How to Gill a Girl: Salmon Fishing in Hydaburg

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.


Beating the Odds: Farmers Break New Ground in Southeast Alaska

Bobbi Daniels is responding to the many challenges that her rural Alaskan community faces with creativity and innovation. Here, she prepares to feed food waste from the local grocery store and spent brewery grains from the local brewery to pigs and poultry.

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.

Dumpster Diving with Bobbi Daniels: The Sawmill Farm

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

Alaska pays a heavy price to barge waste out of the state and a heavy price to barge meat in. Bobbi Daniels responded to this broken system with innovation. She feeds outcast foodwaste to pigs and poultry and sells fresh meat locally.

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.

“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: Farragut Farm

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.

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. Photo by Matt Kern

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.

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. Photo by Matt Kern.

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.

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.”

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. Photo by Matt Kern

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.


Living and Breathing Art with Sgwaayaans Young

For many, art is defined as a pretty landscape painting interpreted by a single artist using store-bought materials. The final product is sold to an admirer, tossed up on a wall and enjoyed for a generation before ending up discarded at the Salvation Army.

Sgwaayaans (TJ) Young is not in that business. As a Haida carver who works predominately on community-based projects, his artwork is dynamic and consuming. His process pulls together a collective vision, a tested history and a proud future. He uses materials borrowed from the landscape and shapes them with tools hand-made from trees. Though sometimes, he proudly uses chainsaws (more on that later). His work encourages collaboration between teams of artists and depends on the support and love of a community at every step in the process. The final pieces live and breathe and eventually, like the best of us, they return to the earth and rot.

I first met Young in his hometown of Hydaburg. In the summer of 2015, he returned home for the annual Culture Camp, where he was quickly locked up in the carving shed and put to work helping to complete two totem poles to be risen later that week. Light crept out through the boards of the shed until the wee hours of the morning.

The night before the raising, I joined community members and visiting dance groups in the shed. To the beating of drums, singing, dancing and laughter, friends took turns helping the carvers layer on paint and varnish late into the night. Everyone crossed their fingers that the paint would dry before men, women and children hoisted the eagle and raven pole to attention the following afternoon. The energy not only left my head, heart and body pounding to a powerful beat, the experience redefined the role of art and culture for me.

Needless to say, I was excited to hear that Young was joining a talented crew of artists on a local canoe project in the Sitka Historic Park. For more on that project, please check out the CCW’s story here:

After months of sheepishly admiring their handiwork, I built up the courage to finally ask Young on a pizza date to discuss in more depth his art, process and aspirations.

BG: How did you find yourself in this career?

TY: We grew up carving a little bit but it wasn’t in school past grade seven so it just kind of tapered off for most people. What happened with us was that our mother got my brother (Joe Young) a tool roll with some carving tools and I think I got jealous and she ended up getting me one, too. It was pretty expensive back then but we were both excited about our tool roll. We were always fascinated by my grandpa Claude Morrison, too. He used to make halibut hooks, functional ones that people would actually use.

Then, a group of us made a model-sized long house about 3 feet by about 2.5 feet. We used a little diagram sketch in one of the old books and got $600 for the longhouse. That was a lot of money to us as kids back then as sophomores in high school. Our superintendent bought it and that was one of those ‘Aha’ moments: We could get paid to do this and make a living doing art.

BG: How has the scope of your work changed since that first model longhouse?

TY: So, my grandma, Gladys Morrison, died in ’97 and the following year my brother Joe and I decided to carve a little totem pole for her. It’s right in front of her house still and I remember thinking how big of a project it was despite it being only 7-feet tall. We had our tool rolls and two little adzes and we were fishing in the meantime and it just seemed like we were never going to finish it. It was a gift, it had my grandma’s crest on it, a beaver with an eagle on the tail and a watchman on top to represent my grandfather looking out at the ocean.

So, we had a little totem raising and it was nice weather and it went up in just a second because it was so small, ha! It seems like a small project now but it was a big project to us and to a lot of people because what it meant was big. My grandpa was real proud of it. His generation was more apt to let that way of life go, to move on, so it brought a twinkle to his eye to watch us carve.

We were getting little jobs here and there, commissioned poles on Prince of Wales and the poles were getting bigger and bigger and we were getting more comfortable as we went. It wasn’t until 2006 that my brother and I actually got our first big job, a 40-foot pole here in Sitka. I remember coming in on the ferry and we were getting docked up and we looked at each other, my brother and I, and we were like: What are we doing? We’ve never even done (something) like this before! We were anxious.

In the meantime, we have done some poles for galleries in Anchorage, a couple commissions down in Texas and Washington, more on Prince of Wales and I am pretty excited about this canoe I am helping work on. I hope we jump on another one in the next few years so we can get real familiar with it.

BG: What do you like most about this work?

TJ: I couldn’t see myself doing anything else beside this. I’ve worked other labor jobs but this is a real privilege. I learn something new every day and it’s my way of keeping in touch with who we were as a people. You learn more about who you are by doing this kind of work. You get to step into your ancestors’ shoes and you are constantly studying these old pieces and reflecting on what they were going through at that time, through the art.

They were able to reflect their everyday lifestyle and values through their work and I want to get to a point where my art can more accurately reflect what I was going through instead of trying to cater for a market. I want to get to the point where I can reflect through my work how I see the world and how I interpret not only who we were but who we are (and) who I am now.

BG: How do you define a successful community project?

TY: I guess just involving as many people as you can. It doesn’t take 10 people to pick up a pole, it’s 100 people. The kid at the end who isn’t really pulling hard but he has his hand on the rope and in his mind he thinks he helped out, it’s all about that feeling, that sense of belonging.

And, it’s sometimes hard to get that feeling when you grow up in some of these communities where there are struggles. To feel like you belong, that’s why we need to get back into our language and our culture. All of a sudden you are one of a kind, you speak a language that a hundred people speak at the most in the world. It’s a commitment. You start getting into language and like one of my teachers Robert Davidson told me, you have to look back to look forward sometimes.

BG: What is the most frustrating reaction to your work?

TY: When we get called out during carving for using modern tools, like small chainsaws on the canoe project. Things changed pretty quickly for us with European contact and survival is always based on whether you can adapt or not. So we get our balls broken about using modern tools nowadays but we don’t get personal with it. They aren’t being personal, more ignorant than anything. One tourist the other day said that we were cheating our ancestors. Well, no, your ancestors probably cheated our ancestors, ha. But, we have a good humor and I think that’s one thing that’s gotten us through a lot of what has happened in the past. You can’t walk around mad, that’s not what life is about. Life is too short.

BG: What is the most rewarding reaction?

TY: When the whole village cheers when we put that pole up. There’s nothing like it. You can score a game winning basket in a tournament and it’s maybe a bit like that. Also, somebody dancing in one of your masks or pieces in a dance group is a pretty cool feeling.

And that is what they were meant for, what they were needed for, to be used and not hung up on a wall and not created for just money. That is why a lot of people put more love into this type of artwork because they know certain people will be using it and thousands of people might see it. So I think that seeing your work being used is the best feeling. And yes, it will be a good feeling when we get this canoe in the water and people jump in, so long as it doesn’t sink!

BG: Do you have any advice for aspiring carvers and artists?

TY: There’s this quote I like, “I’m aware that my time is near because I start to see my idols as peers.” I forgot who said it, but what it means is that if you are passionate enough about something then you are going to gravitate toward somebody who can help you get to be where you need to be. You might need to be a little bold, you might need to ask questions, but if you are passionate enough about what you do, find someone who can mentor and help you get to the next level and from there you will find something else. So be courageous, you can’t get what you don’t ask for.

Have balance. There is this story from Haida Gwaii where the Haida were disrespecting the hooligan and they went away and we had to get the hooligan from the mainland. They were overfished or something and they never came back and it was a tough lesson to learn at the time. The lesson was to have a strong sense of balance. And that’s important with everything. There’s a balance in life, with marriage, with kids and with art. The best artists have a good balance, and balanced proportions and they were sought after more. That’s why eagles marry ravens and vice versa and potlatches were about balance, about attaining wealth for five years or 10 years just to give it all away. It’s just a beautiful way of going through life and for creating good art.

And lastly, keep learning. I love what I do because it’s a learning process. No matter the project, I’m still learning. I’m 35 and I have a lot to learn. So stay open to learning, be courageous, be bold and ask questions. Have balance in life and in art.

From Salvage to Song

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With Folkfest happening this week, Southeast Alaskans will be swinging, dancing and celebrating the changing seasons. If you are lucky enough to attend, keep your ears on the mandolins, acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments. The woods for many of these instruments begin their lives as the ancient giants of our beloved forest.

Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW), co-owned by Brent and Annette Cole, is the largest producer of soundboards in the state. Soundboards are the wood responsible for producing the iconic sounds of many music instruments. In 2014, I visited with Brent and Annette Cole and toured their operation near Craig on Prince of Wales Island. In the spirit of Folkfest, I called up the couple to hear about business and learn more about the soundboards they produce from tonewood on the Tongass National Forest.

Brent founded ASW in 1995 as a family-operated business with a single saw in hand. Annette emphasized the business’ humble and family oriented beginnings.

“The kids were really young and they would go out with backpacks with Brent and pack a wood block, whatever they could handle in their backpack, to take home,” she said.

When I visited in 2014, the family was churning out soundboards from a series of bucolic wood sheds caked in sawdust and jam-packed with wood in all directions. As of May last year, Alaska Specialty Woods grew to include a shiny new facility where processing, drying and storing can all happen under one roof. If they were operating at 100 percent, Brent estimates the family business could produce close to ten thousand soundboards a month. Currently, they are operating at about 20 percent due to a slump in demand for mid-range guitars.

“We produce for all guitar types, all pianos, and then things like double basses, bouzoukis, ouds, harps, mandolins and others,” he said. Sales of guitar tops may be down from previous years, but other instrument sales are on the upswing. “We have seen things pick up with custom builders of ukuleles lately. Traditionally, ukuleles have used back, sides and top wood made of the same wood, and now they migrated more to using hard woods for the back and sides, like guitars, but have gone to a softwood for the soundboard, and people are liking the sound an awful lot, and they are selling,” he said.

So what makes a good sound board? Sitka spruce is the Adonis of tonewood, which is why Brent’s products are coveted by everyone from big names like Gibson to independent instrument crafters from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and other places as well.

“The whole music world comes here for our spruce. Because of our geography, this is heaven for Sitka spruce, which is the premier tonewood in the world right now because of its availability and because of its tight rings, stiffness, weight ratio and its fine texture due to it being old-growth. There is nowhere else in the world that produces this type of timber anymore, and when the old growth is gone, we won’t have it either,” Brent said.

Brent and Annette are proud stewards for the sustainable management of our old-growth forests. The family salvages 100 percent of the wood it uses to produce soundboards from existing dead trees. The Coles search the forest for appropriate timber and apply for the necessary sale with the US Forest Service. The Forest Service then refers to a long list of requirements before administering the sale. Brent and Annette sometimes even source wood from logs used on abandoned float houses or old logging bridges. This mantra of salvage, reuse and waste reduction is pivotal to Brent in both his business and personal life.

“All through my life as a young adult and an adult, I have focused on utilization and not letting stuff go to waste — not our resources, not our groceries, not leaving the lights on — as best as I can. As far as the timber acquisitions and how it relates, it goes back to conserving and responsible use. I know this timber resource, though it is renewable, the particular materials necessary for producing soundboards is not renewable in that it takes an old-growth habitat to produce what we have for the fine texture. This salvage that we do, is it wasteful if it is part of the environment? I don’t know that that wood is going to ‘waste’ if left in the forest. But, I like to see it get used and if it’s used to put groceries on a family’s table then, I think that’s a good thing.”

Once an ancient spruce is adopted by the Coles, very little goes to waste. Every possible space on their property is crammed with boards and the small offcuts are used to make deer calls or even jewelry. One tree in particular is being coveted by Alaska Specialty Woods, with not a single inch unused: when excavating their property to build the new facility, Brent stumbled on an old spruce buried twenty feet under the earth during a landslide.

“We thought this was waste wood at first. But once exposed to the air, the blonde wood began to change to a brilliant blue gray,” he said. Intrigued, they sent a sample off to be carbon dated. “It’s 2800 years old, plus or minus thirty years,” Annette said. The tonewood is sold on their website under the “Ancient Sitka Line.” “There’s a lot of history recorded in our boards. Every one of those growth lines is a year, and we aren’t going to use anything less than a 300-year-old tree to get a sound board out of,” Brent said.

So how likely is it that the guitars you hear during Folkfest have a bit of Southeast in their structure? I asked Brent to estimate what percentage of string instruments use Sitka Spruce from the Southeast.

“For the world market of instruments, boy, when we start getting into bowed instruments then it’s a different story because violins and viola and cellos use European spruce from Italy and Switzerland and Germany. But, in the acoustic market I would say the Sitka Spruce makes up at least 70 or 80 percent of the world market of acoustic soundboard production, including pianos. Maybe even 90 percent; it’s just huge.”

To learn more about Alaska Specialty Woods check out

Kake Documents Oral Histories: High School Juniors Interview Village Elders for StoryCorp

Nestled in Keku Strait on Kupreanof Island is the Tlingit village of Kake. Around 600 people are lucky enough to call this community home. With its inspiring landscape, unique history and flourishing culture, many of the people who live here have interesting life stories to tell. In late autumn last year, equipped with iPhones, guiding questions, and a bit of curiosity, six inquisitive students from Kake’s high school set out to explore and share some of those stories.

These students participated in a program coordinated through StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 that, according to its website, “has given more than 100,000 Americans the chance to record interviews about their lives, pass wisdom from one generation to the next, and leave a legacy for the future.” The organization shares interview excerpts during weekly National Public Radio broadcasts and on digital platforms.

In Kake, Jordana Grant integrated a StoryCorps curriculum into her 11th grade advanced composition English class. Students were taught how to conduct interviews and were shown how to use a smartphone recording application developed by StoryCorps. Six students interviewed community members on diverse topics ranging from Tlingit culture to life in the military. As part of this program, these oral histories were uploaded to the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, where historians and the general public can access them. The full audio stories are also available on the StoryCorps website and can be listened to at

If you or your school are interested in replicating a similar project and would like to access the free smartphone application and classroom curricula, visit

The following are short excerpts from two student interviews.

Riley Davis and Dwayne Davies

Dwayne Davies is a retired Kake teacher who dedicated 20 years to the school system as a social studies teacher and athletics coach. The school’s gym is named in his honor. High School junior Riley Davis interviewed Davies about a life journey that led him from cleaning the ferry terminal in Wrangell to becoming a teacher and coach in Kake.

RD: Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and what you were like as a child?

DD: I grew up in Wrangell, and Wrangell was actually twice as big as it is now, which is really interesting. Wrangell had two saw mills, logging camps around and, fishing was a boom. I can remember gillnetters and other fishing boats tying up 7-10 boats in a line because there were so many of them! My folks and that town were industrious. You were expected to work, you were expected to work hard, but you were expected to do a good job and you didn’t complain about it.

I remember my mom working in the fish canneries and the shrimp canneries and going to visit her as a kid and dad on the shrimp boat and the gillnet boat and doing that as a kid. But as I got older, they changed their professions. My dad became the ferry terminal operator and the bookkeeper at the hotel, and my mom ran the hotel and I always helped them… I feel like I was spoiled in the extent that I had a great childhood, great parents who loved me but expected me to work and taught me, and I just have great memories. I feel lucky for all of that.

RD: Can you tell me about a historic event that had an impact on your life?

DD: I’m too young for anything to be historic! That is a tough question. Well, I grew up at that time (Vietnam War) and I was in Airforce ROTC and passed the officers exam and envisioned myself enlisting and going into the medical field at that time. The crucial historic event that changed all that was when they started bombing in Vietnam, which created then less people being drafted and enlisting, and my time when I was Airforce ROTC was cut in half and the only people they really kept were pilots that were juniors and seniors in college and the rest of us who were younger were basically phased out of the program, nicely put, and that hurt a lot. I felt I was denied because I wanted to serve my country and I wanted to go through and at the same time I wanted an education and I had a family to support.

The next thing that affected me too was also the reason I ended up in Kake. I was in two different schools that were closed down by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that was caused by the Molly Hootch case in which villages were allowed to build their own schools. So up until that time, boarding schools were quite big in Alaska and Wrangell had the junior high school and Mount Edgecumbe had the high school… In January 1975, I took the job at the Wrangell Institute because I didn’t believe it would close down. But that school did close down in May. From there, I transferred to Mount Edgecumbe and I taught there and I coached cross country, wrestling one year, girls basketball and boys and girls track and field, and taught all the physical science and health. That was going to be my life, I loved it. I hardly ever went to Sitka, I lived right at Mount Edgecumbe and was involved all the time and then eight years later, they shut down too and that was a major impact on my life. Here was the second school that closed under me.

I got on the ferry and sent my application to all the schools in the Southeast. Being born and raised in Wrangell I wanted to stay in Southeast Alaska, and we stopped in Kake and we stayed at the New Town Inn and we weren’t very well off. We would go to the store and get groceries and go out to portage out here and build a fire and picnic and we barely made it by; we didn’t have a lot of money. But luckily there was one job and they basically had created it and I got the job and about two months later my wife got a job and so we ended up here and that was 32 years ago!

RD: What makes Kake Unique?

DD: I think what makes Kake unique is that in the hardest of times and in crises, the people come out of the woodwork. The people absolutely come out and show love, care and concern when you need it. They are there if you are doing good things and helping, they will back you and sometimes the people who have the least in this town give the most, and that is humbling. I think if other people could stand back in this world and see how the people in this town step forward who don’t have a lot and still do so much, I think we’d all be better off. So this town is really great that way.

Shaelene Moler and Ruth Demmert

For this project, high school junior Shaelene Moler interviewed Ruth Demmert. Demmert is her Tlingit language teacher and is an important culture bearer in the community of Kake. They discuss how the community has changed in Ruth’s life and what important life lessons she has picked up during a lifetime of learning. This is an excerpt.

SM: How would you describe the community of Kake to someone who has never been here?

RD: Well, it’s small, it’s got about maybe 500 people, maybe less. We have a high school and grade school and we are mostly a culturally-raised community here. In our community we have a lot of Tlingit with other tribes among us like the Haidas and Tshimshams, and lots of intermarriages. You won’t find malls here but we are comfortable with how we live. We do a lot of our hunting and fishing. A lot of us live off the land. Our community is proud of who we are. We all help each other when some of us are in trouble.

SM: In what ways has the community of Kake changed in your lifetime?

RD: We didn’t have a grade school back then. Now we have a Headstart program and a high school... I remember when the lights would go out ... when we had one power plant, now we have a big powerplant and we have electricity throughout the night now. Where we used to have outside games, now they have, what you call those game thingys?

SM: Video Games?

RD: Yes, video games that kids go home to after school. Where in the winter time, we would go sled and play winter games and sled on boxes, so a lot has changed. Our streets are paved. We have a high school where Tlingit language was once forced out of our people; now Tlingit language and culture is being taught in the schools and that is a big change.

SM: Do you think our culture is coming back? What are ways that we can improve teaching the Tlingit culture?

RD: I’ve worked with so many young adults already that are yearning to learn the culture, the language, so it started years ago and I know it is coming back because there are teachers right now who are teaching the language right in the classroom along with the culture. And, not just in Tlingit but in other cultures out there, the Maories, the Hawaiians, they are all doing the same thing we are and they show pride in who they are and this is what we strive for in our culture, being proud and knowing who we are and just having self esteem means a lot.

SM: What are you most grateful for?

RD: Every day we should always be grateful. I am grateful for my grandparents and the way I was raised, grateful that we can live off the land, grateful for my grandparents and who they were and how they taught me, grateful for the things I am still learning.

SM: Can you tell me about some of the most important lessons you have learned in life?

RD: You learn from the wrong things you do in life. I think everybody does. It might be something that hurt you for life, might be something that you can gain from, but there is always something you can learn growing up and the most important lesson I think I have learned is respect. Respect for yourself, respect for others, respect for what the land offers you. I think that’s the best lesson you can learn in life: respect for yourself, for others what the land offers you, what you can learn and what you can do with your life.