Leaf Litter

Where Local Food Equals Survival

In the tiny town of Tenakee Springs, Alaska, subsistence is the only way of life.

By Amy Nelson

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Located on the Alaskan panhandle, about a seven-hour ferry ride from Juneau, the town of Tenakee Springs boasts a population of about 100 – and that includes people who only live there during the summer. Though the town, with its natural hot springs, originally served as a refuge for prospectors and miners from Alaska’s Interior, its residents range from eccentric retirees to commercial fisherman.

Sculpted by glaciers thousands of years ago, much of the land surrounding Tenakee Springs is part of the Tongass National Forest, the largest forest in the U.S.

Within this 17 million-acre ecosystem dwell iconic species one associates with Alaskan wilderness, like wolves, bald eagles, salmon, brown and black bears and towering hemlocks. But the Tongass is also home to the purplish Alaska huckleberry and the stocky Sitka Black-tailed deer. Many of these species–iconic and otherwise—are used as food by the people of Tenakee Springs. To this small community of independent people who prefer life off the beaten path, the preservation of these species is not just important to local ecology, culture and economy. It’s downright necessary for survival.

According to the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, the Tongass Forest has been such a plentiful supplier of fish, wildlife and other food sources that the Tlingit people, who inhabited it for thousands of years, did not even have a word for the term “starvation.” Though the ecological integrity of the Tongass Forest has faced threats, its abundance fortunately remains, and the people of Tenakee Springs hunt, forage and fish in it as we might our local grocer.

“We depend largely on subsistence hunting and gathering for our protein,” says John Wisenbaugh, a 37-year resident of Tenakee Springs. For John and his wife, Vicki, who live along the town’s one (unpaved) road, eating meals made with 85-90% home-grown, foraged, fished or hunted ingredients is not a trend or movement. It’s simply a way of life-the only way of life for humans in rural, Southeast Alaska.

To John, the correlation between a healthy ecosystem and a healthy human cannot be understated. The shade of the Tongass Forest’s old growth trees helps make nearby rivers suitable for salmon spawning. Its triple canopy catches a great deal of snow, allowing the creation of open space needed by deer. “Without a healthy, largely in tact, old growth characteristic forest,” says John, “all those species suffer.” Including people.

Like the Tongass Forest, the Pacific Ocean and its network of bays, straits, sounds, inlets, tidal flats and beaches serves as a critical food source for residents of Tenakee Springs. Shrimp, halibut, Dungeness and king crab and sea cucumbers are just some of the oceanic bounty regularly consumed by people in Tenakee Springs.

Vicki routinely gathers and uses ingredients like sea asparagus and goose tongue as greens in salads, lasagna and quiche. “I just blanch ’em and chop ’em,” says Vicki nonchalantly. “They’re a little salty, but it’s a good salty.”

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council reports that 80% of the region’s rural households engage in subsistence food gathering. In Tenakee Springs, John puts that much closer to 100%. According to John, even those whose age and health prevents them from foraging and hunting must rely on friends to do so for them.

Though the town has a general store and food can be imported much more easily than in decades past (thanks to the modernization of transportation systems such as the Alaska Marine Highway ferry service) many people just prefer the local stuff. “We can get food from elsewhere,” says John, “but what we gather is so much better.”

Local foods also play a major role in the Tenakee Springs social scene. “Local food is a large part of every social gathering,” says John. “We have a number of potluck dinners for all kinds of occasions. Everybody brings whatever they can gather and whatever is in season-fish, shrimp, game. We all show off our best smoked fish. Some people even cure their own salmon eggs.”

Many species that serve as food sources for people in Tenakee Springs are directly linked to the region’s financial health. Commercial fishing is the backbone of the economy-not just in Tenakee Springs, but in all of Southeast Alaska. Since its first cannery opened in 1878, the Southeast Alaska region has become regarded as one the world’s great strongholds for healthy stocks of wild salmon. All five species of Pacific salmon, along with halibut, herring, crab and shellfish, are fished commercially in the area.

“A number of people here depend on commercial fishing for a living,” said John. But the oceanic abundance is not always a guarantee. In fact, John has witnessed a decline in salmon numbers over the last 20 years. He attributes this to the double whammy of industrial logging and overfishing.

Clear cut logging has diminished salmon spawning capacity in many area streams. Commercial seine fishing outside the mouths of the streams (before fish can get into it to spawn) “…pretty much wiped out the early run of chum salmon and pinks, “according to John. “There used to always be pink salmon in the Indian River here in town by the Fourth of July, and now you don’t see them in there until late August.”

As one might expect of a community for whom so many aspects of life-not to mention life itself depend on the availability of local food sources, residents play a major role in the protection of these resources.

“We’ve been very active in trying to mitigate damage to the Tongass Forest from largescale logging,” explained John, himself a former logger. Working through his local chapter of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), John has been extremely active (and successful) in lobbying all levels of government-straight up to Congress-to support legislation to end unsustainable logging practices. Given the history of logging in the region, it couldn’t have been an easy fight.

In the 1950s, the Forest Service signed 50-year contracts that gave two timber companies public timber in exchange for building and operating paper mills. The result of locking into these long-term commitments was the rapid development of intensive, industrial-scale logging in the Tongass Forest. Although only a small fraction of the forests were clear cut, according to SEACC, roughly 70% of the biggest and best trees, “the biological heart of this temperate value rainforest” was targeted.

Thanks to the efforts of organizations like SEACC and SEACC members like John, and because of changing market conditions, the industry has changed for the better. “Logging is now much smaller-scale,” according to John, “and we’re trying to transition forest jobs into forest restoration and secondary manufacturing (actually making the lumber into something, like windows).”

When asked if the “food factor” (the fact that human food sources were part of the ecosystem needing protection) helped the conservation cause, he replied, “It sure does. That greatly helped lobbying efforts.”

As John tells it, “the Forest Service had a policy called ‘Viable Population,’ which stated that any activity happening in the forest [could not disrupt the maintenance of] viable populations of fish and wildlife.” The SEACC was able to use that policy in order to prevent or modify some timber sales. “We fought hardest in our own neighborhoods,” John explains. The results of that fight? Tenakee Springs now boasts one of the largest forest areas that includes multiple river valleys left in the Tongass.

John’s resource protection efforts are not just benefitting his fridge and pantry; they’re helping to ensure that future communities of Southeast Alaskans can continue the subsistence lifestyle required in order to survive there. John and Vicki’s daughter, who lives nearby, hunts, fishes and traps. She and her husband are currently preparing a boat for commercial fishing.

Although he recognizes that most Leaf Litter readers are not living a subsistence lifestyle, John understands that we are all somehow involved in conservation planning, ecosystem restoration and sustainable design. To us, John offers these final words of advice.

I grew up in Cleveland. In the 1970s, the environment was so horrible in that area that the Cuyahoga River caught fire. But it is much better now because of the work of people. The most important thing people can do is advocate for habitat and biodiversity in their communities. Any stream you can clean…any area of in-tact habitat you help protect or create…anything you can do to advocate for your personal area…will help everyone in the long-term.

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