Written by Sienna Reid for Capital City Weekly
As a lifelong Sitkan I have grown close to our coastal rainforest. As I head off to my first year of college this fall, I know I will miss this place. However, I can’t help but wonder — how much will it change?
Having just graduated from Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school that serves students across Alaska, I have heard many stories of successful hunts and summers spent at fish camp, but I also hear stories of quickly changing ecosystems. Every community in Southeast Alaska depends on natural resources in some way. Whether it’s harvesting wild foods or building homes out of local wood, our people depend on the land. In order to maintain our unique way of life, it is important that rural Alaskans have opportunities to pursue meaningful careers that promote sustainable living and wise management of these resources.
Today, many Southeast Alaskan communities are home to a variety of youth workforce development programs. These programs help prepare the next generation of Alaska’s scientists, field crews, and resource managers with the experiences, drive, and skills to pursue careers in their backyards, whether on the water or in the woods. This summer I visited three of these programs — in Sitka, Klawock, and Kake — to get an inside perspective on the impact they are having on our region.
Ocean Acidification Mentorship
On a drizzly Sunday morning I hopped in the car with three girls and a tote full of water sampling equipment. We made our way from the Sitka Sound Science Center to the sampling site, walked down a slippery dock, and got to work.
The team used a niskin bottle to collect water samples at five feet, both from the surface and at the ocean floor since acidity can vary throughout different depths. After transferring the water into a tinted bottle to lessen light exposure, the water temperature was recorded and mercury was added to poison the sample. Mercury kills all of the living organisms in the water to preserve the exact conditions at the time of collection; for example, it would stop processes like photosynthesis which could potentially alter the results of the test.
Through this mentorship program with the Sitka Sound Science Center, Lily Hood, Muriel Reid, Gabrielle Barber and I had been testing Sitka’s waters to get baseline information on the acidity of our ocean. High acidity poses a threat to the marine food chain, putting our fisheries at risk. Later this fall, the team will process their samples, interview local fishermen, and present their findings at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium.
Muriel Reid, 16, appreciated the chance to learn through fieldwork this summer.
“In classrooms…whenever you’re confused the teacher is right there to help you, and so it’s a good thing for a learning environment, but it’s not necessarily good for jobs — learning how to be good in a job,” Reid said.
She said her favorite day was learning about calcium carbonate chemistry with mentors Lauren Bell and Esther Kennedy.
“That really shined (a) light on a lot of things that people don’t touch on in regular schools,” she said. “It’s definitely important to have connections to scientists in your area so that you can learn more easily, and not just be confused by a bunch of numbers on a page.”
By speaking with the participants, it was made clear that programs that get kids out of the classroom and into the field make the lessons learned in school more tangible. When science is applied, carbon chemistry is no longer a question on a test, it is a challenge that may affect the fisheries that feed our families. The opportunities this mentorship provides make science more relevant to the next generation of homegrown Alaska scientists.
Training Rural Alaskan Youth Leaders & Students
South of Sitka by 134 miles, I had the privilege of meeting a team of seven young Alaskans who were spending their summer in Klawock learning to work outdoors in the challenging conditions of the temperate rainforest. These hardworking teens and young adults were part of the Training Rural Alaskan Youth Leaders & Students (TRAYLS) program.
Founded to help youth learn workforce skills, many partners were involved in making TRAYLS a success. Bob Girt, environmental compliance and liaison specialist with Sealaska Timber Company, as well as one of the founders of TRAYLS, considers partners as those who donated resources, offered access to land for work, or in some way “provided major thrust for the program.”
Those partners include native organizations such as the Bureau of Indian affairs, Native American Fish & Wildlife Society, Organized Village of Kasaan, Sealaska Corporation, Sealaska Timber Company, LLC, Klawock Cooperative Association, Organized Village of Kake, and Kake Tribal Corporation; as well as other groups such as the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, The Nature Conservancy, USFS Ranger Districts Petersburg & Prince of Wales Is., State of Alaska – Division of Economic Development, City of Thorne Bay, and the City of Hydaburg.
This year marked the launch of the pilot program, one that partners and participants hope will continue for years into the future. The five crew members, aged 16-22, and their two crew leaders whisked me up a mountain to show off their hard work on the newly revitalized One Duke Trail. They pointed out the work they had done along the way.
“We want it to be friendly to everyone that wants to go on the trail,” explained crew leader, Talia Davis, 19, from Kake.
Although they were proud of the work they had done, Davis admitted that the labor was difficult in the beginning.
“You’re working in the mud in Southeast weather and you’re just questioning it all. But you know, if you make it through the first couple weeks it’s really rewarding… I’ve definitely decided that I want to work outdoors after this summer.”
The entire crew agreed that working outdoors was important to them. Crew member Yahaaira Ponce, 17, from Klawock, commented that TRAYLS had changed the way she saw her future.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted, going into college, to study something to do (with) outdoors or not, because I was kind of in-between. But after this, I think I’m definitely looking to a career outdoors.”
This was exactly what Girt hoped the students would gain from the experience. Getting the young participants involved and excited about the work can have long lasting benefits for the towns they live in, explained Girt.
“I think it’s important that communities stay resilient, and the way they stay resilient, one of the ways is, they keep talented people that have some passion and ambition, and those people don’t go away and live in some other state or some other country,” Girt said. “They might go away for a while to get their training and get their skills, but they eventually will come back and…help their communities.”
Resilient communities need sustainable resources and a local workforce to manage those resources. But pursuing a career outdoors in Southeast Alaska can be daunting and folks are often unsure whether they would actually enjoy being out in the elements all day. As Girt and the students explained to me throughout the visit, programs like TRAYLS provide students a unique opportunity to try out these professions, all while gaining experience and valuable life skills that will benefit them no matter what career path they go down.
Sea Otter Research
Sonia Ibarra is a Ph.D. student originally from California, but has been living in Alaska for the past five years. Through the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she has been working in the rural villages of Southeast to study the effects of sea otter predation on shellfish. I visited Kake on a low-tide week so I could follow Ibarra and her three field assistants, who were recruited from rural Southeast villages, through the data collection process.
At 4:30 a.m. the first morning, we headed to the harbor with buckets and yawns. From the boat we scouted out a good sample location. Moving quickly down the zero tideline, quadrats were laid out, holes were dug, and clams were sifted into buckets. When we returned to Ibarra’s house it was time to sort and measure the clams and shells. It took a lot of work, but it also made great field experience.
Sarah Peele, 19, from Hydaburg, said the chance to get real-world research experience got her interested in this job.
“Working with Sonia, she’s showing me how to pair traditional knowledge with science,” she said.
I noticed the emphasis put on this idea while I was in Kake. In the living room of Ibarra’s house, where the floor was covered with medicinal plants laid out to dry, Ibarra explained how she had been criticized on her work; people had told her that speaking with locals wasn’t ‘real science.’ However, not only has she been gathering different perspectives, she has been backing them up with data collection.
“A lot of research in rural communities, and specifically native communities, you have a researcher come in, get their data, and leave,” Ibarra said. “And to me it’s very disrespectful to live life that way, or to do research that way.….I do research together with people in the community.”
By hiring these students from rural Southeast, she is keeping the work local and inspiring them as well. Shawaan Jackson-Gamble, 19 from Kake, has been working with Ibarra for the past three years.
“I wasn’t really looking for a biology job,” he said, “but it opened my eyes a little more, and by my next year working with her it’s what I wanted to do.”
With his family roots in Kake and growing up with a traditional lifestyle, he hopes to return to Southeast after college to work for his tribe with a focus on subsistence. Programs like Ibarra’s are encouraging local students like Jackson-Gamble to see how science can be a tool in answering questions that are important to their culture, families, and communities.
After a summer spent traveling around Southeast Alaska, I was reminded of how fortunate we are to live surrounded by natural resources. I also discovered the significance of this human resource; young, eager learners who are preparing themselves to take on the challenges of managing these lands and waters. These programs require time, money, and the dedication of everyone involved. However, the opinions of the young participants indicates the work is well worth the effort. Youth workforce development programs like the ones I visited this year are more than just a summer job. They are an investment for the future of Southeast Alaska.
Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
The 2017 TRAYLS crew. Rear, left to right: Ryan Billy (Kake), Chad Ward (Kake), and Sealaska Intern Talia Davis. Front, left to right: Bob Girt (Sealaska), Crew leader Terrie Ward (Kake), Yajaira Ponce (Klawock), Noah Rasmus (Hydaburg), Skyler Peele (Hydaburg), and Stephen Hill (Kake). Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
I had the opportunity of meeting the small group of youth and young adults as they assembled at the head of a trail leading into the mist wrapped mountains of Prince of Wales. The trail is in reality an old logging road, overgrown in many places by tall green alder trees and thick salmonberry bushes. The bridges and culverts were removed when the road was closed in the mid-1990s and is often overlooked as residents drive past. But the young crew of the aptly named TRAYLS program is working to change that.
The Training Rural Alaska Youth Leaders and Students (TRAYLS) program was launched on June 5, 2017, as a pilot program designed to train rural Alaskan youth and young adults in various forestry related skills.
Bob Girt of Sealaska dubbed the project “The One Duke Trail,” referencing the trail’s location by Duke Creek and playing on the name of another local trail called “The One Duck Trail.” The trail will consist of approximately one mile of reconstructed logging road and nearly an additional mile of new trail construction that will provide access to alpine areas, as well as areas for berry picking and possibly even viewing stations. The project itself, which is entirely on Sealaska Corporation land, is expected to take at least two weeks of dedicated work to complete.
TRAYLS mentors Bob Girt and Frank Peratrovich sharing a laugh while overseeing work on the One Duke Trail. Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
“This trail is a public usage project really,” Girt explained, “It was originally a logging road, and has since been used by local residents for primarily subsistence use. It’s a great trail to work on because it’s wide enough for ATVs and hiking up to the alpine; we’re going to clear out the brush, make the trail safer, and put in a few culverts and even construct a bridge suited for ATV and foot use.”
The One Duke Trail project is only one of a number of possible projects slated for this summer, other projects include the maintenance of several other existing trails, and it’s hoped by TRAYLS program coordinators that the crew will have the opportunity to begin development of at least one new trail along a recent stream restoration project. But trails, aren’t the only projects that the coordinators hope to tackle; they hope to actively engage in a stream restoration project.
“That’s what sets this program apart from others,” said Stephen SueWing, Development Specialist with the State of Alaska’s Division of Economic Development. “We aren’t just teaching the participants how to build trails or clear brush — we’re getting them involved with an entire gamut of resource management possibilities and basic employability skills. Yes, they’ll get work experience in building trails and the like, but they’ll also get experience in many other fields. We hope that the variety of experiences that the students will be exposed to will inspire some of them to pursue careers in these fields.”
The TRAYLS crew getting their morning briefing. Left to right: Bob Girt, Terrie Ward, Stephen Hill, Noah Rasmus, Chad Ward, Ryan Billy, and Corey Peratrovich. Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
There is already potential of SueWing’s vision forming with 16 year old Noah Rasmus of Hydaburg, Alaska. Noah spent three years attending Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, and will be finishing his senior year in his home town; after, he plans to enter college, preferably Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to begin pursuing a degree in civil engineering.
“I’m excited to build the bridge on this trail,” Rasmus said, “It’s something that I’m already interested in, and being able to gain experience in engineering through this program will look great when I apply for college after my senior year.”
Other participants simply enjoy the fact that much of the learning is hands on, and immediately applicable. Crew leader Terrie Ward and her son Chad are two such participants. Terrie supervises the TRAYLS crew when they’re off shift as well, ensuring that their housing as well as health and hygiene are cared for. Chad, at age 14, is the youngest member of the TRAYLS crew but works just as hard as the others.
“I like working outside,” he said. “I learn better this way, when I can see how it’s done, then do it.”
Yajaira Ponce clearing and leveling a section of trail. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
“It’s a great opportunity for these young folks,” Terrie said. “They’re developing a good work ethic, learning that if they work hard then they’ll get paid. In the evenings everyone is tired. We’ve worked all day, but they’re learning that when they get home someone has to cook, and someone has to clean. These are good skills to have, especially for the ones that are going to be going on to college and will be on their own.”
Another component to the TRAYLS Program, an opportunity to teach good work ethics as well as combining applicable life skills and resource management skills to provide the students with a good foundation to enter the workforce and lead happy, productive, and healthy lives.
The program was initiated by the Organized Village of Kasaan through a grant funded by the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Youth Initiative Program, as well as a Summer Intern Scholarship from the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. Additional funding was also provided by a Challenge Cost Share Grant agreement the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has with the State of Alaska Division of Forestry. The State of Alaska Division of Economic Development, who is tasked with workforce development under this agreement, also contributed.
The Organized Village of Kasaan partnered with the Organized Village of Kake, Sealaska Corporation, and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership with support from the Klawock Cooperative Association, the USFS, and The Nature Conservancy.
TRAYLS crewmember Ryan Billy clearing a scenic area for future trail users. Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
The crew completed their first month in Kake, where they worked closely with the USFS on a variety of projects, including stream and culvert surveying, documenting an archaeology site, and training in USFS Safety Standards. On July 6 the crew arrived on Prince of Wales Island, where they will spend the remainder of the summer.
Loretta Gregory, the Community and Economic Development Specialist for the Organized Village of Kake and a Community Catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership expressed her gratitude to the many people and organizations that helped make the first month in Kake a success.
“The TRAYLS program had a few bumps but we were able to land on our feet, figure it out and continue,” Gregory said, “A big thank you to Alaska Seaplanes for their generous help in getting groceries and supplies to Kake and for their generosity in helping transport the TRAYLS crew from Kake to Klawock!”
Written and published with Edible Alaska Magazine
On a sunny Sitka afternoon, a group of Pacific High School students and community members carve four inch deep lines into the soil. Gingerly, the students cradle seed potatoes in their palms. These small fingerlings, studded with dimples also known as ’eyes’, aren’t your typical Russets or Yukon Golds. The United States Forest Service and Sitka Tribe of Alaska are partnering to cultivate a unique community garden. With sprouting eyes facing toward the sun, the group carefully lowers ‘Tlingit potatoes’ into the earth.
This variety of potatoes is also called Maria’s Tlingit, named after Maria Ackerman Miller of Haines. Because potatoes are cultivated not by seed but by planting part or all of the tuber, each new season of potato is a genetic clone to it’s parent. This means that a potato planted now could be genetically identical to the original ‘cultivar’ planted a century ago. Families may care for potato varieties that fare well in a given climate and pass these unique lines from one generation to the next. Maria’s Tlingit family cared for this particular lineage for over 150 years.
If we could teleport back in time, Maria’s Tlingit potatoes would be found in many south facing gardens and patches across the region. The method of cultivation for this variety was pretty hands off. “I call it ‘plant it and forget it’,” laughs Elizabeth Kunibe. Kunibe is the leading academic researcher of Alaska’s unique potato past. Because of their easy cultivation, Kunibe explains that Native gardeners often planted large patches on nearby islands with ideal growing conditions.
In Sitka, oral history traces local potato cultivation north to the turbulent and wild coast of West Chichagof Island. Tucked into a calm cove, sits the ‘Potato Patch’ where story has it, that the Tlingit people would plant rows of these potatoes on their way to fish camp annually. Each autumn, in wooden dugout canoes laden heavy with dimpled spuds, they would return home each autumn to stock underground cellars with a winter load of these nutritious root veggies. Attentive locals still report stumbling upon potato plants in this lush meadow today.
Potatoes are not native to Southeast Alaska however. So how did spuds migrate to our island-clad rainforest?
“At first people thought that European settlers brought them, but the thing is, there were potatoes here before the settlers,” says Kunibe. Settlers did bring potatoes from Europe but they were different varieties.“The other theory is that Russian explorers and fur traders brought potatoes as they circumnavigated Chile. And then there’s also many Alaska native stories about Tlingit and Haida travelers who were going down to South America in big canoes who brought potatoes north.” Kunibe believes that potatoes populated our coast via a combination of these theories.
Artistic rendering of the Potato Patch of West Chichagof by Michaela Goade (click the image to see more of her work)
Maria’s Tlingit potato is a ‘primitive cultivar’ meaning they have not been selectively bred and genetically altered like most commercial varieties today. Their ancestry has deep roots. According to Kunibe, primitive cultivars “usually have more eyes and some may be oblong and finger shaped.” Thanks to advances in genetic research and collaborations like ‘The Potato Genome Project’ that Kunibe works with, we can trace Maria’s Tlingit back to Mexico or Chilean varieties.
There are only four varieties of primitive potatoes traditionally grown by Native North Americans according to Kunibe. Two of those, the Tlingit potato and one other, are grown right here in the temperate rainforests of Southeast Alaska. To learn more about the second spud, we need to leave the garden plot in Sitka and head South to Prince of Wales Island.
Down an ambling gravel road is the tiny remote village of Kasaan. With just 60 year round residents, Kasaan is the smaller of only two Haida villages in Alaska. Here, between ocean and forest, Eric Hamar and his family prepare to plant Julie’s Kasaan. This genetically unique variety is often referred to as the Haida potato.
“Deer don’t eat them, that’s nice. They pretty much bother everything except the Kasaan Potatoes,” says Hamar. His family has been planting Haida potatoes in their hometown for six years. “They are definitely more suited to the climate compared to other potatoes. They are really rot resistant,” says Hamar and that’s not the only reason his family digs Julie’s Kasaan. “They taste very, very buttery. You almost actually don’t need to put butter on them,” says Hamar.
When it comes to chatting about the deep history of Julie’s Kasaan potato, Eric defers. “Don’t ask me, ask Julie,” says Hamar. Julie Coburn, the ‘Julie’ in Julie’s Kasaan gave Eric’s father a box of shriveled old seed potatoes years ago. Today, she lives in the Pioneer Home up in Anchorage. “She’s 95, sharp as a tac and fiery,” Eric warned.
“Let me tell you, those potatoes have been in my family for well over a hundred years!” says Julie Coburn. Coburn has a melodic laugh and a sing-song voice that could draw a grin from a stoic. Her great aunt on her father’s side brought the original Julie’s Kasaan potatoes up from Washington State by dugout canoe over a century ago. She has many fond memories of her potato planting past.
“Oh yes, potatoes were a very big thing. Just about everybody in Kasaan had a garden,” say Coburn. Each spring, Julie and her family would scramble aboard her father’s 45 foot seiner and head to Adam’s Point up the bay where it was flat and south facing.
“We made a big deal of it and we would spend maybe a couple days planting potatoes and cooking over a beach fire and we always had a big coffee pot of course. We would put herring in a barrel and let it rot, good and proper and we used that for fertilizer and a lot of kelp and seaweed which was easy gathering.”
Julie is read this story at the Pioneer Home in Anchorage
After the leaves died down in autumn, Julie and her family would return to reap their harvest. “That was the fun part! You never knew what you were going to find as you kept on digging and digging each hill. I can remember my dad said it was a good year when we harvested 800 pounds of potatoes for our family alone!”
He built an underground root cellar for their bounty and while 800 pounds of potatoes may seem excessive to some, this is not the case for Julie Coburn. “Potato salad, fried potatoes, baked potatoes,” Julie sings. “Mashed potatoes, stuffed potato, boiled potatoes, potato salad! We enjoyed those potatoes every which way we could think of,” says Coburn.
Julie is certainly a fan of her namesake. How would her parents and great aunt react if they knew this potato would pass down in history named after her?
“Ha! They would be shocked, amazed and delighted,” says Coburn. “I was the keeper of the seed for a while but I just did it for the community. I never called myself the ‘keeper of the seed’, I just did it because I wanted to and didn’t expect anything as return,” says Coburn who has shared seed potatoes across Kasaan, in ports along the coast, in Oregon and in Washington. “I do always tell the people I shared with to spread it amongst your friends so they can have a garden too.”
Julie’s generosity is contagious. With support from SEARHC, the Organized Village of Kasaan and the Alaska Native Fund, the school in Kasaan is preparing to plant a community garden plot of Julie’s famous buttery fingerlings thanks to a donation of seed potatoes from Eric Hamar’s family. This tiny Haida village is dead set dedicated to keeping Kasaan’s potato heritage thriving long into the future.
Protecting Sacred Seeds
These little potatoes are more than a lip-licking connection to our region’s colorful cultural heritage. Protecting seed diversity is important and Tlingit and Haida potatoes are uniquely suited to thrive in our rainforest climate. Protecting hardy plant varieties and maintaining a diversity of types translates into greater resiliency and more success for growers in the long run helping to combat climate change and beat out yearly fluctuations.
Good news for Julie, Maria and all the other seed keepers and sharers across the Southeast, efforts are ramping up to cultivate and share these traditional Tlingit and Haida potatoes. From the Klawock Cooperative Association’s garden to community and household gardens in Juneau and beyond, Southeast Alaskans are hungry for these unique little tubers.
Back in Sitka, the students delicately blanket their tiny time capsules with seaweed in the same way Native Alaskan gardeners have done for over 220 years. Michelle Putz, one of the lead organizers of the event hands over two additional seed potatoes for the students to plant in their own school garden. With dirt under their nails and smiles splayed across their sun-kissed cheeks, the students pile back into the bus and eagerly look forward to the autumn harvest.
Students from the Klawock Middle School hike through the Harris River Interpretative Site.
Spring is turning into summer and schools around the nation are releasing their students to a well-deserved vacation. The schools in Klawock, Alaska are no exception. There’s a catch however. Before letting kids head home for summer vacation, the Klawock School District is releasing students into the woods.
On May 24th, teachers Abe Horpstead and Corby Weyhmiller loaded 18 students from the Klawock Middle School into vans to go on a field trip put together by a diverse group of professionals who make their living working in the woods.
Weyhmiller, of Klawock City School District, stated “This was a great opportunity for students to learn in the greatest classroom we have available. Our students had a blast learning from nature and seeing local people that have made a living that allows them to explore, protect, and manage our natural world. ”
Bob Girt of Sealaska Timber, along with Gary Lawton, a forestry and silviculture consultant for Sealaska Timber coordinated with Stephen SueWing, a Development Specialist with the State of Alaska Division of Economic Development, Michael Kampnich of The Nature Conservancy, and Quinn Aboudara a community catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and Klawock Cooperative Association to engage local youths. Kai Environmental Consulting Services, based in Southeast Alaska generously provided lunch for these students and instructors in the field.
Bob Girt of Sealaska demonstrates some of the equipment used in many forestry careers.
Eighteen students from the Klawock Middle School first stopped along the Klawock Lake watershed where introductions were made and the students were able to speak with Aboudara. Aboudara spoke of the many restoration and research projects throughout the watershed. The students asked questions in regards to local sockeye salmon populations and possible careers in research fields.
Next, the students met Bob Girt and Gary Lawton at the Harris River Interpretive Site, a United States Forest Service experimental forest site that demonstrates various land management prescriptions such as different forms of tree thinning. Lawton, who had worked for the United States Forest Service for thirty-six years, discussed some of the benefits of the various forms of tree thinning as well as the numerous career paths associated with the Forest Service. Girt, demonstrated various types of equipment used by many in forestry careers.
Left to Right: Gary Lawton, Bob Girt, Stephen SueWing, and Michael Kampnich
The students then joined Michael Kampnich at the Harris River Campground, where they learned of The Nature Conservancy’s role in a number of projects around Prince of Wales Island, including genetic sampling of wolves, various restoration projects around the island, and supporting the various works engaged in by multiple tribes and other interested organizations.
This field trip is one of many ways in which the State of Alaska’s Division of Economic Development has been partnering with local tribal organizations such as Klawock Cooperative Association and the Organized Village of Kasaan, regional corporations such as Sealaska, other interests such as The Nature Conservancy, and local schools to engage with youth to foster opportunity and interest in the forest and promote local workforce development.