A Field Seminar in Photos, Part II: Sitka, Alaska

Everywhere we looked in Sitka, people were in constant contact with the natural world. As we soon found out, they were also painfully aware of the ways that world was changing.

Image shows a rocky shoreline overlooking a tranquil bay surrounded by rugged mountains on all sides

This photo essay is by Fall 2019 student Johann Heupel. Johann is a Marine Science and Maritime Studies student at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and a long-time aficionado of the history of our relationship to the sea. Having grown up in Mystic Connecticut, Johann’s future interests lie somewhere in educating a new generation about the wonders of the sea and our fascination with it, sharing maritime culture through art, science, song, and story.

This post is part of a series of photo essays depicting the Fall 2019 semester. For the complete series, click here

Students walk through a bright green clearing in a rugged evergreen forest

(Above) View across Kruzof Island, students hiking toward the volcano.

It was difficult to leave the awe-inspiring views of Glacier Bay behind us, but everyone was excited to have a few days left to explore Alaska. Now, we travelled south to Sitka, arriving to a beautiful, sunny day in the small downtown we were going to be staying in. 

Living a stone’s throw away from the world’s last temperate rainforest took some getting used to. Waking up every morning to the view of the endless hills of the Tongass National Forest — nestled in the Indian River Valley a short walk away from Crescent Harbor, where the salmon would jump in the morning light — was spectacular. Bald eagles nested in the trees around the park, and children played in a playground ten yards away from an active salmon run. Everywhere we looked, people were in constant contact with the natural world. As we soon found out, they were also painfully aware of the ways that world was changing.

Inside a museum, Williams-Mystic students cluster around a craftswoman seated at a table, with traditional crafts, including handmade dolls, spread out in front of her

(Above) A local Tlingit doll craftswoman shares her tribe’s traditional techniques at the Sheldon Jackson Museum.

We were afforded the opportunity to meet some incredibly interesting locals: people from all walks of life invested in the maritime culture of Sitka. An elder of the local Tlingit tribe discussed their history with the Russians and native lifestyle in the shadow of beautiful Haida totems in the forest, close to the historic Russian architecture of downtown Sitka and a collection of tribal artifacts from all across the Pacific Northwest. An artist and teacher from a local school regaled us with Tlingit myths and stories, while he taught us how to draw indigenous form line designs of their sacred animals: Bears, Ravens, and Eagles. 

The rich landscape of Alaska’s panhandle lends itself to widespread study of natural science and gave us a unique learning experience. We consulted with researchers studying all aspects of the local environment, including many ecologists interested in the dynamics of kelp forest habitats in various ways, such as the trophic impact of sea otters or the preservation of giant kelp. The Sitka Sound Science Center (SSSC) across from our lodgings worked to breed pink salmon in a specialized hatchery. We got to talk with the workers as they processed eggs and sperm to repopulate the local salmon stocks.

Photo shows massive salmon leaping out of turbulent waters at the base of a dam

(Above) Pink Salmon attempt to jump into the SSSC hatchery, where they will produce the next generation of the local fish stock.

The importance of the science and history linked to the region became all too apparent when we started to take a closer look at the logistics of Sitka. An official from the port authority told us about the challenges of living on the island, balancing the local fishing fleet and recreational craft with cargo vessels to bring in food and supplies, as well as the need to allow cruise vessels through for tourism dollars. Local fishermen described the difficult life of longline fishing to us. We got to speak to alumna and longline fisherman Linda Behnken (F’82), the head of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, about the threats their industry faces. Everyone spoke about the changing world with which they were confronted: sea level rise slowly encroaching on their home as the warming climate changes their environment.

Sitka is a place where all these abstract concepts and disparate disciplines intertwine. The history of a longstanding colonial conflict and the heritage of Native peoples are juxtaposed with a thriving fishery and one of the most diverse environments in the world. This breathtaking biome of temperate rainforests and kelp forests contrasted against a bustling port town is a unique place to learn about the multi-faceted nature of the maritime world.

Photo shows a scrubby evergreen forest sprawled out at the base of mountains, its brilliant yellows and greens contrasting with the bright blue sky

(Above) View of Mount Edgecumbe from a distance, seen across Kruzof Island.

Author: williamsmystic

A one semester interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea.

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