Sacred Forests Part Three – A Flight to Alaska

Sacred Forests
Part Three – A Flight to Alaska

By Sam Low

On the flight to Alaska, Nainoa looked down on vast tracts of uninhabited land. He was stunned by the country’s unspoiled beauty, unlike anything he had seen before in his life. His plane landed at the airport which was on a small island separated from the town of Ketchikan by a rapidly flowing channel. The water appeared cold and gray – uninviting, even dangerous. He took a small ferry across the river to Ketchikan, a fishing village that had expanded over the years to a small town of perhaps 10,000 people and a cannery.

“That night I met Ernie Hillman, the chief forester for the Sealaska Corporation,” Nainoa recalls. “He was a quiet man – a native Alaskan – fair and tall, with a long face and strong features. He was in good shape. He looked like he had been outdoors a lot. He had white hair and I guessed he was in his sixties. When you look at him you know he knows his work. I remember I was in small hotel room and he came in and sat down and in a strong voice he introduced himself. There was a real sense of security about Ernie. I felt like I could depend on him.”

“He said, ‘you have to come to inspect the trees. We’re ready for you.'”

The next day, Nainoa and Ernie boarded a DeHaviland Twin Otter on floats. The plane climbed out over the town of Ketchekan and set a course west over the fjord-like Tongass narrows, over Gravina island crenellated with peaks still bearing a skim of snow and out over Clarence Strait which shimmered in the early morning light. Nainoa sat up front, behind the pilots. Ernie Hillman sat next to him. Although he was a native Alaskan, Hillman’s Caucasian genes were predominant. He was lanky and deeply tanned. His movements were purposeful and precise. His glance was friendly – if somewhat guarded.

“I think he was genuinely puzzled about why he was sitting next to a guy from Hawaii on a trip to look at two large trees,” Nainoa remembers.

The plane droned on over vast stretches of untrammeled wilderness. Though Nainoa and Ernie sat shoulder to shoulder in the small aircraft, an intimacy enforced by the cramped cockpit, they said nothing. Their silence was based on the men’s’ complementary natures.

“We are similar I think, because we are both shy people,’ Nainoa explains. “I take time to build relationships. I like to listen before I say anything. And I think Ernie is the same way. It wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable with Ernie. Just the opposite. He is a proud man. Self confident. He gets things done, but he doesn’t say a lot.”

Circling over Soda Bay, the aircraft descended toward Schelikoff Island. They passed over an Alaskan brown bear swimming in the channel between the island and the mainland. Craning his neck, Nainoa watched the bear’s progress until he lost sight of it behind the Twin Otter’s rear stabilizer. The bay was sullied by white caps. The pilot throttled back, the plane skimmed the water and settled deeply into it. The propellers thumped languidly. There was a slight bump as the floats touched land.

The men drove in a Sealaska truck along a narrow logging road cut through tall stands of timber. To Nainoa, the trees seemed huge beyond imagining.

“I was starting to get this instinctual sense of how powerful Alaska is. There was something so very different about it, something alluring, just one of those places. It was very spiritual, and that makes me quiet and humble. The place is so wild and so clean and still so natural. I was beginning to face up to the reckless changes taking place in Hawaii, especially on Oahu, and not being able to do anything about it. When I was a kid I felt very lucky to be born in Hawaii – and I still do – but the reefs in Maonalua bay were still alive then, now they are dead.”

“In Alaska I got a sense of youth – everything is so young and clean and healthy,” Nainoa continues. “I thought about the difference between Alaska and Hawaii – the size, the resources, and how people treated the resources. I thought about why I felt so attracted to this place. I love Alaska. It’s a place of rejuvenation for me.”

For six weeks, Ernie Hillman had searched the immense forest for two unusually large spruce trees. Hillman’s job as forest manager was to balance the cutting of trees – and the impact their loss might have on the environment – with the financial return. So enamored was he of his forest that some of his colleagues called him a “conservationist.” The word was not a complement among most Alaskans, and it missed its mark. Ernie knew the forest had to be cut, he understood well the basic economics of his profession. But before each cutting, he aimed to be certain the need balanced the loss. Now, accompanying this young Hawaiian to a spot he had discovered a week earlier, he was puzzled. What were the trees for? Why did they have to be so large?
After descending a slight hill, the truck jolted to a stop. The men got out and walked about three hundred yards with Ernie leading the way through what appeared to Nainoa an arboreal maze. Presently, Hillman halted before two trees that towered over the others.

“We came to a place about a mile from the floatplane.” Nainoa says. “I could see the water all around us. Ernie had the specifications in his hand, the size of the trees we needed. We wanted them to be seventy-two feet long, eight feet in diameter at the base, and six feet at the top. The trees he had selected were 220 feet tall. I had never seen trees like that before, giant evergreens. They were breathtaking. Ernie was very proud of being able to complete his task. He was very task oriented. Give him a job and he will do it, and do it well – in his own way and at his own pace.”

“He said: ‘Shall we cut them?'”

“I saw the trees and I didn’t say anything,” Nainoa continues. “I didn’t want to cut the trees down. Something was wrong. There were just too many of them. They were too beautiful. They were too full of life. I started to weigh the value of our project and the value of the life of the trees. When Ernie asked if we should cut the trees down, I didn’t answer him. Virtually, I told him “no” but I didn’t give him an answer. I was just too troubled. It was a tough time for me. Ernie got real quiet.”

“I was very conflicted. The trees were so magnificent and beautiful. I was not ready to be responsible to cut down those trees. It was my choice. If I said yes, they would have cut them down. We got in the airplane and flew back. We didn’t talk. There was nothing to talk about.”