At the edge of the Arctic lies a primordial land where immense tectonic plates collide. Volcanoes outline the area, their smoking fumaroles hinting at immense forces deep below the ground, and earthquakes occasionally rumble through the landscape. This is the Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska, sculpted long ago by the ponderous advance and retreat of glaciers. Now the land is covered by tundra and dominated by rivers, lakes, streams and swamps. It is harsh, isolated, and yet, it has a mystical beauty.
The heavy hand of human progress has not touched this place. There are no dams, no clear-cuts, no pipelines, no highways, no housing divisions—only wilderness and wetlands. As a result, few parts of the world are as pure, or as rich with biological activity. “I came here over 20 years ago to do my doctoral studies and fell in love,” says Carol Ann Woody, a fisheries and wildlife biologist. “The Bristol Bay region is extraordinary. It’s a healthy, pristine ecosystem. I’ve never seen anything like this before. This is what habitats are supposed to be.”
But all that is about to change. Nearly two million acres of Bristol Bay wilderness has been approved for oil and mining exploration, and environmentalists are fighting on many fronts to preserve one of Earth’s greatest displays of natural beauty.
The nine major rivers flowing into Bristol Bay drain a watershed of 40,000 square miles, a vast lowland that rises to glacier-mantled volcanic mountains. Those rivers, fed by hundreds of tributaries, flow into a huge, intricate tidal zone and then the bay. An endless vista of interconnected lagoons, rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, swamps and bogs stretch to the horizon. The water table lies near the surface, yielding numerous springs and seeps. Tundra stretches everywhere, spotted with stands of white spruce. Alders and willow grow near rivers and streams.
The watershed is a gigantic living entity, a network of veins as intricate and delicate as a human circulatory system. Water connects everything, feeds everything and supports a vast array of animals, birds and plants.
Between 10,000 and 26,000 years ago, vast sheets of ice ground in from the north and south, then melted. They left behind a complex terrain of ridges, mounds and depressions with strange geological names like drumlins, melt-water channels, outwash aprons and kettles. Glaciation determined the soil types, the shape of the land and the drainage of water. These, in turn, determined the plants and animals that live in this landscape today.
This is a land of ice and fire. Two active volcanoes, Iliamna and Redoubt, rise in the Lake Clark National Park to the northeast. Iliamna has not erupted in recorded time, but steam frequently vents from its summit fumaroles. Redoubt most recently blew its top in 2009, dusting the region with volcanic ash and sending mudflows down the Drift River.
In this special place something stands out above all else—it is a red fish called salmon. Salmon come here to spawn in numbers that defy belief—not by the hundreds, not by the thousands, but by the millions. Nowhere else in the world are there such prodigious runs. Sockeye are the main salmon population, with about 30 million to 40 million entering the bay and fighting upstream each year. The Chinook, or king salmon, also come in enormous numbers forming one of the biggest Chinook runs in North America. Other salmon species, such as silver (or Coho), pink and chum, also abound.
The watershed that flows into Bristol Bay forms one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world and serves as an important nursery ground for (in addition to salmon) red king crab and Pacific halibut; it is also the staging area and wintering ground for tens of millions of seabirds; and it’s a vital habitat for marine mammals, including the endangered North Pacific right whales, Steller sea lions, Pacific walrus and sea otters.
Bristol Bay is the fish basket of America, accounting for 95 percent of the wild salmon consumed in America. The Peter Pan Cannery, founded in 1901 in Dillingham, Alaska offers tours that give an insight into the commercial salmon industry and its history. Commercial fishing occurs in the bay, while sports and subsistence fishing is done on land. “Salmon are the lifeblood of everything in this region, from the diatoms that cling to rocks, to bears, to wolves, to birds and then to trees,” says Woody. Ocean fish come inland to feed, and in turn feed a remarkable range of animals and birds. The bodies of the dying salmon are a bonanza for bears, eagles, crows, gulls, mink and lynx. Their droppings enrich the tundra and forest soil. Rain falls and the drainage carries nutrients to the rivers, which flow back to the ocean. It’s a large and complex circle of life driven by salmon.
It is difficult to fully comprehend how many salmon are drawn to this unspoiled watershed. Lake Iliamna, which lies in the heart of the watershed, is the world’s largest salmon-rearing lake. After hatching, salmon travel to the lake where they spend from one to two years before heading to the ocean. Woody says the lake can hold billions of salmon.
The region is also blessed with many other fish, such as trophy rainbow trout, grayling, pike, whitefish, Arctic char and Dolly Varden trout. “Rainbow trout will follow sockeye for hundreds of miles for their eggs,” says Woody. While studying salmon, she was surprised to see rainbow trout thrashing about with their tails sticking up. Looking closer, she saw the trout were digging with their noses in the gravel to get at salmon eggs.
In contrast to this paragon of fecundity, the habitats of virtually all the other salmon runs in North America are stressed by logging, overfishing, habitat loss and contaminants, and their stocks must be augmented by hatchery fish. “The future of salmon,” explains Woody, “lies in Bristol Bay. Its salmon gene bank is the largest, most diverse and uncontaminated on the planet.” It will supply salmon to new areas, an important consideration because salmon ranges are migrating north as global warming raises ocean temperature. It will also help rehabilitate stocks in the lower mainland where salmon have been driven from 40 percent of their habitat. Of the remaining numbers, about one third are threatened and don’t have the genetic diversity to adapt to global warming and other stresses.
This region is the sacred home of the Yupik, Aleut and Athabascan, Native Alaskan tribes, who have lived here for thousands
of years. Of the 7,500 people who inhabit the region, 66 percent are Native. Every summer, Native villagers gather at places where salmon swim past, turning the stream into a rippling red color. The men anchor a set-net on shore, then drag the other end into the water. Salmon swim in, catching their gills in the webbing. Along the riverbank the women fillet the salmon and hang the strips to dry before they are smoked in wooden sheds.
June Tracey, a great-grandmother of the Athabascan tribe, lives in the village of Nondalton, which has a population of 200, and declining. “My favorite time,” she says, “is when we set up fish camp in July and catch salmon. It’s like a vacation to nature. We dry salmon, smoke it, jar it, can it and freeze it. We do just about everything because it’s a big part of our diet and helps us get through the winter.”
For thousands of years the land has provided indigenous people with food, especially salmon, but also pike, whitefish, beavers, caribou, moose, blueberries, cranberries, salmonberries and plants such as wild rhubarb. “We don’t live off the land completely,” says Tracey, “we buy some things from the store, but it’s expensive.” She says that her family’s diet has lots of variety. “In the fall, we lay in a moose and, if lucky, a Dall sheep. And we pick berries.” Her voice turns serious as she adds, “Because of the land there is no such thing as homeless in our village. No one goes hungry.”
Float-planes, snowmobiles and GPS navigation devices have made this wild and isolated slice of nature accessible. About 50 lodges plus tent camps, small bed-and-breakfasts and a few hotels are scattered throughout the myriad lakes and rivers. The main draw, of course, is salmon. Brian Kraft, the owner of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge on Kvichak River, and Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge, on the Naknek River near King Salmon, says, “The Bristol Bay watershed is the premier sport-fishing destination on the globe. In spite of its inaccessibility.”
Snow-fed streams flow crystal clear from the mountains and then across the rolling tundra to the sea. The purity of this nutrient-rich environment allows fish to grow to enormous size. King salmon run up to 50 pounds, a brute of a fish that challenges even the most experienced fisherman. With annual salmon runs in the millions and rainbow trout in excess of thirty inches, this is the pinnacle of sport fishing. Kraft explains that his guests, who come from around the world, are used to casting all day with only a few nibbles. “Here, they are astonished when every few casts yields a bite,” he says. “And they love the epic struggle to land such immense fish.”
Brown bears (a subspecies of grizzly) also love salmon. Kraft says bears are so abundant his customers see from 20 to 30 each day. “It’s a glorious sight to see a bear splash into a stream and emerge with a salmon in its teeth,” says Kraft. “But it can be quite unsettling when these powerful beasts come too close.”
Hunting, although not as popular as fishing up here, also attracts tourists. One can even combine the two sports in “cast and blast” vacations. Hunting for ducks, ptarmigan and spruce grouse takes place during the fall season. Ducks are hunted with decoys and a retriever dog over wild rice fields. Ptarmigan are hunted on the tundra. Spruce grouse are also found. The ultimate prize is to bag a moose or caribou with trophy antlers.
Common small game includes beaver, muskrat, otter, fox, wolverine, mink and porcupine. Ground squirrels and marmots are abundant. Wood frogs are the lone species of amphibian found in the region, but the region is atwitter with birds, including bald eagles, Steller’s eiders, rock ptarmigans, Arctic terns, cranes and emperor geese. Tundra swans glide elegantly across boggy ponds. A sharp-shinned hawk dives on a redback vole. Wolves howl in the winter night. An eagle perches regally high on a white spruce. The Mulchatna caribou herd roams across the land in large numbers and with elegant antlers. The heart beats faster to see a mother bear with her cubs in tow, lumber down to the river edge for a drink, or a moose gracefully swimming across the river. “Bird-watching, wildlife viewing, photography as well as kayaking and canoeing are growing in popularity,” says Kraft. The Lake Clark National Park has three National Wild Rivers suitable for rafting trips.
A surprise awaits at Lake Iliamna, where a colony of 200 to 300 harbor seals lounge on rocks and islets, staring balefully at the occasional passing boat. It is one of only two freshwater seal populations in the world (the other is in Kamchatka, Russia).
In the fall, the leaves on alders and willows turn yellow. The bears, caribou and moose are fat from summer feeding and their coats are glossy and shiny. The nights become crisp and longer. The days slowly shorten. Then comes the hard hand of winter. Tourism slows to a trickle and so does life itself. Frequently, great sheets of green form shimmering curtains across the northern night sky.
Snowmobiles, known as iron dogs by the Natives, provide access to the land then. Traplines are laid for lynx, wolverine, marten, beaver and fox. The Beaver Round Up, a festival organized by the Dog Mushers Association in Dillingham, provides a respite from the dark winter. The week is alive with snowshoe outings and competitions, a biggest-pelt contest, snowmobile racing, dogsled outings and races and, as would be expected in a place where many live off the land, rifle competitions.
Finally, the days begin to lengthen and spring freshens the air. The snow and ice slowly melt. In early spring, June Tacey picks wild celery and throws the leaves into the gurgling water, urging the salmon to hurry back. She gazes around at the rivers, streams, lakes, bogs and springs that surround her and says, “This water is more precious than gold.”