Growing Sunday dinner in rural Alaska: Ted Eliot on Gardening

Written and published with Alaska’s Capital City Weekly

The days are getting shorter and full of rain. Many Southeast Alaskans are dreading the impending seasonal shift. In Hoonah however, one 12-old boy is pretty excited. Standing over his garden, Ted Elliot pops another snap pea into his mouth.

“The most exciting thing is the end of fall when you get to harvest all your stuff and have a good green meal,” Ted said.

Tucked into the center of town behind the Fishermen’s Daughter, a local restaurant shaped like a boat, sits a grid of raised garden beds called the Hoonah Healing Community Garden. These beds are free for community members to use. Exploding out of the bed that Ted has cared for over the past two years stands impressive snap pea bushes laden with pods. This season, Ted has been bringing fresh produce home to feed his family. His mother, Elleana Elliot, is beaming about it.

“I made jojos the other day from his potatoes! I invited his grandpa down and fed the whole house. We have a family dinner gathering every Sunday and different houses come down and its tradition. Ted has been bringing fresh greens to those Sunday dinners,” Elleana said with excitement.

Located on Chichagof Island, Hoonah is an isolated Tlingit community that is home to roughly 750 year round residents. Like all Southeast Alaskan communities, the great majority of store-bought food travels at a snail’s pace from the lower 48 by barge. Serving quality, fresh produce for family dinner is both challenging and expensive. Residents who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, however, see this challenge as an opportunity to learn how to grow more locally.

“At first it wasn’t like this, the way we ate. It was more store bought carrots, more store bought potatoes, store bought snap peas which my mom don’t like that much,” Ted explained. “With gardening, we save a little bit of money and it’s tastier.”

And Ted’s green thumb isn’t just caring for one single raised bed.

“This is Moby,” Ted said as he marched into a small, bright, wooden structure beside the community garden. “Moby is a great and wonderful greenhouse on wheels.”

Moby the Mobile Greenhouse is a project by the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to kickstart greenhouse growing in rural Alaska. The structure was designed by students at the University of Alaska Southeast and built using local lumber by Juneau-Douglas High students. Moby comes equipped with raised beds and classroom curriculum.

When Moby first came to town in April, Hoonah teacher Melissa Thaalesen used the greenhouse as a tool to teach nutrition and healthy eating. Moby also provided starts for 12 community members looking to jumpstart garden growing. With the help of those seedlings, growers in the Healing Garden celebrated the lushest and most successful growing year since the community beds were raised in 2012. When school ended, Hoonah moved Moby to the Community Garden where volunteers, like Ted and his mother Elleana, began caring for it.

“It’s been a good food provider for us,” Ted said as he showed off chard, kale, peas, green beans, tomatoes and more. “It’s solar powered too! Not many greenhouses are solar powered which really saves on electricity and what not.”

A solar panel installed on the roof powers a fan that helps circulate air and regulate the temperature.

Below the solar panel and the growing space is another unique characteristic of Moby: wheels. Moby is made to move. Like many residents of Hoonah and Southeast, Moby gets a ticket on the Alaska Marine Highway System and can travel to different rural communities. Last year, Moby spent the growing season in Kake. This year, Moby paid Hoonah a visit. Next spring, Moby will begin its journey to a third community.

“I’m going to be sad when Moby moves to a new community but I’m excited that someone will go through the same experience I got to go through,” Ted said.

Where will Moby go? Applications will open in late October and any Southeast Alaskan community can apply. Teachers, individual schools, school districts and community organizations are eligible.

Ted’s advice for the next cohort of gardeners who get to fill Moby with greens:

“Be nice to Moby and Moby will be nice to you. If you weed its gardens it will give you whatever you planted. And if you don’t, you don’t get what you really want or maybe you get half as big as what you were thinking.”

Despite its transitory lifestyle, the impacts Moby leaves behind appear lasting in Hoonah. “It’s almost like Moby helped me,” Ted said. “My garden last year wasn’t that good. It helped me learn that daily weeding would lead to success.”

Community wide, Moby has helped seed momentum for a more permanent greenhouse project. Hoonah Indian Association and the City of Hoonah teamed up to initiate a feasibility study analyzing the economic viability of a district biomass heatloop. This proposed heatloop would connect and heat five downtown buildings with renewable energy. Community volunteers are itching to tether a greenhouse structure into that loop.

For now, as long as there are greens to gather in Moby or his raised bed, Ted will keep sharing.

“He will come home with a handful of snap peas every day and we put them in salads. He comes home all muddy and it’s nice to see him getting dirty again,” Elleana said.

Ted is currently deliberating how he will plant his garden next year. He’s considering focusing on carrots and potatoes. Of course, he plans to keep space for his famous snap peas.

“When he comes home, he tells me all about his snap peas and he has pride in his eyes. He’s learning, you know? He is getting involved and it’s pretty cool. We are very impressed and proud of him,” Elleana said.

 

Learn more about Moby the Mobile Greenhouse by clicking here!

 

Yakutat Culture Camp

Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Salmon Life

From sea to summit, Yakutat’s horizon boasts the tallest, most rapidly ascending mountain on Earth. It is here, below Mt. Saint Elias (Was’eitushaa), where the Yakutat Tlingit (Yaakwdáat) have carved their home.On the banks of the S’itak River, Elora fearlessly admires the beating heart of a freshly killed sockeye salmon.

Elora’s Tlingit name is Sei S’oox’, and she belongs to the Teikweidí clan. Her people settled in Yakutat centuries ago. Today, she is salmon (Xaat) fishing.

“When I was a little girl, I would make mom crazy trying to run into the river to swim with the salmon,” she asserts, her eyes transfixed on the heart as it dances its final rhythm into her palm. “I ate a salmon heart once because sister dared me to.” Gasps and giggles erupt across the plywood processing table. Boys and girls are learning how to properly fillet sockeye salmon they plucked moments earlier from turquoise set nets.

The group is participating in Yakutat’s Culture Camp (Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká). This overnight camp is a place where kids are given space to be their honest selves.

“Culture Camp strengthens us as a native community, and it shows kids a lot of the skills they need to just feel proud of who they are,” says Gloria Wolfe. Gloria’s Tlingit name is X’aal Eex’ Tláa, and she belongs to the Wooshkeetaan clan. She is the Cultural Heritage Coordinator with Yakutat Tlingit Tribe.  “A lot of native folks here feel lost in their identity. It can lead to things like suicide or not really knowing how to combat bullying because they just don’t have a strong base.” Across society, people are increasingly estranged from their heritage, the land, and the local resources that feed their families. Culture Camp is changing that for people with ancestral ties to the Yakutat area.

Whether in the art of salmon filleting, weaving or pulling oars through the S’​itak River, the children are naturals and their movements instinctual.

“We had one girl who came here from a difficult background who lives in a city separated from all of this,” Wolfe says as she opens her arms to embrace the scene. Siblings process salmon, and kids chase each other with fistfuls of mud, teeter on giant driftwood castles, or wade in the silty river. “What that girl told us was very impactful,” Wolfe continues. “She told us that ‘During this camp, I realized why I am the way that I am. I have never felt like I fit in anywhere before, and now I know why I feel the way I feel, why I do things the way I do. I never knew that I belonged to a people before.’” Wolfe smiles, her son tugging on her waistband. “It was emotional for her to have that connection. That is what we are hoping for with this camp, to ground kids and let them be healthy being who they are.”

Forty kids aged seven through seventeen are participating in this year’s camp. Activities include salmon and seal processing, Tlingit language classes, canoe paddling, form-line painting, and cedar bark weaving. The goal is to encourage campers to respect themselves, the natural environment, and the traditional tribal values and clan systems of the Yakutat Tlingit.

“Every single kid wants to try and cut fish and smoke the fish. There is 100 percent participation. Same with seal, you would think blood and guts would freak them out, but they can’t wait for their turn. There are these impulses and these instincts that show up out of nowhere, and their amazing fish cutting abilities just come out,” says Wolfe.

Whether in the art of salmon filleting, weaving, or pulling oars through the S’itak River, the children are naturals and their movements instinctual.

“Culture Camp strengthens all of us, and it strengthens kids who may be fishermen and hunters. They can be one of the top dogs here and share those skills, whereas in other scenarios, they may not feel like a leader. Here, they can be shining stars,” says Wolfe.

Culture Camp Reborn

The Yakutat people have not always celebrated Culture Camp beside the S’itak. In addition to carving their homeland into one of the most dynamic landscapes on Earth, the Yakutat Tlingit have overcome myriad social challenges in their journey. Under an increasing concern for Japanese attacks during WWII, the US military scrambled for a foothold to defend the Aleutian Islands. One of the communities they looked to was Yakutat. At its peak, 15-20,000 troops were stationed in this isolated Alaskan village, which is now home to roughly 600 people. Military occupation brought dramatic changes in lifestyle for the Tlingit and new technologies, and it increased pressure on natural resources. Tlingits were denied access to many traditional fishing grounds, and important berry sites were replaced by roads and regulations.

“After the war, land was redistributed and the Yakutat Kwann (the local Native Corporation) acquired the Ankhouw area,” explains Wolfe. “We were thrilled to return back to where we traditionally harvested, and we celebrated and had a Culture Camp on that land for many, many years until we came to find that there was tons of contamination left on-site: asbestos, agent orange, unexploded bombs, quonset huts, a huge oil tank that has been leaking ever since.”  The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe ended Culture Camp abruptly in 1996.

“Those days at Culture Camp were the best times of my life, seriously,” says Wolfe. Later returning to Yakutat after years of schooling, Gloria Wolfe became the Cultural Heritage Coordinator and went to work. With the help of countless volunteers, financial risk-taking, and hours of grant writing, the Yakutat Tribe was able to secure a permit for new lands from the United States Forest Service and begin building camp. Yakutat’s Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká was reborn in 2015. “It was a truly collaborative effort,” adds Gloria.

Salmon and Strength

The sun starts its slow summer tilt toward the horizon, illuminating the children’s faces as they race through the wildflowers with makeshift bows and arrows. In the smokehouse, seal fat oozes from purple flesh beside carefully hung strips of dry salmon. Students focus intently on form-line as they paint a new house front for their camp. Others practice weaving by dipping strips of red cedar into water for their regalia. One baby collapses in the mud with shrieks of joy. Tlingit is spoken casually across generations.

In the cookhouse, volunteers prepare dinner. Unsurprisingly, the food that sustains this sacred scene is fresh sockeye salmon. Ted Valle, Naatsk’i.éesh of the Galyáx Kaagwaantaan clan, is a community elder. He prepares his famous “supersoup” for bustling campers. He stirs seal fat, ribbon seaweed, salmon roe, salmon, and onions into a cauldron. The savory aroma crawls across Culture Camp.

“Here, steak is the rich man’s food and salmon, the poor man’s food,” Wolfe laughs. “Salmon is a major staple, and we literally eat it twice a day for three to four months out of the year. Unfortunately, kids, we are eating king salmon again for dinner,” she mocks.

Coho, King, Dog, Sockeye, and Pink salmon all pulse through the braided rivers and streams that surround Yakutat. In town, access to fresh healthy food and affordable protein is a challenge. Yakutat is not alone in its pursuit for community health. Across the state, 65 percent of Alaskans are either overweight or obese (dhss.alaska.gov). Access to salmon and the sharing of recipes, processing skills, and preservation is not only integral for cultural wellbeing in rural Alaska, but it is essential for community health.

“Not all of these kids come from healthy homes, and this is a healthy environment to talk about things. They get to be safe here, are well fed, and they have a place to laugh and have fun. We don’t serve sugary drinks here, and the kids don’t ask for them. The whole theme of this camp this year is ‘What makes me healthy?’ Part of that is having a cultural identity and part of that is eating your mother’s food.”

Gloria and a group of kids are running fingers across a blanket of black seaweed, carefully separating the pieces to dry.

“These recipes, these foods have been passed down to you, and your body craves it, but sometimes you don’t even realize what exactly you are craving. It just feels like you need carbs or energy,” she says with a laugh. “But actually, what you need is seaweed! Or sockeye!”

Nearby on sheets of cardboard, Kimberly Buller, Kuwúx, empties buckets of fresh salmon roe that the kids harvested this morning.  She and her sons begin to prepare the roe for the smokehouse. “My son told me that all he wants for his birthday is fish eggs,” she says and then laughs. Clearly, the smallest generation at Culture Camp has the appetite to herald family traditions long into the future. He plunges his chubby fingers into the glowing orbs, pounding fistful after fistful past his toothy grin.

This site, these rivers, these practices, these foods, and these ceremonies are sacred. Organizing this camp has demanded resilience and community champions in the face of asbestos, loss, and hardship. The true champions, however, are the kids themselves.

“Even though we eat salmon all the time, those skills are not necessarily passing down. Some families here make the best dry fish, and their grandkids have no idea how to make it. That generational separation is hard to navigate. But, when the kids are here, their peers provide the positive influence that brings more of their peers to the table. ‘Hey, this is what I know how to do, and I’m pretty cute, and I’m going to fillet this fish faster than you!’” Wolfe teases.

Across the camp, supersoup is served. “I could wrestle a bear after this,” Ted whispers after taking his first sip. Tlingit words are practiced, and elders share stories of great migrations and the Little Ice Age. Beside a blazing driftwood fire, counselors remix old songs with fresh beats. With salmon in their bellies, their smokehouses, and their streams, Yakutat’s Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká closes another day beside the swelling S’itak.

_________

Culture Camp is a cultural leadership resource for Alaska Native youth. Elders believe that Tlingit values, worldviews, and a sense of morality are embedded within their culture. It is important to the entire community of Yakutat that their children become culture bearers, Tlingit language speakers, and ambassadors. Culture Camp focuses on the health of the mind, body, environment, and community.

Written and published with Salmon Life. 

Exploring Air Source Heat Pumps

Prince of Wales residents were invited to attend an Air Source Heat Pump Expo on this spring at the Craig High School. The Expo featured guest speaker Dana Fischer from Efficiency Maine, and included mechanical contractors, financial institutions, and experts statewide through a webinar.

The event was organized because the micro-grid that supplies POW residents with electricity will soon have more hydro power electricity on-line, than the island currently demands. Today most of POW residents use diesel oil to heat buildings; the new hydro plant may provide a unique opportunity for residents to convert to a more efficient and sustainable heating option.

What are Air Source Heat Pumps? Air source heat pumps (ASHP) use electricity to circulate air through a heat pump, this is the same technology used in your refrigerator, but in reverse. The heat pump extracts heat from the air outside and transfers it into the building. Even in cold climates, outdoor air contains heat. The efficiency of a heat pump will change with the temperature outside. High performance ASHP models have been shown to perform at, and below, 00F.

In southeast Alaska’s mild climate, heat pumps can have a coefficient of efficiency (COE) that surpasses other heating technologies. For example, a COE of 2 means that for every one unit of energy which goes into the heat pump system, two units of energy are produced. It is typical for a heat pump unit to deliver four units of heat for every unit of electricity at 50°F, but only deliver two units of heat for every unit of electricity at a temperature of zero.  However, a COE of two is still much better than the COE for heating fuel (COE of 0.85), or electric space heaters (COE of 1), neither of which change depending on temperature.

Electric Rates and Conversion to an ASHP: Hiilangaay Hydropower is expected to come online in 2018. The 5-megawatt hydropower project near Hydaburg will eliminate the need for diesel powered electric generation (except during times of maintenance), and result in a surplus of clean energy available for future growth on the island. Growth in electric demand will actually result in utility fixed costs being spread over a larger sales base, resulting in downward pressure on rates.

Prince of Wales residential customers currently pay $0.25 per kWh, $0.23 per kWh with Power Cost Equalization (PCE). Heat pump use and the related cost will vary by household circumstances. AP&T strongly encourages customers to do their own research and analysis based on the cost of heating fuel, electricity, heating habits, and the age/ efficiency of the old heating system.  

It can be challenging for consumers to predict the cost comparison over time, because today’s fuel and electric prices are unlikely to be the same as tomorrows. One advantage offered by ASHPs on Prince of Wales Island is that they provide more stable, predictable pricing due to the fact that they use locally available hydropower. The price of hydropower is relatively flat, and is not susceptible to global events which impact the supply and price of oil.

Homeowners are encouraged to maintain a back up heat system for very cold temperatures. This allows consumers to use fuel if diesel prices temporarily fall, allowing residents to take advantage of temporary price swings. Some consumers also choose to keep wood stoves or propane heaters as supplemental heat sources.

The Cold Climate Housing Research Center has done a lot of research on the effectiveness of ASHP’s in Alaska, and specifically in SE Alaska. For more information, including contact information for mechanical installers and financial institutions, visit AP&T.  To request an Air Source Heat Pump financial calculator, email s.kilcoyne@realaska.org

 

 

 

Workforce development programs: Investing in Southeast Alaska’s Future

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.

TRAYLS program creates job experience for rural Southeast Alaska youth

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.

Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly

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!”

Tlingit and Haida Potatoes: Eyes into a Unique History

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.

Maria’s Tlingit

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.

Julie’s Kasaan

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.

 

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