are so connected with the natural environment and the resources it provides."
The Tongass National Forest, Sitka's 17 million acre backyard, is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world. And, the Tongass Advisory Committee wants to make sure it stays that way. Thoms and other members of the committee still want the forest to be profitable, but in more sustainable and community-focused ways. The Tongass National Forest is home to 74,000 people.
"I am very impressed that 15 people can come to consensus and put community at the top of the list," Wayne Brenner, one of the nominated co-chairs of the committee said after the three-day conference. "That is the key that holds Southeast together."
The old growth that is left in the Tongass only makes up about 4 percent of the forest. The committee wants the U.S. Forest Service to shift the focus from valuable old-growth timber to renewable resources and industries like salmon fishing and tourism. Timber harvesting will not completely disappear, but rather the committee wants to encourage a shift to young-growth harvesting.
Forrest Cole, Tongass National Forest supervisor, said the transition to young growth will support a healthy forest ecosystem, while also creating more sustainable southeast communities.
"We are confident this transition will work long term and we are excited that it has already started with Dargon Point, which could become a benchmark for future projects," Cole said. Other young growth harvesting projects are being planned for Kosciusko Island and Naukati-Greater Staney on Prince of Wales.
"For the past several decades there has been significant conflict with harvesting old growth timber and building roads," Cole said. "This struggle has damaged the local timber industry and has negatively affected the Southeast Alaska economy."
Kirk Hardcastle, a committee member, is also a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska. He applied for the committee because he wanted to help transition the Tongass Management Plan to one more focused on fishing and renewable energy.
"We have every renewable energy resource in southeast Alaska," Hardcastle said. "We're not looking to export as much as apply the technology to our communities."
In addition to fishing and renewable energy, the committee meetings on August 6 – 8 in Ketchikan also focused on subsistence, tourism and recreation.
Thoms is honored to be a member of this committee and to be a part of implementing a new management plan in the forest. While the actual transition may be several years away, he is working with the Forest Service to ensure they are taking steps in the right direction.