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The Salmon Project: Salmon Invictus

Somewhere out of sight upstream, a bear was feeding, sampling bits and pieces of individual fish before dropping them and moving on to the next. Courtesy Lynn Schooler

(Second of 15 parts)

In August of 2013, I was staked out on a river on an island in Southeast Alaska, waiting for a brown bear to come into camera range. The river was shallow and flowed clear as air over a bottom layered with speckled gravel and chunks of granite, some of which were large enough to create eddies where masses of chum salmon lay resting before heading upstream.

Everywhere I looked, dorsal fins flagged above the shallow water. Smooth, shiny backs rolled here and there, and now and then a hook-jawed head would rise above the surface to stare goggle-eyed at the swarm around it. The chum run was one of the biggest in history -- some said the biggest -- and the river was packed from bank to bank with fish. The conditions were ideal for protein-hungry bears.

But it was day two of waiting and I had yet to see a bear, which was odd. I had been to the river many times over the past 25 years and couldn’t recall ever spending more than a couple of hours on its banks during the peak of the salmon run without watching a grizzly swagger into the current to take its pick of the waiting fish. It was common to see half a dozen animals on any given day and sometimes more.

A few days earlier, a woman in a nearby village had mentioned that there was a rumor going around that the river was being evaluated as a possible site for a hydroelectric project. A valley upstream was ideal for a dam and the installation of turbines. A strip of yellow surveyor’s tape fluttering from a branch gave some credence to the rumor, and I wondered if this could somehow have affected the bears. In Southeast Alaska, bears and salmon are as unshakably bound together as the atoms of oxygen and hydrogen in a molecule of water; it would take more than a few survey lines hacked through the brush to deter even a cautious bear from such an abundant source of food.

While I waited, I thought about what a dam might mean to the salmon, bears, and the forest that sheltered them. The majority of the fish thrashing in the shallows would not be eaten by the bears, or the eagles, or the seals that waited near the mouth of the river. Most would spawn, then die and decompose, leaving only a few rags of skin and bone scattered along the banks and a lingering odor of rot, as invisible to the naked eye as the steady flow of their nutrients into the vascular system of the surrounding forest. The health of the watershed’s entire ecosystem was as dependent on the annual arrival and dispersal of thousands of tons of marine-based nutrients as any Iowa cornfield is on the application of a farmer’s fertilizer.

A power project would probably also mean a road, and studies have shown that a road of any sort almost guarantees that the brown bear population in a previously roadless area will drop by half, primarily as a result of increased hunting pressure. There would also be workers coming and going, helicopters churning overhead, and all the other activity that comes with development.

I pulled my thoughts back and tried to focus on the brush along the river. Two decades of filming and photographing wildlife had taught me that good photographs are usually the result of staying focused, patient, and above all, persistent. Good nature photographers may wait days for the right moment of light and action necessary to capture a compelling photograph; the great ones will pursue a particular image for years. Allowing a phantasmagoria of disturbing imaginings to draw my attention away from the river might mean missing a bit of motion in a tangle of salmonberry bushes or some other small sign of an approaching bear. Besides, my mental distraction was based on nothing but a rumor and a few inches of yellow ribbon.

I was closing in on my 60th birthday, and I was tired of worrying about such things. From the time I was a teenager I’d watched as clear-cuts, large mines, pipelines, and development projects had spread across the state like spilled oil. By now the reader is undoubtedly wondering what river I’m writing about, but the name of the river -- or the inlet it feeds into or the island it is on -- is of no particular distinction when it comes to a discussion of the future of Alaska’s wild resources.

As I stood watching the chum swarm up the river, it began to seem as if every nurturing waterway of any consequence in the state had already been either significantly affected by human pressures or was under threat of compromise by the forces of big money and the pressing need for jobs and energy. The fish-rich Taku River, a few miles south of Juneau, is threatened by mine development that would create millions of tons of acid-producing waste. The Pebble Mine  upstream of the incredibly rich Bristol Bay fisheries could gouge a hole in the earth visible from outer space. And a 700-foot-high dam across the Susitna River is again under study.

I had begun to feel that any ‘victory’ in the long struggle to preserve some portion of Alaska’s irreplaceable wild resources was at best a simple holding action, and that the well-funded corporations that put a few quarters of opulent short-term profits ahead of centuries of consistent productivity were as relentless in their reach as the grinding of the earth’s tectonic plates.

I was tired, burned out on the increasingly painful task of simply caring, and now all I wanted was to sit quietly by the river and listen to the ravens calling until I had a chance to photograph a grizzly. No more letter writing campaigns, or petitions, or meetings, or feeling outraged by the shenanigans of politicians ever-willing to rewrite existing laws and regulations to please big campaign contributors and industrial lobbyists.

Then something odd caught my eye. Amid the swirling mass of salmon finning along a bend that took the river out of sight upstream, a single salmon appeared, drifting slowly downstream. A bright red wound gaped on its back. Every few yards the fish would right itself and begin swimming desperately, pushing its way back up through the crowded water, muscling into the current in spite of its injury, until exhaustion rolled it onto its side and it begin floating downstream again. It swam, gave up, then flopped over and washed downstream, only to rise, swim, and repeat, over and over again. 

As the fish drifted past me, gasping and chopping its jaws at nothing, I could see that the wound on its back formed a deep 'U' -- a missing hunk the size and shape of a bear's mouth. Somewhere out of sight upstream, a bear was feeding, sampling bits and pieces of individual fish before dropping them and moving on to the next.

It was both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring to watch the wounded fish, bitten down to the spine, with the bulk of the muscle between its head and dorsal fin gone, struggle to get back upstream, driven by eons-deep genetic programming. I had never seen a creature so hell-bent on procreation.

After a final flurry of effort, it rolled onto its side and drifted slowly downstream out of sight toward the inlet. I watched it go, then pushed aside the small bloom of melancholy that had begun to form in my chest and forced myself to focus my attention upstream again, where I was now certain a bear was feeding.

Nothing happened. An hour passed. Then another. The tide changed and began swelling up from the inlet into the mouth of the river, climbing the banks, changing the musical tones and scales of water flowing over stones in the river until silencing them altogether as the streambed filled and grew still at the top of the tide.

A fresh wave of salmon moved in with the tide. In the relatively short streams and rivers that fall out of the mountainous islands of Southeast Alaska, the metamorphosis of chum salmon from silver-bodied bullets into goggle-eyed, gator-jawed beasts clad in vivid red, green, and yellow stripes happens much quicker than among the runs that make long journeys up rivers like the Yukon or the Nushagak. The new arrivals were easy to spot among the early fish in their Jacob’s coats of bright colors.

Watching the pulse of new fish move upstream was like watching a heart beat, like seeing the lifeblood of everything that grows in the forest flowing through the veins and arteries of the planet. It was getting late, the shadows along the banks were growing dark with the approach of evening, and my mind settled the way the rising tide had quieted the river.

And then it was there again -- the wounded fish, the terrible gape in its back gleaming red and tattered. It was upright and moving slowly, pushing forward a foot at a time. It’s strange to feel sentiment toward a fish, but its determination made my throat catch. In a few minutes it had pushed out of sight upstream.

It struck me then that such determination is precisely what it will take to keep Alaska’s rivers full of wild salmon. In the face of ever-growing threats, it will take Alaskans who care enough about their traditions and livelihoods, and the health of wild fish populations, to keep organizing, writing, attending, petitioning, demanding, and refusing, even when the sheer size and power of the forces gnawing at the wild runs make it feel as if the back has been bitten out of the average Alaskan’s power to affect things. It may take generations of such single-minded determination to do so.

It was late and I had already started gathering my things when the bear materialized out of the growing shadows across the river, appearing on a gravel bar a hundred yards upstream. It was too far away for a photo and all the color was gone from the scene, and as I watched, the bear became nothing more than a dark shape moving slowly along the edge of the river. So I shouldered my pack and started walking. I knew I would be back again. If I really wanted that photo, I’d just have to keep trying.

Lynn Schooler has been guiding professional wildlife photographers and natural history filmmakers around Alaska for twenty-five years. He is the author of The Blue Bear, The Last Shot, and Walking Home. Writing under the pen name Lynn D'Urso, he is also the author of the novel Heartbroke Bay. You can follow Lynn on Facebook, where he posts a daily photo, more or less, of life in Southeast Alaska.

The Salmon Voices Series is supported by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans' strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life. Support for the project is provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.