The world's largest sockeye salmon hatchery was damaged this week when the Gulkana River flooded, ripping up a bridge that connects the Gulkana Hatchery to the Richardson Highway, gouging out outbuildings and re-routing natural springs.
Only lucky timing spared 10 million salmon fry that had been transported to a lake hours earlier.
On Sunday evening, hatchery managers finished aerially dropping the fry into Crosswind Lake, where the fish would eventually join the giant Copper River run of reds.
It wasn't a moment too soon: On Monday morning, staff members awoke to find that the Gulkana River had become a raging torrent of water, ripping up a bridge that connects the hatchery to the Richardson Highway and gouging out pieces of the building itself, said manager Gary Martinek.
One more day of waiting would have meant disaster.
"All those fry would have died," Martinek said. "You couldn't have put them in the water."
The lake stocking was running weeks late this year because lakes were still locked up in ice.
But hatchery managers, getting nervous about rising mortality rates among the fry, decided to release them into the lake on an 80-degree Sunday.
The Gulkana Hatchery is the largest sockeye salmon hatchery in the world. It is owned by the state but is managed by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. Managers believe that fish raised at the hatchery account for somewhere between 11 percent to 40 percent of the Copper River run, depending on the year, Martinek said.
"Crosswind Lake is the breadbasket of the Copper River red run," he said.
Things were already getting desperate at the hatchery before Sunday night, Martinek said: The spring was weeks late, and you can't air drop salmon fry onto ice and expect them to survive. But mortality rates were going up.
"We needed the fish out the door," he said.
So they called Doug Glenn, a Palmer-based pilot who has been dropping Gulkana Hatchery fry in lakes for 25 years.
Glenn flew his Turbo Thrush airplane up and landed it right on the Richardson Highway, as he does every year. (The Department of Transportation gave him permission, he said.)
The Gulkana River looked muddy but normal, said Glenn.
They loaded the fish with a boom truck and made nine or ten trips out to Crosswind Lake, dropping around 900,000 fish each time. They finished the job at about 8:30 p.m.
The next morning, a co-worker told Martinek he need to come have a look at the hatchery.
"You just went, 'Oh my God,' looking at it," he said.
"All hell broke loose," said Glenn. "That river just went crazy."
The river had gouged 15-20 feet of the banks. The bridge was nothing but timbers and high beams. Hatchery staff has spent the last few days scrambling to move specialized equipment out of the path of the water and to secure potential contaminants, such as a 1,000-gallon drum of gasoline. Some out buildings have been torn away from the hatchery.
Martinek has no damage estimate yet.
Meanwhile the river has been carving a new path.
"It's not the materials, it's the land loss we're really worried about," he said.
One big concern is that the natural springs that regulate a consistent temperature year round and have made the site such a productive hatchery are being destroyed.
"I don't know if (the river) will completely rip them out," he said. "There are rocks the size of cars coming down. It's just reconstructing itself."
There will be more time to wait and see. Flooding likely isn't over, he said. Summit Lake is still frozen, he said. The state Department of Transportation has been fixing sinkholes and washouts up and down a neighboring stretch of the Richardson Highway, said spokeswoman Meadow Bailey.
For now, Martinek is thankful for the narrow escape of his 10 million sockeye fry.
"This is Mother Nature," he said. "She gives and she takes."
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at email@example.com or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS