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Stanford Students to the Inian Islands!

Students Kayak Outside the Hobbit Hole.  Photo by Josh Newman.
Fishing Boats at the Sitka waterfront.  Photo by Rob Dunbar.

Fishing Boats at the Sitka waterfront. Photo by Rob Dunbar.

In September 2013, our team brought our first group of students out to the Hobbit Hole as part of a Stanford University Sophomore College course.  It was a big step for Inian Islands Institute!  Two years in the making, this fantastic course brought 12 Stanford undergraduates to Southeast Alaska to study natural resources and sustainability.  Approaching Southeast Alaska as a Social-Ecological System, students dove into the complexities of managing 4 crucial resources of this region: forests, fisheries, energy, and tourism.  We started in the town of Sitka — the historic capital of Russian America, later turned pulp-mill town grinding up the Tongass, and more recently a picturesque waterfront destination for tourists and sport fishermen.  Interacting with locals, measuring old-growth and logged-over forest stands, spawning salmon at the local hatchery, and viewing the hydropower dam expansion, students puzzled over how to meet the needs of both people and the environment, in this place where the connections between the two are so inescapable.

Stanford Professor Rob Dunbar grills veggies at the Hobbit Hole.  Photo by Josh Newman.

Stanford Professor Rob Dunbar grills veggies at the Hobbit Hole. Photo by Josh Newman.

For the last few days of the course, we chartered a boat to take us the 80 miles north to the remote Hobbit Hole property — a beautiful retreat to digest what we’d learned and for the students to give their final presentations on their chosen resource.  We arrived in halfway sunny weather (rare for this time of year!) and grabbed the chance to hike up to the top of Inian Island.  Coming back down, we found a huge bucket of shrimp waiting for us, just pulled out of the fertile waters of Cross Sound by Dennis, a neighbor from Idaho Inlet.  The delicious local food would become a theme for our time at the Hobbit Hole — our delicious dinners prepared by Jane also included halibut, salmon, venison, and garden veggies.  Local food: what a fundamental way to understand and participate in the ecology of a region!

Stanford student Jana Persky kayaking around Inian Island.  Photo by Rob Dunbar.

Stanford student Jana Persky kayaking around Inian Island. Photo by Rob Dunbar.

The next day, we set about kayaking around Inian Island — about an 8-mile circumnavigation.  Paddling hard through the ferocious tidal currents, as bald eagles swooped around us and Steller sea lions approached, we took in power of this Wilderness.  Stopping for lunch on a sandy beach on the far side of the island, I gave an impromptu lecture on tides, drawing diagrams with a stick in the sand.  There’s nothing like teaching on the fly, in the middle of it all!  Give me a beach in the Wilderness over a classroom any day!  Give me a salmon over a powerpoint, give me a kayak over a computer.

Life at the Hobbit Hole illustrates in micro-cosm the same challenges of sustainability that we observed in Sitka.  How many deer can be harvested from the island?  How many halibut from the sea, especially alongside commercial and sport fishermen from communities across the water?  How much power can be generated from the micro-hydro system?  I recall Greg coming into the guest cabin to alert us that he was about to run the dishwasher, so we’d better not have any extra lights on, or the hydro capacity would be strained.  When else are we ever asked to conserve in that way?  Our society encourages us to take abundant resources as a given — to think about them as little as possible.  There’s a simple truth here: our resources are finite.  But to truly internalize this lesson, we must at some time in our lives see these resources, understand these resources, respect them, live them.

Greg Howe, owner of the Hobbit Hole.  Photo by Josh Newman.

Greg Howe, owner of the Hobbit Hole. Photo by Josh Newman.

Our first trip to the Hobbit Hole was a rousing, flag-waving success.  I’ll never forget Greg’s words as we sat down for dinner that first night, with fresh shrimp and halibut tacos on our plates, looking out on the protected harbor that was all ours, our kayaks gently rocking against the dock, surrounded by protected lands — our invaluable national heritage that so few ever witness.  And after a speech about the beauty of his 40 years living here, he said simply, “When have you ever done this?”  And the group laughed and cheered, knowing that we never had — and hoping that others would get the chance.

We thank the magnanimous sponsors of this Sophomore College course: the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences, and Stanford’s September Studies Program.

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