Crafting a story of romance and resiliency with Tongass bowls

Zach LaPerriere’s workshop in Sitka. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

There are very few products made in Alaska from lumber produced in state. That’s despite an ongoing battle over how the Tongass National Forest should be managed.

While timber sales have declined for decades, there are some new initiatives on the table now that could open up more logging.

But one Sitka craftsman doesn’t want that to happen. He’s content using dead old growth, and he makes his living creating bowls from the Tongass without cutting down living trees.

Zach LaPerriere has heard some surprising comments about the wooden bowls he sells at markets.

People reach out to touch them, admiring the detail of an exposed scar and the smooth curves.

“Some would say even sensual,” LaPerriere said with a chuckle. “They’re not my words. I’m just repeating them. I’ve think I’ve heard even more racy words than that.”

LaPerriere makes his bowls in an open-air workshop below his cabin, overlooking the water.

Before his creations made customers blush, he was employed as a carpenter.

But he said those skills didn’t necessarily translate when he took up professional woodturning five years ago.

“It really took me a year to become even mildly proficient,” he said.

For starters, the wood is spinning.

While shaping a gnarly chunk of alder into a bowl with a sharp tool, LaPerriere had to think in three dimensions. He spotted a scar that looked like pair of lips, and ribbons of alder went flying.

“I have to walk that line between being efficient and being creative,” he said.

In Southeast Alaska, not many people do this kind of work for a living. There are plenty of hobbyists, but LaPerriere is spending a thousand hours a year creating wooden bowls. He helps support a family of five this way.

Though one of his bowls can fetch up to $1,500, he admitted it’s not always a lucrative business.

Still, LaPerriere said taking this huge career leap aligned with his values.

He wanted to show people what’s inside the trees from nation’s largest national forest and help translate that story.

“Being deeply in love with our rainforest here, I want to understand what’s going on in the tree,” LaPerriere said. “I look for whatever is most unique. It might be a scar. It might be tiny little ambrosia beetles.”

Beetles that leave tiny black holes in the tree. Those are the kind of imperfections LaPerriere wants to highlight when he’s turning a piece of wood. He’s found bullet holes, axe marks from the turn of the century and one of his favorites: buck rubs. Those are the antler markings of a deer looking for a mate.

“Hunters are always looking for buck rubs,” he said. “To see a buck rub from 20 or 30 years ago, that’s an exciting thing!”

Especially spotting it as you dig into a salad bowl.

So the characteristics of the trees vary wildly. But there’s a type of wood LaPerriere said he wouldn’t consider using.

“There’s no need to cut a living tree,” he said.

Some of the bowls LaPerriere creates will dry up to a year or longer before he can bring them to market, depending on the type of wood. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

All of the wood piled up in his workshop comes from dead and down trees, which LaPerriere scavenges off the beach or hauls out of the forest himself. He has to goes through a permitting process to be able to do that on national land.

Today, there’s less large-scale industrial logging happening in the Tongass. However, recent changes at the federal level could open up new sites.

That doesn’t sit well with LaPerriere.

“I would liken it to selling your furniture to make your credit card payment,” LaPerriere said.

Instead, he imagines a future where fewer trees are harvested from the national land. And the old growth that is cut down is made into things produced in-state. Things people will want to buy and cherish. That was also identified as a priority by a former Tongass Advisory Committee, which included timber industry representatives.

Even so, LaPerriere recognizes creating wooden bowls like his isn’t the boost to the region’s economy the state is looking for. After all, he’s just one guy. But he thinks there’s something to the model.

“You know, I’m a logger, and I feel great about that because it’s something I can believe in,” LaPerriere said.

Back at his workshop, LaPerriere prepared his alder bowl for a long hibernation in the drying shed. He scribbled the location of where he found the wood on the rim.

In another six months or so, he’ll pull it out again and sand it — putting the finishing touches to get it ready to sell.

He said he likes the idea of bringing beauty into people’s lives with trees from the Tongass. Or, as some customers see it, a little romance.

Previous articleAfter scathing audit, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority says fixes are underway
Next articleAdding Anchorage housing: where, when and how?