From the streams to the trees

Posted: Thursday, August 05, 2010

The heart of the salmon beats strong in Southeast. They're the life blood of an industry, a people, an array of species and traditions that have flourished in this region for centuries.

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Courtesy Of Amy Gulick
Courtesy Of Amy Gulick

It's a cycle residents of the region know well. They know of its fragility, the balance of life and death, of reaping and return, and they know that without preservation and education, it may disappear forever.

"Salmon in the Trees," a new book by writer and award-winning photographer Amy Gulick, shares and reinforces this message through contributions from local experts, artists, writers, images, illustrations and essays.

Beginning Friday, 15 large-size photographs, out of the 160 featured in the book, will be on display through the month of August, in the Backroom Gallery of the Silverbow Inn.

A native Midwesterner now living in Washington, Gulick traveled throughout the Tongass National Forest for two years, talking to residents and photographing nature in an effort to share with the rest of the world the simple, yet, in her opinion, vital message that dwells in the heart of this temperate rainforest ecoregion.

"The remarkable connection between salmon and trees in Southeast Alaska teaches us ... that everything is connected," she said. "That the magnificent rainforest ... thrives because all of its ecological pieces still exist, that that people are an integral part of this beautiful cycle of life."

In contrast, she described the once similar, but extinct "salmon forests" of Washington, Oregon and northern California.

"It is tragic that (those) once magnificent rainforests ... are now just scraps of their former selves," Gulick said. "Our commercial salmon fisheries have pretty much collapsed, and only a few timber mills remain. Sadly, a way of life for many people has disappeared along with the salmon and forests. I don't believe that the people of Southeast Alaska want to see this happen in their home."

But Gulick's message in her 172-page, full color, hard-bound book is not doom and gloom.

"It's not too late," she said.

Contributors like local naturalist Richard Carstensen, Sealaska Heritage President Rosita Worl, and Becky Janes, who co-owns the tour company Above and Beyond Alaska, echo the same story. They educate and reflect on what it means to call the Tongass "home."

Carstensen, in an essay, tackles the importance of this ecoregion from a scientific standpoint and provides insight to how each organism supports the other. He offers up history, perspective and even a bit of personal reflection.

"On one final leg of the 60-day drive, I descended alongside British Columbia's Skeena River toward the coastal town of Prince Rupert ... Humidity grew palpably, and with imagination I could smell the sea. Ecologically speaking, I was home," he wrote.

Worl's essay offers clear perspective on the culture of Southeast and how they are intrinsically connected to the land and its creatures.

In spirit, the ancestors of Native Southeast Alaskans are like the salmon.

"We believe in the duality of spirits, with one dimension staying with the remains of our ancestors while the other travels to the land 'Behind the Forest.' When someone dies, we say, 'He has walked into the Forest,'" she wrote.

Other contributors include quirky artist and musician Ray Troll of Ketchikan, award-winning author Dr. Carl Safina, author Brad Matsen, Audubon Alaska's John Schoen, Douglas H. Chadwick and Sitka-based author John Straley.

Gulick said having "many voices" in the book was a priority from the start.

"There are so many fascinating aspects to the region that it made sense to hear from more than one voice,” she said. “Each brings the place alive in his or her unique way.”

With the final product highlighting the beauty, wildlife and lushness of the Tongass, Gulick said the greatest challenge was not creating the images themselves, but organizing the logistics of travel.

“For some of the images, I needed to go to fairly remote areas, so I traveled by every means possible; foot, ferry, canoe, kayak, seaplane, charter boat and commercial airplane,” she said. “The nice thing is that it was easy to find experienced and wonderful local people to take me wherever I needed to go.”

And then there was the rain.

But, she said, “surprisingly, there were only a few days out of many, many months that were too wet to take out the camera.”

Her favorite image and favorite excerpt were a challenge to choose. She settled on a an image of bear paws and a salmon carcass on a mossy fallen tree. For her, “the photo sums up the whole glorious cycle of life that amazingly is still intact in this part of the world.”

On the excerpt, which she selected from the essay of Sarfina, “talks about the connection between salmon and trees, and the wonderful cycle of life in Southeast.”

Her excerpt of choice likens the salmon to the heart of the region, as creatures that “beat their way upstream and inland like flowing blood, until lodged in a thin film of water in a tiny tributary — each is a corpuscle in a capillary.” Safina’s essay begins on page 17.

The photographs in “Salmon in the Trees” tell a vivid story. Into the pages, the contributions breathe life. Gulick hopes her message, that everything is connected, hits home.

“What gives me great hope is that there is still time to get it right — to strike a balance between people and place. To preserve the ecosystem and the way of life for those who call it home.”

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at

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