Story last updated at 7/13/2011 - 2:38 pm
This summer Nicolaas Mink traded in his Powerpoint presentations for a pair of XtraTufs, his classroom for rain-beaten docks, fish processing plants and hatcheries. It's an interesting switch for someone who has spent much of his professional career teaching at colleges and universities in the lower 48, but he seems more than comfortable in the part.
An environmental studies professor at Knox College in Illinois, Mink now runs the Sitka Conservation Society's (SCS) brand new walking tours program: Sitka Salmon Tours.
Only about three weeks old, the program gives Sitka visitors a behind-the-scenes look at Southeast Alaska's sustainable salmon fishery, all to raise awareness about the importance of wild salmon to Southeast's communities and forests.
"I have spent much of my professional career reading about, writing about, and thinking about fisheries, and this program seemed like a logical next step," Mink said.
The walking tours are highly personalized and intimate. No tour runs with more than eight guests, and many run with just a couple. In the tours, Mink walks visitors through a salmon's life cycle - "from forest to plate," he calls it - while showing people Sitka's salmon streams, hatcheries, boats, harbors, canneries, and restaurants.
On my visit, Mink had arranged a private tour of the Seafood Producer's Cooperative, North America's largest fisherman-owned cooperative, with Craig Shoemaker, the plant manager. In the plant, we got an up-close look at the men and women working the slime line, the trollers loading ice for the season opener, and the cooperative's new automatic filet machine, something Shoemaker displayed with pride.
During the tour, Mink talks confidently about everything from salmon ecology and fisheries policy to distribution systems and hatcheries technology. He has a knack for quirky salmon facts and attention-grabbing salmon figures. At one moment, he's telling visitors about the giant, extinct saber-toothed salmon; the next minute, he's relating how a single salmon stream in the Tongass can produce billions of fry and hundreds of thousands of commercially-harvestable fish every year. He has an answer for every question.
The idea for the tour originated from discussions between Mink and Andrew Thoms, SCS's executive director. Millions of people were visiting Southeast Alaska every year. They saw salmon, they ate salmon, they viewed fishing boats from their cruise ships, but there wasn't anyone doing an interpretative program that highlighted all aspects of the fish and fishery.
Sitka Salmon Tours was born.
"There's really no program quite like this in all Southeast, maybe even the whole Pacific Northwest," Mink said. "Where else can travelers interact with fishermen, scientists, hatchery technicians, chefs, and cannery employees, and have their questions answered by an expert in the field?"
Mink sees this year as experimental, where he, his staff, and other SCS employees will work at the kinks in the program.
"I'm a professor, not a business person, so the economic and marketing aspect of this is certainly getting me into uncharted territory," Mink said. He expects to continue to build business during this summer and into the coming years.
"It's really all about making connections for people, about getting them to understand where their food comes from, about teaching them why they want to purchase wild Alaska salmon, and stay away from the farmed stuff."
The walking tours leave from the Sitka Sound Science Center, Monday-Saturday at 1 p.m. Tickets are $30 for a two hour tour, and there is a longer tour in the works which will include lunch at one of Salmon Tour's partnering restuarants. For more information, visit www.sitkasalmontours.com.
Andrew Miller is the director of the Sitka Maritime Heritage Society.