Fish Eggs and Sunshine

How do residents of Prince of Wales Island know it’s spring time?  Well we don’t put on our fancy suits and consult an over-sized rodent for starters.  We know it’s spring time by consulting the weather and the water that are so closely linked to our lives as “Islanders”.  When you see the whales entering the channels and bays.  When you hear the grunting of the sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks.  When you smell that distinct blend of fish and brine.  That’s how we know it’s getting close.

Marilyn Bell-Holter and Lawrence Armor enjoying the boat ride to the spawning grounds.

Marilyn Bell-Holter and Lawrence Armor enjoying the boat ride to the spawning grounds.

The last couple weeks of March and the first couple weeks of April herald the new season in an explosive manner.  A welcome sound after our Alaskan winters is the word that the first herring have been sighted.  And then the flurry of activity begins.  We gather the branches of hemlock trees (and in some cases we simply gather entire young hemlock trees), we check the fuel in our boats and don our rain gear.  It’s Fish Egg season!

This week I had the pleasure of joining Lawrence Armour, Brian Holter, and Marilyn Bell-Holter in enjoying the weather and practicing a yearly spring subsistence activity.  We laughed and joked as we loaded our gear into the boat, “complaining” about how much we “hated work” today.  Our gear consisted of a bundle of hemlock branches that we were going to set in anticipation for the quickly approaching herring spawn.  After getting gear stowed aboard the boat we began trip out to areas that have been traditional subsistence areas since the first people settled in the areas around Klawock.

As we slowed to observe a mother humpback whale and her calf in the distance we repeatedly mentioned how amazing it was, to be on the water, watching life returning to the area, and how we hoped for a good fish egg season.  Herring roe (or as commonly referred to as fish eggs) is one of the first large harvest subsistence foods of the subsistence season.  Every year the waters come to life as herring return to these areas to spawn on kelp, eel grass, hemlock branches (placed in the water by local subsistence users), and even the rocks along the shore.  It is an important sign that winter is over, and is a greatly anticipated cultural food.  It brings people together, they cluster on the docks as the harvesters return, hoping that with the returning boats is that first taste of spring.

Brian Holter and his daughter Marilyn on the watch for whales.

Brian Holter and his daughter Marilyn on the watch for whales.

We enjoyed the company in the skiff, each taking turns pointing out one or another spectacle of sea life that caught our eye.  We stopped at a beach to gather rocks to use as an anchor for our hemlock branches, Brian and I talking about how this season had been years before.  Children were taken out of school, entire families piled into boats and headed for the spawning grounds, thick kelp beds along the rocky shores of Southeast Alaska.  We reminisced about how the families would gather on the beaches after laying out their branches and everyone would join together.  Large bonfires would be lit, and we would share our meals.  The last of the previous year’s salmon would be passed around, and crab freshly harvested would be boiled.  Children would run along the beaches or play on improvised rope swings.

A Pair of humpback whales passing through the channel.

A pair of humpback whales passing through the channel.

It was a time of celebration, a fair well to the winter, and a time to gather together and share.  My younger cousin Marilyn mentions that it’s not that way anymore, and we look about.  There are no children on the beaches, and besides commercial fishing boats we don’t see the skiffs loaded with families coming to celebrate spring with us.  It’s a moment that we share of a time that may be passing in our own lifetimes.  The bond between the land and our own lives.  As more and more families assimilate into a “9 to 5” job, and the culture of our island way of life begins to become more structured we sense that practices like this are becoming less and less “important”.

The spell is broken for a moment, but quickly returns as Brian shouts “They’re breaching!”.  We turn to look where he’s pointing, a little too late, as Brian laughs we stand waiting for the next, but that too passes and we turn back to business.  We clamber into the skiff and prepare our anchor, tie together the branches and guide the boat to a promising looking area.  We’re still a little early, so the water is still dark and not the milky green that shows when the herring are spawning, “Good, we beat them here, we’re early,” Brian states.  While we would have enjoyed that fresh taste of herring roe straight from the water we know that they’re coming and our branches will be ready when they arrive.

We zip from kelp patch to kelp patch to check and see how things are looking, the kelp looks healthy but still no eggs yet.  We follow the flocks of seagulls, watching for them to circle and dive, a good indicator that a ball of herring is there, but they’re still just moving into the area.  We watch the sea lions to see where they’re clustering, another good indicator that the herring are nearby.  We get lucky as we watch a small group of whales that have been patrolling the channel, they come in close to the shore and the herring in their desperation to avoid the whales throw themselves into the air.  A quick silver flash, a wriggling fish struggling off the rocks and back into the water.  We head that way.

A pod of sea lions sunning and rolling about, their stomachs full and their appetite satiated for a moment.

A pod of sea lions sunning and rolling about, their stomachs full and their appetite satiated for a moment.

We approach a small kelp patch, the water still dark, but not quite as dark as the rest.  We pull up a kelp leaf and inspect it, spring and fortune smile upon us as we notice the first few herring eggs.  They’re not thick, but they’re there, we note the area, making reference to several of the islands and the shores.  Tomorrow we’ll return to lay branches in this area and check the branches we set today.  As we turn the boat toward home we can see the water slowly changing color in the kelp patch, from the dark blue of winter to the milky pastel blue-green of spring.

Gunalchéesh herring, our little heralds of spring. We hope that tomorrow we will be able to make a small harvest, we’ll bring some home for our families and our elders so they can enjoy the bounty of the waters, and we will be thankful that winter has ended, and that spring has returned.

We hope to see more families out over the next few weeks, we hope that we can gather on the docks and the shores of the spawning grounds.  We hope that we can enjoy the company of our community and celebrate the return of spring again.  We hope to share the wealth of the waters and the thrill of watching the life that flows around us.

Resilient People and Places: A Local Approach

Forest Anderson, a Behavioral Health Aid (BHA II), with SEARHC has a unique way of engaging her audiences.  Using analogy and props she creates the opportunity for her audience to engage her.  Today she visited Thorne Bay high school to present her Resilience Workshop with a group of middle and high school students.

She begins by bouncing a basketball, a popular sport on Prince of Wales Island as the students settle into their seats. Then she asks what the basketball does, to empty silence as the students aren’t sure of how to respond.  “They bounce back,” Forest answers for them, “They bounce back, because they are resilient.”  A few heads nod as they make the connection, but it’s apparent in their faces that they’re still not sure what Ms. Anderson means.

Forest engaging with the audience

Forest engaging with the audience

Forest continues by presenting a prop that many in this community of around 560 residents find quite familiar, a Lund skiff (complete with an Evinrude motor cut out).  She explains that the boat represents our bodies and our mental health.  She asks the crowd of students what happens when that boat isn’t balanced properly, a young voice responds “It’ll tip over.”


Congratulating the participant she continues to discuss what makes a person resilient, what helps us, as humans, carry on even through adversity and hardship.  The students begin to respond, they begin to engage as Forest ask for participants from the crowd to help pack the boat.  Students select items including boxes, a fishing pole, and even a small gas jug, each with a trait or an idea that that builds resilience, and as each item enters the boat there’s discussion about what these mean to the students.  Some students are quieter than others, but as their peers pose their opinions and thoughts more join in.

Finally she engages the students (and the staff) in a physical exercise, forming large circles and tossing inflated beach balls into the air, demonstrating once more in a hands on way, all the many responsibilities, and pressures that students and adults are juggling.  Amid the laughter and the wildly flying beach balls you hear students and staff calling out things like: Relationships, chores, schoolwork, family, bills, and so many others.  As the exercise winds down and the beach balls are once more collected Ms. Anderson gives the students a chance to seat themselves then wraps up her presentation stating “We all juggle so many things in our lives, it can be confusing, it can be challenging, but if we use the things we’ve packed into our boats, into ourselves, we will be resilient, we can grow stronger and more capable.”  The students nod, you can see that these analogies, these physical representations of ideas and concepts have sunk in, each member of the audience thinks about the things they juggle in their lives and the resources they have to be resilient.

Harley Bell- Holter waiting to speak at the Reslience Workshop

Harley Bell- Holter waiting to speak at the Reslience Workshop

The next speaker for the day is Harley Bell-Holter, a 22 year old carver from Kasaan.  Harley introduces himself, explaining that he is Haida and Tlingit, and that he was raised in Hydaburg, a nearby community with a predominantly Haida population.  He explains that when he was still in high school his parents separated, and he moved to Klawock, another nearby community, but with a predominantly Tlingit population.

Harley shares his own struggles as a teenager and the struggles he still has as a young man.  And as he shares he advocates for self-pride, to be proud in who and what you are.  He expounds that there are three stages in life, the past, the future, and the present.

He tells the audience, “The past… You can’t do anything about, that’s what’s already been done.  The future… We can’t truly know what’s in the future, and that’s why we live in the present.  The present shapes the future.  Any decision you make today will affect tomorrow.”

Harley utilizing physical props to represent the Past, Future, and Present.

Harley utilizing physical props to represent the Past, Future, and Present.

He advocates to the audience to be individuals, to build their strengths and grow their resilience.  Harley encourages the audience “Don’t seek recognition for what you do, seek a better future by what you do.”  The audience hangs on his words, this young man, who is only a few years older than many in the audience speaks to them as an older peer.

Harley shares with his audience a vision of a brighter, more positive future.  One built on the strengths of the individuals seated in the bleachers.  His words resonate with the youth seated before him as he finishes his presentation.

The students and staff file out, many thanking Forest and Harley for coming out today and for sharing.  It’s a very positive sight as the students return to their classes.  Forest, Harley, and I stick around for a few moments and chat afterwards.

Harley seems pleased, “I was very happy with how today turned out,” he explains, “A lot of the time we do a presentation and we might have one or two kids that share, but today they all seemed really engaged with us.”

Forest Anderson with her Resiliency Workshop props.

Forest Anderson with her Resiliency Workshop props.

Forest agrees “Yeah, this was a good group.  Very well behaved and positive.”









Harley and Forest both have different approaches to how they engage their young audiences, but between the two they are a formidable force of positivity and hope.  You can see that many of the struggles of Alaskan youth weighs heavily at times on them both, but they’ve both found a place to channel their energies.

Writer’s Note:

Forest Anderson is a local woman from Craig Alaska.  She has had an interesting life working in fields as diverse as commercial fishing and therapeutic foster care.  She is well known throughout Alaska as a tough, tenacious, and vibrant woman who cares deeply for her family.  She is also closely involved with many of the issues and challenges that face Alaskan youth, especially those from rural communities.

Harley Bell-Holter is a local carver from Kasaan, raised between Hydaburg and Klawock he is deeply attached to his cultural roots and believes that everyone has a culture to be proud of.  He advocates deeply and passionately for forward progress, of remembering the past but striving to create a brighter future.  Harley’s message is one of inner strength and hope, and to remain a positive strong individual.




Fish and Lettuce: A Tour of the Naukati Aquaponics System

Driving to Naukati today to meet Colter Barnes, the principal of Naukati Schools, I wasn’t sure of what to expect.  I had contacted Southeast Island School District a couple of weeks ago because I knew that they were operating a hydroponic greenhouse with amazing success in Thorne Bay. I arrived in Naukati to a typical Southeast Alaskan day, light rain with a smattering of sunshine and a soft breeze.

I met Mr. Barnes in a class room that also shares it’s time as the school’s modest library as well as Mr. Barnes’ office when he visits (He is the principle of several other schools on Prince Of Wales Island through the Southeast Island School District).  A tall man with a beard that humbles my own we made our introductions quickly and we commenced with the tour.


The 30’x40′ Aquaponics greenhouse in Naukati

The first thing that caught my eye as I entered was the long table of lettuce that ran down the center of the greenhouse.  Full and leafy, vibrant green heads of lettuce, growing in the still chilly month of March!  And along the left wall of the greenhouse was chard and mustard greens, one impressive specimen was nearly two feet tall.  Needless to say, I was quite impressed, and grew even more impressed as Mr. Barnes began to fill me in on what this humble looking greenhouse was doing.

Firstly Mr. Barnes explained that the greenhouse had only been in operation since September of 2015, and in that short period of time the students, staff, and volunteers in Naukati had already harvested 507 heads of lettuce and 10 bunches of bok choi.  This lettuce Mr. Barnes went on to explain was utilized in the school lunch menu to provide the students with a fresh salad bar every day, not to mention that surplus was sold to members of the community, and even traded for chicken eggs to another local school.


Wicking bed utilized to grow rooting vegetables.  Look close, there’s sprouts in there!

As I processed this information Mr. Barnes continued with the tour, showing me the wicking tables, specially designed tables that utilize a light porous media to allow taller produce such as the mustard greens and tomatoes some substance to grow in.Then he led me to the second wicking table where I was shown seedlings just beginning to sprout.  This second wicking table Mr. Barnes explained would be used for rooting vegetables such as radishes, carrots, and turnips.

The output from this little 30’x40’ operation was already impressive, then Mr. Barnes explained that the system used in Naukati was not a hydroponics system.  A hydroponic system is a highly productive system that utilizes nutrient loaded water as a growth medium instead of standard soil.  The issue he explained is that the water must be monitored because there is a point where the plants simply won’t absorb any additional nutrients from the water.  This results in increased levels of nutrients and the water (roughly 1,300 gallons) needs to be changed every three months.The Naukati system on the other hand is what he called an Aquaponics system, a system of living water.

An aquaponics system utilizes a system that closely resembles an enclosed ecosystem.

The key to the system:  A tank full of goldfish that students care for and monitor.

It begins with fish. The fish eat and as they eat they excrete.  The fish waste and any excess food breaks down into ammonia, which collects at the bottom of the fish pond.  Fish can’t live in ammonia, so this needs to go somewhere, and so the water at the bottom of the fish pond is pumped out of the pond and into the grow tables where the ammonia is broken down into nitrites, which are then broken into nitrates, which feed the plants.  The ammonia free water is reintroduced into the fish pond, and the cycle continues.  An enclosed, sustainable growth system, the water doesn’t need to be changed, and with regular monitoring the only thing that needs to be added is fish food for the fish.

Beyond this Mr. Barnes explained there was little else remarkable about the system.  The grow tables had LED growth lights installed to extend the season, but he commented that they weren’t vital.  Another feature of the greenhouse was that it was heated, and Mr. Barnes was pleased to declare that they were installing a wood boiler system to heat the school, staff housing, and the greenhouse, which would remove them from their current oil heating system.


Colter Barnes lifting one of the floating beds of lettuce to show how the roots are immersed in nutrient rich water.

As we prepared to leave we made way for one of the students and staff members as they entered to check temperatures and to feed the fish.  The student, about 10 years old, went and fed the fish then reported to Mr. Barnes that his mustard plant at home wasn’t as big as the one in the greenhouse, but that it would be soon and then he and his family could eat it.

Mr. Barnes grinned as we exited the greenhouse “You see, that student would never have said something like that a year ago, but now we have students, and their families, learning to grow food at home.  Amazing!” he commented as he led me around the back of the greenhouse.

We stopped along a fence that over looked into a neighboring yard and again grinning Mr. Barnes explained what we were looking at, “The students raise the chickens down there, and that fence running around those empty boxes down there, those were built by the students.  The eggs are harvested and some supplement the school lunch program, others are sold within the community, and some are incubated so we get baby chicks.  The chicks are sold sometimes, and some are kept to increase the number of chickens we have.  But that’s all student built and ran down there.”

Eggs incubating.

Eggs incubating.

Thinking my tour is about over I get ready to say thank you and to take my leave, but instead we walk toward the school’s dining area and kitchen, stopping along the way to speak briefly with another teacher and checking on an egg incubator “some of these eggs came from our chickens here in Naukati, the others came from chickens in Whale Pass.  We plan on incubating and hatching these chicks and mixing some of the Whale Pass chicks in with our own in Naukati, then the others we will sell to the community,” the teacher explains.

We continue into the kitchen and chat briefly with the staff and peek in the fridge to see it stocked with produce from the greenhouse and eggs from the chickens below, all of which is used to supplement the student lunches.  It’s obvious that this is a source of pride for the school, staff and students as we leave the kitchens and go back to the classroom in which I first met Mr. Barnes.

 Refrigerator stocked with produce and eggs grown and harvested by students and staff at Naukati Schools.

Refrigerator stocked with produce and eggs grown and harvested by students and staff at Naukati Schools.

There we discuss the many amazing opportunities that the greenhouse has brought the students of Naukati, “We have 15 students, Kindergarten through 12th grade, we can’t afford to build a million dollar auto shop here,” he states, “But, we can build an aquaponics system that every student can utilize.  That system allows us all sorts of opportunities for our students.  They’re involved in every step.  They helped build the greenhouse, they grow, harvest, and package the produce.  They’re the ones making deliveries to the markets and selling the produce.  It’s opened up an entrepreneur class for them, which is involved with the students learning about finances, and banking, and starting business and being entrepreneurs.   The art class designs the logos for their products, the science classes learn some basic chemistry, and we teach basics of ecosystems with our greenhouse.  The younger kids are involved too.  You saw the signs and labels, that’s been helping them develop their handwriting and their spelling.  These students are involved every step of the way, and we simply involved the existing curriculum with what we were doing here with the greenhouse.”

Mr. Barnes is clearly proud of what they’re doing in Naukati, and he’s confident that it won’t end with just the greenhouse and chickens. That’s when it struck me.  This system wasn’t just a greenhouse, it was a community greenhouse that grew into something more.  The signs were all there.  From the hand written placards labeling what’s growing where or reminding the community to close the door tightly when they leave, and on to the middle school and high school students that had helped build the fences to keep the deer out of the gardens, to the teachers stopping to check on incubating eggs.  This was a school based, student operated, community driven project.




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