The 2017 Path to Prosperity (P2P) sustainable business competition aims to identify and support innovative Southeast Alaska food businesses. Supporting local food businesses reduces Southeast Alaska’s dependence on imports, strengthens community resiliency, and promotes sustainable use of the region’s natural bounty.
Path To Prosperity is a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Spruce Root, Inc. Spruce Root and TNC are committed to strengthening local food systems by supporting food entrepreneurs from across the region. “We’re excited to try something a little different for the next round and connect with the growing local foods movement in Southeast Alaska,” says P2P competition administrator Paul Hackenmueller. “This year’s competition will provide resources to help local food entrepreneurs incorporate social, economic, and environmental sustainability techniques into their business models.”
Eligible businesses must operate primarily in Southeast Alaska and be involved in the growing, harvesting, processing, aggregation, preparation or distribution of food. “P2P applicants can be existing businesses or start-ups,” said Hackenmueller. “We want to encourage new entrepreneurs to apply, even if they haven’t started their business yet, so the Round 1 application doesn’t require a full business plan. We only ask for a basic description of the business concept.” P2P helps entrepreneurs identify ways to make their businesses profitable, while also having positive social and environmental impacts on their communities.
Twelve applicants will be selected as finalists to advance to Round 2 of the competition and attend P2P’s innovative Business Boot Camp weekend in Juneau. All twelve finalists receive one-on-one mentorship and consulting that they can use to help write their business plans and grow their businesses after they return to their communities. The Boot Camp experience is valuable for all finalists who attend, whether or not they win the competition. “Thanks to P2P, I have a clear vision of where I am headed and a solid business plan that I developed as the roadmap to the future of our company,” said Tina Steffen of Skya’ana Coffee Co. in Klawock, one of two winners of the 2016 competition.
Timeline for 2017 Path To Prosperity Competition
- April 1, 2017 – Application Period Opens
- May 9, 2017 – Webinar
- May 31, 2017 – Applications Due
- July 7, 2017 – Announce Finalists Advancing to Round 2
- September 29 – October 1, 2017 – Boot Camp Weekend in Juneau
- December 3, 2017 – Business Plan Submissions Deadline
- February 2018 –Two Winners Announced
The competition is open to all Southeast Alaska residents. This includes individuals, for-profit businesses and tribal entities.
As a participating member of the “Emerald Edge
” program that is supported by The Nature Conservancy in Washington, British Columbia and southeast Alaska, Community Exchanges are facilitated each year to support shared learning between coastal communities on how common challenges to sustainability are being addressed by people throughout this bioregion.
Bob Christensen: SSP Regional Catalyst for Community Forestry and Fisheries
I participated in an Emerald Edge community exchange to Hoonah along with SSP community catalysts from Kasaan (Carrie Sykes) and Kake (Loretta Gregory), as well as Dawn and her son Shawan Jackson from Kake, Hydaburg High School student Joe Hillaire and Huna Totem and Huna Heritage Foundation employees Joe Jacobson and Sarah Dybdahl. We organized this trip because the folks in Hydaburg, Kasaan and Kake are interested in both the Hoonah Community Forest project happening in Hoonah and the Icy Strait Point tourism destination.
The eight of us converged in Hoonah on July 12 and spent the first half of the day visiting with folks at the Hoonah Indian Association to learn about the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership. This project represents an all-hands, all-lands approach to natural resource management that is currently employing 5 community members to create a comprehensive and consistent inventory of forests, streams and roads in the watersheds that surround Hoonah; including specialized studies on salmon habitat productivity, deer habitat productivity and berry production.
The HNFP project area is approximately 150,000 acres covering all complete watersheds within which Sealaska and Huna Totem lands exist.
The jurisdictional patchwork and forest conditions are similar in most rural Southeast Alaskan communities. The watersheds that surround these communities have been logged very thoroughly and over a relatively short period of time. The logging road systems have become integral to both the subsistence and cash economies of these communities but the costs of maintenance currently far exceed the revenue production now that the first phase of logging is over. The question today for these communities is: Now What? Are there ways to generate revenue that are not currently in operation? Are there important habitat restoration needs that could benefit the local subsistence economies? If there is not enough funding to keep all the roads open, how do we prioritize which ones to invest in for ongoing use? Through the HNFP Community Forest initiative we are tackling these questions with a combination of cutting edge science, community engagement and collaboration for greater overall collective impact.
This photo was taken from the new cruise ship dock at the Icy Strait Point facility in Hoonah.
The second half of the day was led by Joe Jacobson of Huna Totem, the local ANCSA tribal village corporation. Joe works as one of the primary managers of their Icy Strait Point tourism facility, a premiere tourist destination that caters to the cruise ship industry. This facility is sited at an old salmon cannery (1912-1932) that Huna Totem restored and opened to its first ship in 2014. Icy Strait Point, or ISP as it is called locally, is at the heart of an economic growth period for the community that is providing revenue for the village corporation, its shareholders, as well as a number of local businesses that are popping up to take advantage of the seasonal influx of visitors that are brought in through ISP. In 2016, there were approximately 250,000 visitors that came through ISP to this small community of just 800!
The folks from Kake and Kasaan are particularly interested in ISP as a model of cultural and eco-tourism that they would like to replicate, though probably at a much smaller scale. Joe and the folks at Huna Totem were kind enough to participate in this SSP and Emerald Edge shared-learning field trip and share with the folks from other rural communities in Southeast what ISP is, how it operates, what has gone well, what has been challenging, and brainstorm ideas for how these lessons might be applied in their local communities.
One of the funnest outcomes of the ISP tour was “catalyzed” by the high school students that had joined us on this trip. ISP employs quite a few Hoonah High School students and of course Shawan and Joe spotted some that they knew from sports and other regional affairs. Before we knew it, Joe and Shawan had broken away from our group and held a quick meeting with one of their friends that resulted in a complimentary ride down the ISP zip line! Great example of social capital in action! Suffice it to say, we all learned a lot and had a great time doing it!
Next steps include the development of a workforce recruitment plan to help ISP find prospective employees from other villages in Southeast Alaska, exploration of youth programming opportunities that can dovetail with ISP and the HNFP project, and future trips for ISP managers to Kake and Kasaan for ongoing consultation on their interests in developing unique cultural tourism experiences like what is offered in Hoonah.
This is a photo of Shawan Jackson and Conor Reynolds about to launch at the ISP zip line in Hoonah.
And here is most of our group from left to right: Conor, Shawan, Carrie, Loretta and Dawn – flying down the zipline!
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.
As the morning of Sept. 3 broke warm and clear over the village of Kasaan, a small southeast Alaskan village of approximately 50 year-round residents, a sense of excitement and celebration — along with laughter, music, and the sound of carving tools on wood — filled the air. Carver Gitajang (Glenn “Stormy” Hamar) along with apprentice carvers St’igiinii (Harley Holter), Nang K’adangaas (Eric Hamar), and Wooshdeiteitxh (Justin Henricks) were in the carving shed, preparing for the rededication of Náay í’Waans (The Great House), better known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House.
“It (Náay í’Waans) is our history and connects us to our heritage, our ancestors, and means everything to the people and to the village of Kasaan,” said Gitajang.
Prior to the past three years of reconstruction, the longhouse, built in 1880, was subject to insects, adverse weather and vandalism. Gitajang and his crew have replaced rotting and weakened poles, planks, and roofing, carefully restoring Náay í’Waans to its traditional beauty and strength. They’ve used as much of the original longhouse as possible.
As the day progressed, nearly 1,000 visitors began to make their way from Kasaan to Náay í’Waans, a leisurely stroll along a sun dappled trail, to meet canoes from Kasaan, Klawock, Ketchikan, and as far away as Juneau. St’igiinii ran briskly along the trail, calling out greetings to guests as he raced to meet the first of them.
St’igiinii has worked tirelessly on Náay í’Waans. Many who call him nephew or friend have heard his laughter in the carving shed or through the forest. On Sept. 3, however, he was serious when he spoke of what the longhouse means to him. “Náay í’Waans was a beacon of hope to the people of Old Kassan,” he said. (A century ago, many people moved from Old Kassan, on Skowl Arm, to Kasaan for jobs and the school.) “It was built to preserve and protect the Haida culture. And today it still serves as that beacon of hope to this community. It still preserves and protects the Haida culture and connects us to our ancestors.”
Náay í’Waans, The Great House in Kasaan, as seen from the beach. Photo Quinn Aboudara
That morning, a young voice announced the sighting of the first canoes as they rounded the point into the small bay in which Náay í’Waans sits, its main entrance facing the beach. People began to fill the beach as the canoes paddled closer to shore. Both those on water and on shore sang traditional songs as each canoe passed the beach, allowing the standing Chief Son-i-Hat, John McAllister, to recognize them before they gathered off shore and waited to be recognized. (Kóyongxung was the original Chief Son-i-Hat, a wealthy Haida chief and the man who commissioned Náay í’Waans; he died in 1912.)
Standing Chief Son-i-Hat’s voice sounded across the water as he identified each of the canoes and granted them permission to land upon the shore before Náay í’Waans. Those on land sang them in, and St’igiinii waded into the water to help the crews disembark and join those gathered on the gravelly beach. People sang songs of celebration and welcome as they walked the canoes up the shore with the rising tide; guests and locals filled the area around Náay í’Waans. As the grand entrance began, dance groups from Hydaburg, Klawock, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), circled the longhouse, singing and dancing as they entered. Their voices and drums filled the air and drifted through the trees.
Standing Chief Son-i-Hat, John McAllister, welcomes and grants permission to canoes to land on the beach before Naay i’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Canoers from Juneau passthe shore to be recognized before requesting permission to land on the beach before Náay í’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Haida elder from Kasaan Julie Coburn gave opening prayers and recognition to Taslaanas, the bear clan of Kasaan. Then Anthony “Tony” Christiansen, mayor of Hydaburg, and Chalyee Éesh (Richard Peterson), President of Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, who is from Kasaan, took over the duties of announcing the speakers for the event.
Speakers included Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot, Kavilco Incorporated president Louis Jones Sr., Organized Village of Kasaan tribal president Ronald Leighton, City of Kasaan mayor Della Coburn, Rasmuson Foundation representative Jason Smart, Skidegate Traditional Chief Russ Jones, and Chief Son-i-Hat descendant Clinton Cook Jr.
As the speeches ended guests began to make their way back toward Kasaan, where an evening of celebration awaited before the recently opened Totem Trail Café. Kasaan community members and volunteers had been preparing throughout the day, cooking and setting up seating for their guests. They filled long tables with traditional foods: salmon, halibut, venison, and more, along with endless pots of hot coffee and strong tea.
Lt. Governor Byron Mallot speaks before Naay i’Waans. Also standing, to the right, is Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) President Richard Peterson (Chalyee Éesh), who is from Kasaan. Photo Quinn Aboudara
As dance groups from around Southeast Alaska and Haida Gwaii sang and danced, gifts of carved panels, woven cedar hats, headdresses, and regalia were given to honored guests while gifts of t-shirts, jams, honey, jarred salmon, jewelry, posters, clothing, and many other items were given in thanks to all that attended.
And as the sun set on Náay í’Waans and the village of Kasaan, the carvers had been honored, respect had been given to all who had made this historic event possible and Náay í’Waans, The Great House, often known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House stood, restored, in the brilliant glow of the setting sun, a continued beacon of hope for the preservation and protection of the Haida culture and a testament of strength and unity.
The traditional Haida longhouse restoration project was made possible through the partnership of the Organized Village of Kasaan (OVK), Kavilco Non-Profit, and the Kasaan Haida Heritage Foundation. The efforts were also aided through funding from the Rasmuson Foundation as well as donations of timber from Sealaska Corporation, The U.S. Forest Service, and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
Whale house carvers dance before guests at the Discovery Center/Totem Trail Café in Kasaan during the rededication of Naay i’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
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.
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.