Written by Lia Heifetz for Edible Alaska
Adam Davis drives the Mobile Greenhouse off the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Kake.
Puzzled drivers look on as the greenhouse cruises down Egan Drive toward the Juneau ferry terminal. There it is delicately backed down the ramp and on to the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. After a seven-hour journey through fjords and around the numerous islands of the Inside Passage, it touches down at its new summer home in Kake, a small coastal community of about 400 residents. In Kake the greenhouse is towed off the ferry and to the school where the Organized Village of Kake, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, and students of Kake High School get to try out their green thumbs.
Meet Moby, Alaska’s first classroom greenhouse on wheels. Moby’s walls rise about ten feet high from an 18-foot long flatbed trailer. With clear polycarbonate walls and ceiling, a solar powered fan for ventilation, a water catchment system, sturdy wooden raised beds, and hanging baskets brimming with rich topsoil, the greenhouse is nearly an all-inclusive growing system. All Moby needs is now sun, water, seeds, and some TLC, and it comes to life.
The beauty of a traveling greenhouse is its mobility. Moby travels with a mission: to share knowledge and food production skills with schools, and to support healthy students while growing vibrant, sustainable, and food-secure Alaskan communities. It’s a steppingstone that helps communities whet their appetite for local foods by providing a space for students and community members to engage in hands-on cultivation and education.
Jaquelin Bennum, Simon Friday, Anthony Gastelum, Charles Duncan , and Loretta Gregory display fresh veggies produced in the greenhouse with pride.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, Kake residents will use the greenhouse to kickstart local food cultivation. “The availability of fruits and vegetables is a challenge, the stores are expensive. Additionally, energy is expensive and there are not many jobs,” says Jacquelin Bennum, a senior at Kake High School and the president of the newly formed Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter here.
Moby’s visit to Kake is what prompted the group’s formation. “FFA and the greenhouse have taught me a lot about responsibility,” says Jacquelin. The FFA students oversee the planning, watering, weeding, thinning, and harvesting to maintain the greenhouse crops. “We have the opportunity to learn how to run a business. The greenhouse is a place where we can go to unite with people our age, to get to know each other, and get to know a little more about our wonderful land around us and how we can grow where we live,” says Jacquelin.
Cucumbers crawl up the windows, while squash, tomatoes, and giant Swiss chard burst from the beds. By late summer, Moby is full of life. and expanding its reach beyond the indoor space. Raised beds have been built outside, and the students are gaining skills and inspiration to grow food in the open air. “I learned how much water things need and how often I need to be up here. The rainy days I can pass by a day or two and it will still be moist,” reports Charles Duncan.
Charles Duncan holds up his harvest.
Charles is a 10th grader and the treasurer of the FFA in Kake. He harvests a handful of chard from the raised beds to reveal a couple of smaller plants growing underneath. “The plant I have to pay attention to the most is the chard, which absorbs the most water,” he says. A raised bed dedicated to chard is harvested by Jacquelin and Charles, and brought to the senior center to be shared with the elders for lunch. It’s a tradition in Kake to share the first harvest of the season. The rest of the day’s harvest is sold to raise funds for the FFA club.
Education, community, and student engagement have been priorities from Moby’s inception. The greenhouse was designed by Kaden Phillips, a University of Alaska Southeast student in the Construction Technology department. It was then built by Juneau Douglas High School students in their Basic Construction class using local cedar sourced from Icy Straits Lumber & Milling, based out of the nearby town of Hoonah. Juneau start-up AKReUse, a local company offering high-quality repurposed materials, also provided materials to construct Moby.
Simon Friday gets to work in the Mobile Greenhouse learning hands-on skills in food cultivation in rural Alaska.
Kake is only the first stop for the traveling greenhouse. Each fall, rural communities in Southeast Alaska can apply to be Moby’s next home. Community partners are encouraged to submit applications and explain how using the greenhouse will help community food cultivation goals be realized.
The possibilities are endless – school gardening and farming allow the future leaders of Kake to recognize the potential for local food production. “It doesn’t mean we have to start big. Start small, slowly add on to it. Over time we could start an actual fresh business out of it,” says Jacquelin. Charles agrees, “What we planted has flourished and almost everything has grown. There is a giant possibility for something to happen. It is a great opportunity.”
Next spring Moby will be on the road again, with hopes of inspiring a new crop of Southeast Alaskan gardeners and farmers by planting seeds of awareness throughout the region.
Kake School was so inspired by Moby the Mobile Greenhouse that the students built raised garden beds to continue growing fresh veggies in.
Written for the Salmon Project
Like a salmon, I grew up running wild. As a toddler, I chased my brother through the trees behind our childhood home. Later (braver), with dirt beneath my nails and calloused feet, I trailed new boys through those same woodlands. And when I discovered that all the land I knew and loved was slated to become rows of cookie-cutter colonial houses, I ran away, right out of Massachusetts. I chased ambitions across the globe before finally falling face-first in love with the rich and plentiful waters and rainforest of Southeast Alaska.
Southeast is now my home, and I’m lucky enough to travel and explore the region for work, shadowing locals and documenting their ways of life. In each community I’ve found teachers who have helped me establish my gait in this new backyard. Teachers, like my friends in Hydaburg, who have taught me how to stop running through a landscape. To instead, take root. This is a story of beach seining with the Haida, of finding my footing. This is a story of how you gill a girl.
Beach Seining With The Haida
Hydaburg is one of only two Haida villages in Southeast Alaska. Located on Prince of Wales Island, this community of 400 pulses with energy. Colorful salt-worn homes border streets alive with laughing children. Gangs of all ages look out for one another, dropping fishing lines into cold clean waters and sneaking thimbleberries from neighbor’s yards. Yells, hollers and revving engines fill the evening as people return triumphantly with deer strapped to their ATVS. Haida dancers practice songs before scrimmaging basketball in open gym. Uncles tease and chase their nieces for hugs with the lingering stink of a successful salmon fishing day.
I head out on the water with Sam Mooney, Edward Peele and Toni Rae Sanderson to beach seine sockeye at Eek Inlet. Sam runs the show and I know he’s testing my character from the moment I step onboard. Who is this peculiar lanky white chick with the camera anyways? Ed sits on board with a grin like a Cheshire cat. He dips his hands into a giant bag of taffy before burning one of Sams cigarettes and whispering a prayer as we cut through the water and head out to fish.
We arrive at our spot and the fish rodeo begins. Scanning the horizon for jumping fish and disturbed water, we hunt for our target. Sam explains to me the significance of salmon, of harvesting rich nutrition from the landscape as being the crux and backbone of being Haida. His lesson is quickly brought to life.
“There!” Sam points and rams the boat into gear. Toni, watching from the dingy attached to our skiff, gets poised and ready. “Go!” screams Sam. She drops the bucket attached to the net into the water. Sam speeds the skiff in a circle, lassoing the school of sockeye. The loop is completed and the dingy reaches the skiff. Ed jumps on board with Toni and starts beating the metal plunger into the water. He is trying to startle the salmon into the net and also prevent the fish from sneaking through the open end. Toni slowly pulls the net in, tightening the circle, smaller and smaller. No fish this round. We try again and again, each time a little more successful than the last.
It’s getting late and we plan for one last rodeo. Sam looks at me with his testing expression and a mischievous smile. He doesn’t need to ask twice. I hop on the dingy and he sets off in pursuit of our glittery friends. “Go!”. We let the bucket loose and hold tight. I plunge as hard as I can to the yaps and demands of my mentor. “Faster! Deeper! You won’t scare the salmon like that,” he shrieks. As we pull in the fish he reminds me to take over for Ed, that you don’t ask to help an elder you simply do it. I take note.
Sam howls. He points his finger at me from the skiff, my tired arms collapsed pathetically at my sides. “Now, you’ve gone beach seining with the Haidas!” he hoots. “This is what we call a deck-load,” he says gesturing to the salmon overflowing the cooler resting on deck. The sun is starting it’s slow summer descent toward the horizon. Toni collapses at the nose of the skiff in exhaustion. The golden light trims the water and illuminates the proud beaming grin of Ed resting content beside our deck-load of salmon. We turn our tired faces toward town.
A successful day on the water means celebration. But first, it means work. When we pull up to the dock, exhausted and weary I hop into the truck bed with Toni. They slow at my door and I feel the gaze of my teachers land upon me as I leap out with my things.
“So where are we going to process these?” I ask.
Their stoic expressions crack and Sam lets out a guffaw and slaps his door. “Haha! You pass the final test. Drop your things and I’ll be back in fifteen to get you.” Salmon fishing is a means for testing each other’s character. It is also an opportunity for testing and building your own.
A warm dark night settles over Hydaburg as we head down the dock. We battle bugs for hours as our assembly line carefully heads and guts our bounty. We work until we can barely keep our eyelids from collapsing. Washing the blood and guts off our hands, we finally itch the bites that litter our faces necks and backs. I’m not sure if the blood on my body came from me, the mosquitos, my comrades or the salmon and I’m far too tired to care. Sam’s heart-melting smile erupts across his sleepy face. “You can be a little Haida now,” he says. He points to the very itty bitty tiny tip of his pinky finger, “That much!,” he laughs.
Well, it’s a start anyways.
The next day I process salmon with Toni and her sisters Mary and Jennifer. Neighbors stop by to offer advice, recipes and secrets. We float a potato in our brine to test its salinity and kids poke in to see the fish, learn the process and help. The sisters teach each other how to clean the sockeye and filet properly so the salmon straddle and hang in the smoke house. They take turns brining, hanging and using berry bushes to swat bugs from our bounty. The fire is set and the girls trickle off to their families. Toni will check on the fire through the night.
Trails of alder smoke chug out the chimney and through cracks in the wooden smokehouse. Streams of this potent heat sneak through my open window as my head hits the pillow. My drained mind slowly wanders and processes the days as it heads full speed to sleep.
I think about salmon fishing and my new friends. While we are united in our exhaustion and contentment, our perceptions of fishing are unique. For Ed, salmon fishing is a tradition as familiar as the sunrise. He explained how when he grew up in Hydaburg, there was no road that connected his village to the outside world. Your grocery store was the alpine or river mouth.
For me, this seasonal tradition is still fresh. With each passing year, I feel more tempered to the way of life here but I still have a lot to learn.
I roll over and stuff a grin into my pillowcase, thinking about salmon and all that they mean to this region. I visualize the fish as they tie together our forest and ocean, our economy and families, our health and our hopes, Hydaburg to Kodiak, age-old Alaskans to newcomers. They tie all these things into a complex web, a big ‘ole net. This is the net that finally gilled my wandering body, the net that caught me and roots me to this land. A net where I rest my bones, where many Alaskans place their futures and tonight, the net where I curl up and graciously succumb to a hard-earned sleep.
Written for Edible Alaska Magazine, Authored by Bethany Goodrich and Lia Heifetz, Photos by Bethany Goodrich and Matthew Kern
It has taken Marja and Bo time and ingenuity to establish systems that overcome the landscape, remoteness, and weather in Farragut Bay. Today Farrugut Farm produces over forty varieties of vegetables that are sold primarily in Petersburg. They are also able to sell produce directly to specialty cruise ships that pass through Frederick Sound, like the Catalyst pictured.
Across Alaska, many of us dread trips to the grocery store. Sometimes it feels like we need to refinance our homes in order to afford the luxury of fresh bell peppers or homemade guacamole. Food is expensive and the inflated prices that leave us shaking our heads are partly to do with the high cost of shipping food into our remote state.
A 2014 report commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services estimates that a startling 95% of our food is shipped in from out-of-state. While cultivating Alaskan avocados may remain a pipe-dream, farmers are revealing ample untapped opportunities for growing vegetables and raising livestock locally. The benefits are big. Replacing imported food improves access to a more reliable supply of affordable, fresher, healthier product. It also boosts local economies by keeping more cash circulating across the pockets of Alaskans. In fact, if Southeast Alaska alone could replace a mere 1% of imported foods with food cultivated in-state, we could keep a whopping twenty million dollars circulating regionally.
Of course, there are challenges to raising crops and livestock in Alaska. Between bears and ravens, expensive shipping costs, access to land and an unfavorable climate, the obstacles are discouraging. Alaskans however, prove time and time again that no challenge is too great. In the island-clad rainforest of Southeast Alaska, a growing coalition of farmers are beating the odds, innovating and breaking new ground.
The Sawmill Farm: Dumpster Diving with Bobbi Daniels
Bobbi Daniels prepares to feed her pigs and poultry food waste from the local grocery store and spent grains from the local brewery. She is turning trash into treasure: fresh meat for Alaskans.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that between 30-40% of all food in the United States ends up in landfills. Waste happens at all steps in the process from grower to storage, processor to grocery store, grocery store to consumer, and dinner plate to trash bin. In Alaska, wasting food isn’t just irresponsible, it’s costly.
Sitka is a rural community of nearly ten thousand residents located on Baranof Island. Like the majority of Southeastern communities, Sitka is only accessible by air or by sea. Without an incinerator or local landfill, the community pays a high price to barge its trash to Washington. The City of Sitka estimates that it loads over eight thousand tons onto barges every year. At one hundred and seventy four dollars per ton, that’s nearly one and a half million dollars floating out of town annually. What’s more, the City estimates that almost a quarter of that trash is food waste.
What if we could turn some of that outcast food back into nutrition? Trash into cash? Maybe even, garbage into bacon? Meet Bobbi Daniels.
“All of the produce that can’t be sold, all of the outdated bread, all of the restaurant foods and school food, all of the scraps that are thrown away are barged out of here. It is just that insane. That food that is being thrown away is absolutely perfect food for pigs and poultry,” says Daniels
Bobbi grew up working on farms in Indiana. She has a contagious laugh and a no-nonsense sense of humor to match. She’s persistent, driven and at ease with dirt under her nails and manure underfoot. Every morning, she hops into her truck to make the rounds. Starting at Sea Mart Quality Foods, Bobbi winds through town, stopping at schools and businesses to relieve them of their most nutritious garbage. At Baranof Island Brewing Co. she helps heave 500-pound bins of spent grains on board. Once the truck is brimming with waste Daniels heads south. It’s time to feed the beasts.
Beside Silver Bay, in the company of mountains and off the paved road is Sitka’s furthermost address—the Sawmill Farm. Here on 1.3 acres of land, Daniels rears ducks, geese, quail, broiler chickens, turkeys, meat rabbits, egg-laying chickens, goats, and pigs. After pulling in, she sorts through the truck bed, parsing out troughs of food while being careful to balance the animals’ diets. Heaps of cottage cheese and yogurt are plopped onto piles of spent brewery grains and lowered into an eager riot of chickens. She dishes out collard greens, apples, spinach and cilantro to the rabbits.
Occasionally, the Sawmill Farm supplements with traditional feed, but the great majority of these animals’ diets is taken directly out of Sitka’s waste stream. Given the extremely high cost of barging heavy hay and grain into rural Alaska, identifying this local food source was a watershed moment. “If that food goes away, we go away. The only thing that makes this feasible is that outcast food stream,” says Daniels. With the addition of a pasteurization system to treat plated food, Daniels will soon be able to incorporate restaurant and school waste into the rotation. Also, she has summer plans to ramp up the amount of town landscape waste she dishes out to her goats and rabbits.
“Boy, when I open up a dumpster in this town and there is a bunch of grass clippings in there, it just hurts my heart because that’s being barged out of here as expensive garbage and we can be raising our own food on it,” says Daniels.
Bobbi Daniels is more than Sitka’s favorite dumpster diver. With the support of her community, she is breaking new ground, responding to a broken system and producing top-quality meat, milk and eggs in impressive quantities. “We have six hundred chickens and we should be butchering at least two hundred meat chickens every four weeks for the rest of the year,” says Daniels. “We intend to sell at least eight hundred rabbits by the end of the year, too. We have six goats to milk, two are due to deliver baby goats any moment.”
By summer, eggs can be purchased in local shops, and by autumn people who purchase pig-shares can stock their fridge with locally smoked bacon. Restaurants as far away as Juneau are pre-purchasing meat from Bobbi and even if you never buy a single product from the Sawmill Farm, she’s still helping reduce the waste stream and saving money for the entire community.
Getting to this point hasn’t been a walk in the park. After identifying an affordable food source for her livestock, she spent years hunting for appropriate land. In February of this year, she acquired her current lot on lease from the City and is still in the process of moving her livestock from temporary homes in yards scattered throughout Sitka. She is constantly troubleshooting. Along the way, she’s learned how to navigate complex state and federal regulations, stay ahead of hoof rot, stave off hungry bears, and mitigate against a long list of other Alaskan predators—ravens and politicians being the trickiest.
These bruised tomatoes were slated for the garbage at the local grocery store, Seamart Grocery. Seamart is thrilled to pass outcast and outdated food that can’t be sold to humans over to the Sawmill Farm.
“In other parts of the country where agriculture is more mainstream, all those challenges you are going to face, somebody else has conquered generations ago. All you have to do is ask somebody. Here, we’ve got nobody to ask. We are breaking new ground and there is a lot of trial and error,” says Daniels. “There’s a reason why we don’t have many farms in Southeast Alaska. You have to want it pretty bad.”
Daniels wants it bad and she’s collaborating with a burgeoning group of farmers across Alaska who want it too. As she grows her local knowledge, Daniels regularly shares best practices with other producers in the region. Advice and encouragement aren’t all the group shares.
“I’m getting ready to ship three rabbits to Petersburg to be bred,” says Daniels. “Just maintaining a deep gene pool with enough diversity is super expensive. The farms in the Southeast, now that there are more of us, are starting to work together. But still, nobody in the lower forty-eight has to deal with shipping rabbits and goats on a float plane,” Daniels laughs.
The local opportunity is huge for Sitka, but the benefits permeate across the state. Animals, resources, and trade secrets are circulating throughout Alaska. Sitka isn’t the only community that pays top-dollar to barge perfectly nutritious food waste to landfills in the lower forty-eight. “Even if every single thing we produce was sold here in Sitka we could never satisfy demand, and just about every place in Southeast Alaska has this same waste issue. Our goal is to support equivalent farms all over Southeast Alaska. Juneau can be raising its own livestock and same with Ketchikan and a bunch of the smaller villages. This plan works pretty much at any volume level,” says Daniels.
Daniels built her farm around trash. Her animals eat cast-off food and she’s been thinking about waste on the other end, too. “We have found a potential market for everything that is going to be a waste product from us except the feathers. That’s the only thing we end up composting. Of course, the compost has a commercial value too.”
She hopes that the Sawmill Farm will catalyze complementary spin-off businesses. Rabbit and chicken innards make good crab bait and she’ll have plenty of chicken feet that can be boiled into stock. Other byproducts would make gourmet pet food and she anticipates producing a hundred rabbit hides each month. “We just don’t have the time, the Sawmill Farm is maxed out. But what we are doing is creating opportunities for other businesses to start up.” While she hates to admit it, Bobbi Daniels is an innovator. She’s turning trash into treasure and she’s urging others across Alaska to do the same.
Off the Grid and on to Plates
Marja pushes a cart full of freshly picked cabbages. The cart is made of old mountain bike tires and is good for pushing vegetables and materials around the farm’s (sometimes rough) pathways.
Jagged shorelines lined with alders, dense evergreen forests, and muddy tidal flats define the coastline of Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. Tuck into Farragut Bay, and you’ll find something else. About 35 miles by boat north of the town of Petersburg, up a windy slough, is a remote piece of land nurtured and cultivated to grow plants not typically found in the Southeast Alaska rainforest.
Farragut Farm is on an old river delta in the foreland of the expansive Stikine ice field. Here, meadows have risen up from tidal flats yet to be forested. There’s evidence of an old homestead, likely from the 1920s, but until recently there has been little or no agriculture. Over a number of years, Marja Smets and Bo Varsano have transitioned from a large home garden to a small but prolific vegetable farm. “We realized that we enjoyed being in Farragut Bay and growing food and it seemed like a nice challenge to combine that, stay here, and bump up to a farm,” says Marja.
It has taken Marja and Bo time and ingenuity to establish systems that overcome the landscape, remoteness, and weather in Farragut Bay. Today the farm produces over forty varieties of vegetables that are sold primarily in Petersburg. “Alaskans eat a lot of things that are harvested close to home, but for vegetables that is typically not the case. Everyone in Petersburg who goes to the store is eating vegetables that are barged in,” says Varsano.
Farragut Farm is providing an alternative for Petersburg residents: better quality, fresher, locally grown vegetables. “We do try to stick to things that grow well in our climate and don’t need a whole lot of extra coddling. We grow a few things that are given special attention, but they are in such demand that it is commercially viable,” explains Marja.
Producing vegetables commercially in Southeast Alaska is not a straightforward undertaking. “It has been interesting and tricky to figure out different ways of approaching growing vegetables on a commercial scale in this climate,” says Marja. The farm has four unheated greenhouses, one greenhouse that is heated with a woodstove, and numerous raised garden beds. Most of the greenhouses are moveable and slide on tracks to cover different portions of the farm throughout the season. By using moveable greenhouses, they are able to extend their season and increase vegetable production. “Anything that requires heat is going to benefit, and there’s so few naturally warm days in Southeast that it’s important to create a microclimate,” explains Varsano.
The limited arable land, pests, short growing season, and wet summers are among the factors that pose significant hurdles to many farmers. Marja and Bo are faced with yet another: Farragut Farm is completely off the grid. The remoteness of the farm adds some interesting complexity to the mix, and what’s more, they take extra care not to rely on fossil fuel intensive sources of energy. “The electricity, water, roads, an easy way to get from there to here, all the basic necessities of life we take care of for ourselves,” explains Marja.
Farragut Farm creates its own electricity with a small array of solar panels. Most of the farm work is completed by hand. “We are using some plastic and fuel, and a lot of things we can’t produce ourselves, but we are working to get away from that as much as we can, or at least minimize it,” says Bo. They use creative inventions and cleverly modified solar powered tools to maximize the efficiency of growing, harvesting, cleaning, and transporting vegetables.
Greenhouses at Farragut Farm slide along a track to cover three different plots of land. The greenhouse can be moved over different crops throughout the season to maximize the use of a single piece of infrastructure.
The farm is continually looking at ways to increase efficiency. “We’re realizing more and more how important planning is for cutting down our labor.” An intricate system of planning multiple years in advance for crop rotation and the appropriate nutrients that specific vegetables will need is an example of the preparation and forethought necessary to keep things moving smoothly and efficiently. As soon as a vegetable is harvested for market another seedling is ready to plant in its spot.
Arguably even more arduous is planning their farm operations around the tides. Rather than a road for transport, Farragut Farm uses a slough that only fills with water on especially high tides to ferry materials and vegetables to and from the farm. “Once a vegetable is harvested, we need to wait until we have a high tide that is at least 15 to 15.5 feet high to have enough water to float the skiff. We then unload all of the vegetables onto the skiff and float them down our slough about half a mile to our sailboat. Then we transfer the coolers of vegetables from the skiff to our sailboat. Sometimes we have to do that in the middle of the night if that’s when there’s a high tide. Then, we sail or motor to town which generally takes four to five hours,” Marja explains.
Rain or shine, in rough seas and stormy Southeast Alaskan weather, Marja and Bo stay close to the elements as they move their produce from farm to market. Once in Petersburg, coolers are unloaded from the boat and onto a truck before being unloaded at the market to an eager crowd of lip-licking customers.
These farmers are constantly learning the best ways to operate in Southeast Alaska’s specific environmental conditions while improving efficiency to not waste time, energy, or space. “Every day we are thinking about how we can do this more effectively and efficiently to make this a more sustainable venture for us,” Marja explains.
In addition to focusing energies on their farm, Marja and Bo are actively working to empower other farmers and future farmers of the region to help them prosper “It has become a goal for us to help promote farming in the region, to do anything we can to move it along a little bit,” Varsano says. Last year Farragut Farm hosted the inaugural Southeast Alaska Commercial Growers Conference, which brought together agricultural producers from all stretches of the region. Marja added, “So many lessons have to be learned on your own terms and in your own time, but there’s a lot to be said for talking to someone who has already done something you are looking to pursue.”
Farragut Farm is working gracefully against the odds and it’s taken some true passion and creativity to sustain and grow this farm. “We feel like we’re contributing to our little corner of the world. Not only being able to grow high quality food that feeds the community, but we are taking care of our piece of land and hopefully making it a good place for lots of critters, plants, and animals into the future,” says Marja.
Ultimately it’s a fairly simple equation: good farming + good food = good for everybody.
Farragut Farm is providing an alternative for Petersburg residents: better quality, fresher, locally grown vegetables.
Written by Bethany Goodrich for Alaska Dispatch News
SITKA — In early spring, the forests and estuaries begin to thaw. With the softer earth and longer days, Sitka’s residents thaw too. We stretch our arms and arch our backs, padded with a little extra winter weight, toward the increasing sunlight. We look to our coastline for the return of the herring.
In Sitka Sound, herring have always been harbingers of spring. As they return en masse each year they carry on their iridescent backs the promise of warmer weather and seasons of subsistence. Seabirds, sea lions and fishermen compete aggressively for this plentiful food source. Hoards of humpback whales return from Hawaiian waters in pursuit of these silvery fish. Hunting in packs like wolves, they dive deep, flukes slipping into the sea. Our waters erupt with life.
Back in town, Sitka clamors with activity too. Our harbors flood with visiting seiners and tenders awaiting the commercial herring sac roe fishery. Locals prep their skiffs and begin eyeing young hemlock trees in preparation for the subsistence harvest. Wade Martin, 51, is a Chilkat Tlingit who has been harvesting herring eggs locally for 40 years.
“During herring season, there is no place better than Sitka. It’s a really happy time of year for animals, for us,” Martin said. “Just to be part of it all is a privilege. It’s more than cultural, it’s in my blood and I could not imagine not doing this. I’d go crazy.”
From his 18-foot aluminum skiff named Raven, Martin hustles through the Sitka Sound island chains with his eye to the water and his ear to local chatter. This year, he promised more than a half-ton of roe to friends and family around the region.
Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi: Blessing of the rock
The season begins at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House, when community members join the Sitka Tribe of Alaska in prayer.
“We are especially thankful for our culture for our people and our ways that you have taught us as we celebrate the herring run, its history,” says John Duncan while Roby Littlefield pours channel water over the herring rock.
News Lawson explains the significance of this rock and the herring season.
“The herring rock has a very long history among our people. Very significant. The days of long ago, the herring would come to our homeland and the first place the herring would spawn would be at the herring rock and this time of year was very significant to our people, the arrival of the herring on our shores that meant the arrival of new food, new food for our homes and the end of the old foods that sustained us through the winter months.”
The timbre of the prayer is calm and steady. Out on the water, the pace is entirely different.
Defined by patience
Seiners strategize their position and await the Alaska Department of Fish and Game countdown.
The rodeo begins.
Sitka’s sac roe commercial fishery is legendary for cutthroat hustle. Spotter planes scope fish movement from above and dozens of seiners narrowly avoid one another, dodging rocks and whales as they compete for masses of herring.
This year, seiners harvested 9,758 tons of herring, about 66 percent of the quota. Fishermen target the golden herring egg sacks, or skeins, coveted in Japan as a traditional delicacy called kazunoko. Fish and Game estimates that 10.7 percent of the nearly 10,000 tons of herring pulled from Sitka Sound this season was the target mature roe. The subsistence harvest stands in stark comparison. Participants still target herring eggs, but the technique for accessing these eggs will leave the fish breathing. It’s a methodology defined by patience.
In quiet coves foaming with turquoise milt, participants lower hemlocks from small boats, anchoring them into the spawn. Days later, they return to pull in branches, hoping that thick layers of eggs coat the limbs. While the process sounds idyllic, the reality isn’t always quiet and serene. Like the commercial sac roe fishery, locals are in hot pursuit of this sacred resource.
Sitka at heart of harvest
Martin and I pull the Raven up to a wooden troller anchored in a protected cove of Middle Island. The F/V Shirley N travels annually to Sitka from Hoonah.
Located on Chichagof Island, Hoonah is the largest Tlingit community in Alaska. Martin grew up in Hoonah and spent herring season traveling to Sitka on local trollers, gathering eggs. Today, Hoonah residents depend on Vernon Hill, a veteran troller with a local crew, to return with a hull weighed down by eggs on branches. The Hoonah Indian Association and community members contribute funds each year to support their travel. Martin reconnects with his hometown friends in the wheelhouse, while on deck Brandon Hill explains how a triumphant return to town looks.
“It’s crazy when we get back to Hoonah. Usually, we pull up to the dock and there’s about 200 people out there and we lay the eggs out on a tarp and watch people like seagulls fighting over this stuff. It’s just madness. It is really rewarding and it means a lot to a lot of people, especially elders,” Hill says.
Some people describe herring eggs poetically as the most culturally revered subsistence food after salmon. Others use a more crass nomenclature: Indian Viagra. Some people prefer to munch on egg-coated kelp pulled directly from the sea. Some blanch them, dress them with soy sauce or cook them in seal oil. Others kindly refuse.
Whether you like herring eggs or not, they are in demand across Alaska and Sitka is the beating heart of the harvest. Participants spend weeks gathering eggs, packaging and pumping thousands of pounds of this treat by boat or by box along airline arteries to eager families from Metlakatla to Barrow. Martin alone ships his bounty to Yakutat, Kake, Hoonah, Juneau and Angoon.
Atypical Easter egg hunt
It’s Easter. While little girls in Sunday dresses play hide and seek with colorful eggs, I sip thick coffee and talk herring with the crew aboard the F/V Shirley N. Days earlier, we anchored branches in coves across Sitka Sound. Today, we hop on skiffs for a different kind of egg hunt.
Cutting through a cold sharp rain, Martin and I race to Crow Pass, an epicenter for herring egg subsistence. The turquoise foamy spawn has subsided, the water fading to a more familiar and less tropical shade. Peering past the raindrop-mottled surface, we look deep in the water for color. Martin does not attach buoys to his branches, fearing the egg wranglers — people who steal branches laid by others. He hides his branches and has done such a fantastic job that we struggle to find them.
“See that? That yellow glow down deep,” calls Martin. We drop a grappling hook and yank. A growing pale form rises to the surface, a young hemlock heavy with eggs. “Not ours!” The line, and anchor are unfamiliar.
Martin is many things, but he is not an egg thief.
“For me, this is all about honor. I honor my culture, honor where I come from, honor my father and honor this resource.” Thievery is not honorable. He loosens his grip and the tree slips back into the darkness.
We continue in this way for hours, though most of the trees we pull are ours. This year, however, most of those trees are empty. “Junk! Junk!” Martin says as he clips the small sections of tree worth keeping. “It’s getting worse every year. It’s getting harder to make this happen.”
We motor back to the Shirley N. All the sets the Hoonah crew pulled were empty. Barren hemlocks balance sadly on deck. Everyone is tired, feeling defeated.
A changing harvest
Martin and the crew of the Shirley N were not alone in their struggles this spring. Sitka Tribe distributed 3,240 pounds of this culturally revered resource, not even half of what they distributed a year ago.
Harvey Kitka, born and raised in Sitka, has been chair of the tribe’s herring committee for 10 years. “Harvesting … was really bad. Usually, I have so much that I distribute to not only family in town but some friends, too. We all have friends who don’t have boats; some of them are older … and we usually get eggs for them,” Kitka says.
He remembers a time growing up in Sitka when the herring were so thick that the crack of their flipping backs would echo across the Sound like a hailstorm. Back then, subsistence seasons were more reliable. “It used to be that the duration of the spawn was so long you could see which way the herring were heading, you could watch them every day as they got closer in town. We would try to get there right before the herring would start spawning, anticipating their movement.”
This season, the spawn seemed different.
“The herring came in tiny bunches, just scattered on the surface and there were just little balls of herring. It was just a little spot here and a little spot there,” Kitka says. “You had to be really lucky.”
Back on the water, Martin and the Hoonah boys are determined to get lucky. By chance, while Martin and his buddy Russ James are hunting seals and otters north in Salisbury Sound, they stumble upon a late spawn. They move fast, lay branches and lead the Hoonah crew there to do the same. They all cross their fingers.
After weeks of battling waning optimism with die-hard persistence, the Hoonah crew and Martin taste salty, crunchy success. They pull plentiful branches from Salisbury Sound. The next day, I join Martin, James, his girlfriend Teresa Moses and her sons Eli and Andrew as they sort and package the spoils. The sun is bright, the atmosphere warm with relief and rejoice.
“I was pretty worried that I wasn’t going to be able to hold up my obligations, but now I’m very happy,” Martin says. “I try to be honorable and honor my word. This was the first year I almost didn’t make my obligations. It’s getting worse every year. We all but gave up on this season and just lucked out and stumbled into it in Salisbury Sound, the farthest north I’ve ever had to go,” Martin says.
The afternoon is rich with celebratory sounds: pruning shears clip, packaging tape stretches across burgeoning fish boxes, Creedence Clearwater Revival sings “Proud Mary” on the radio and two little boys crunch gleefully on eggs.
“I wish that we could have herring eggs every day,” one says. With a grin, their mother promises fresh eggs in tomorrow’s school lunchbox.
All together, Martin packages more than 2,000 pounds of herring eggs on branches. Four-hundred pounds are set aside for a particularly important purpose: Martin’s father passed away earlier this spring. These eggs will feed guests at a ceremonial party to honor Chief George Martin Jr., clan leader of the Chookaneidi. The rest are distributed to family and friends within Sitka and across the state. He pushes cartload after cartload through the gates at Harris Aircraft Services. He estimates these eggs will hit the tongues of nearly a thousand Alaskans.
“There’s not a lot of people who can do this anymore, and it’s my culture. A lot of people do their culture with dance and music. With me, it’s the thrill of showing people this, sharing whatever is in season,” Martin says.
In Hoonah, the community celebrated the triumphant return of their hardworking men on the Shirley N. Residents fought with fervor and glee over the thickest branches.
As spring tapers off into summer, Sitka’s residents wear down our winter weight, pulling skates and hooks heavy with halibut and salmon from the Sitka Sound. As we clean our bounty, we look graciously to our plentiful waters and curiously in the pink bellies of our chinooks. We are reminded of the little fish that begin it all, the shimmering foundation of our rich subsistence culture.
Lawrence Armour, Brian Holter, and Marilyn Bell-Holter of the KCA participating in subsistence practices.
With branches laid in place on Thursday and Friday, the waters around the kelp beds turning from their dark blue to the welcomed milky pastel green that signals the beginning of the spawn, the staff of Klawock Cooperative Association (KCA) waited impatiently through the weekend.
Morning arrives, overcast with a bit of a chill in the air as the crew climbed aboard the boat and headed out to check the hemlock branches that had been anchored out several days prior.
Arriving at the kelp beds the area was wild with life, sea lions and gulls, ducks and sea otters, seals and of course, the herring. The water was active and the air was filled with the smell of spring as the crew began to pull in the branches.
Slowly they rose to the top, like a white flocked Christmas tree rising through the cloud of spawning herring came the branches to be pulled into the boat. Grinning, excited voices mixed with the happy first tastes of this spring subsistence harvest as the gear was hauled in and the branches securely stowed.
The boat starts and moves closer to the kelp bed, the kelp hook arcs into the air to splash behind a strand of kelp and the crew begin to haul it in. Kelp fronds are carefully selected and picked leaving the kelp bulb intact so that next year the fronds will grow back. The large leaves show a healthy layer of herring eggs as they’re also carefully stowed away, the crew enjoying a fresh morning snack of fish eggs on kelp as they finish their diligent harvest then start the boat once more and turn toward home, sending a brief message ahead of them to let the community know that it’s been a good harvest.
Brian Holter and Robert Jackson of the KCA offloading herring eggs.
The boat arrives at the dock as the sun begins to break from behind the clouds, and even as it ties up people are waiting, small children on tip-toes, elders smiling in anticipation as the crew lifts the heavy totes from the boat to the dock. The sounds of laughter and celebration fill the air as the crew begins to bag and distribute the harvest, we make sure that the elders get first pick, the kelp being highly prized goes first and the elders grin and smile as we make sure they have what they need.
Children dart in and out among those assembled to snatch little bites here and there from the branches or small pieces of kelp passed to them “slyly” by staff and elders alike. The sun warms us as we share this time together, the community members coming and going as the tides themselves, the staff smiling and making sure that we share as much as possible with those who visit us.
You can feel it in the air, palpable and real, an electric current that passes between the staff and the community, a connection, a bonding developed through this sharing, a tie to the past and to the culture that we’ve continued into the modern age.
Thanks are given as we pass out the last of the harvest, we wash down the dock and the boats and the gear, the community thanks the KCA, and we in turn thank the herring and the ocean that provided for us once more this year.
It’s a good day, the sun is warm, the crew is tired, the community is happy and provided for, we welcome spring and the beginning of the subsistence season.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.