Essay: What We’re Fighting to Save in Bristol Bay

Paul Fersen offers a vision of the pristine landscape threatened by Pebble Mine
Photo by Jim Klug
I sat on the edge of the raft, watching the snags slip beneath us. There were thousands in the sixty miles of river, each of them clinging to twisted white bodies like the barbed wire of Verdun. Carcasses lined the shorelines like the aftermath of some apocalyptic battle.

“Pretty amazing isn’t it,” he said.

I turned to Glenn as he pulled on the oars.

“I can’t adequately describe this,” I said.

“Precisely why I bring people here. You have to see it to understand it.”

The ceiling was low and the mountaintops disappeared above us as the ground disappeared below the Beaver, slipping effortlessly through the passes from Dillingham to Kukaktlim Lake. It seemed you could reach out and drag your fingers along the sides of the mountains like a child in a boat with his hand slipping through the water. I sat in the back so Coop, my ten-year old, could ride in the front seat. He constantly turned back to me, that childish grin of wonder never leaving his face. Such fearlessness there is in youth. Nine cylinders of Pratt and Whitney precluded conversation, but his face spoke volumes.

We were headed for a six-day float down the Kukatlik River to the confluence of the Goodnews River and then down to Bristol Bay, as the guests of Glenn Elison and The Conservation Fund, an organization with a refreshing capitalistic approach to conservation that eschews lying in front of the bulldozer for raising money, buying the land, and sending the bulldozer home forever. Glenn is the Director of the Fund’s Southwest Alaskan Salmon Habitat Initiative. He runs six trips a year down this river, the King Salmon, the Arolik, and the Kisarolik, with the purpose of enlightening his donors about why they donate. All the slide shows and evangelical harangues pale compared with floating the river you’re being asked to save. On the last day, waiting for the plane, I rued my inability to do more.

A sudden steep drop and a precipitous turn around a cliff spread the lake before us–surrounded by the shrouded peaks of the Gechiak Mountains, devoid of docks and houses, devoid of humanity save us. No matter how many times I do this, I always feel relief such places still exist.

Glenn; Travis, his son and a fisheries biologist; and Julie, guide, cook and winter fund raiser stood waiting on the shore along with four rafts and enough food and equipment to fuel Stanley’s quest for Livingston. We would pay dearly in the next few hours for such luxury.

Along with Cooper and me were five men from Texas whose substantial discretionary income went partly toward pursuit of game and fish all over the world and partly toward sustaining those resources. True sportsmen they were, and as it turned out honorable and worthy companions whom Coop and I came to regard with great affection.

It took two flights to get us all to the lake, and while we waited Coop made his first foray into the salmon’s world.

Coop is obsessed with fish. He will stand for hours over a bed of bream and catch them over and over again, never becoming sated. He now stood in the shallows of an Alaskan lake, surrounded by wilderness, stunned at the sight of hundreds of bright red sockeyes before him. In seconds, he was hooked to a big male, and his fly line ripped the surface. By the time we moved the rafts to the river, he’d hooked four more. Our adventure was at hand.

I stood at the edge of the gravel bar, leaning against the raft, chest heaving, legs burning, dripping with sweat. The rain mattered little, as no one would be dry that day.

“Damn,” I gasped. Seven of us stood around the raft we had just dragged over 100 yards of shallow gravel bar. Like milers at the finish, we were bent with hands on knees looking at each other with the smiles of shared pain. These were solid 14-foot rafts, stacked like container ships with supplies. Throughout the first day, in the thin upper reaches of the river, we heaved these rafts one at a time over the gravel shallows and then trudged back up to get the next one.

“It’s worth it, “Glenn kept saying. “The reason this river is so pristine, this first ten miles keeps out the lightweights.”

My early exuberance turned to exhausted silence, and I retreated to my thoughts to get through the work. I remembered Kenneth Robert’s great novel of Maine, Arundel, recounting Benedict Arnold’s doomed march, pulling bateaux up the Kennebec, the Dead River, and the Chaudiere to assault Quebec from the rear. As we tugged and heaved through the afternoon, I lost myself in remembered passages.

Four hundred pounds a bateau weighed – a grievous burden for the stoutest shoulders. The first carry was along a mountainside for three and a quarter miles… By the grace of God we ate well on this carry. The first pond was alive with salmon trout, pink fleshed and delicious, so eager for food that they came into shallow water to take a hook, four and five at a time struggling for bait.

By comparison, our efforts were puny, yet exhaustion after a few hours led me to the ultimate conclusion that as a race we will eventually drown in our own weakness. I thought of my office and the countless offices just like it, where countless people stare endlessly at flickering screens, only their fingers moving.

Yet at the same time, I stood in a river much like Robert’s Maine rivers, surrounded by salmon. Two hundred years ago, the upper reaches of the Kennebec must have been much like this, until civilization and its dams and pollution destroyed its salmon. Though Maine has long lost all but a ghost of her salmon runs, here was a river unchanged for eons with millions of sockeyes thrashing past us on their annual journey toward their spawning lake, their huge red backs often exposed above water, grinding across gravel toward the next pool and a brief respite on their odyssey. Our first day, the salmon we saw were almost home.

Occasionally the water deepened and the rods came out, but at the end of each pool another bar loomed. This being summer in Alaska the onset of evening came late, but it brought no relief. Coop persevered, pushing and shoving good-naturedly with the rest of us, dying to fish, but understanding beyond his years, the need to work as the grown-ups.

By mid-morning of the second day, the worst was behind us, and the best lay ahead in the twists and turns of untouched water teeming with sockeye, king, chum, and pink salmon, with silvers to come in the lower reaches of the river. Behind these schools lay the rainbows, Dolly Varden, and grayling, living off salmon flesh and salmon roe – a virtual conveyor belt of bacon and eggs. Hundreds of thousands of fish and no one to catch them but us.

Coop’s obsession with fish was fueled by Travis, a young fisheries biologist born to the Alaskan bush and guiding on this trip. Coop became Travis’s shadow, and the questions flowed as endlessly as the river.

“How do they know where to go?”

“The fish know this is their river by the smell. They even know which tributary and even which pool by the differences in the minerals. Every part of the river has a distinct difference in the water, at least to the salmon. They know exactly where they belong.”

“What makes some of them look so bad?”

“See those two kings? One is in tough shape and the other looking really bright and strong? They begin to decompose when they hit fresh water, but those that spawn in the lower river decompose faster, and those that need to get further up the river stay stronger until they reach their home. It’s how nature disperses the fish up and down the river.”

The lessons continued down the river, constantly interrupted by the tug of solid Alaskan fish whose difference in attitude to Lower-48 fish was in line with the difference in landscape.
Though the rivers were full of salmon and we had no compunctions about tying into them, the real targets were the rainbows and Dollies. They were big, fat, and nasty–no sipping rises, no subtle surface dimples. These fish were eating meat, and they tore into our offerings with abandon, the rainbows leaping across the river like tarpon.

I brought five boxes of flies. After the first day, I never opened them. The fish wanted only one thing: the yarn fly.

“These fish aren’t looking up,” said Travis. “They’re hanging underneath the salmon eating flesh and eggs.”

I tried a number of egg patterns with limited success, but this simple tuft of yarn attached to a hook with a snell knot was ridiculously productive. At the end of the day, every rod in camp sported a bright orange tuft of yarn. I’ve never seen such unanimity of choice on any trip, in any fishery. All pride in angling knowledge quickly dissipated in the unyielding fact that this fly was the magic bullet. My only thought was, who had sat by the river and concluded that snelling some yarn on a hook would catch fish? Did he fall in the river and lose all his flies? Was indicator yarn the only option left to him? Whatever the reason, the yarn fly was frighteningly productive.

The river widened as we drifted toward the ocean. The small gravel bars where we camped upriver became huge expanses of gravel stretching hundreds of yards wide and deep. The horizon opened up in the waning days and an endless ring of mountains stretched around us each night.
The night brought rest and spectacular meals, prepared by Julie, a professionally trained chef, who handles her boat and fishes with the best of them. Unquestionably attractive and in these environs startlingly so, her only nod to gender was a string of incongruous pearls. Waders and pearls: an enchanting combination. That she could conjure up scratch chocolate cakes in a Dutch oven and had an ever-present bag of chocolate candy was all Coop cared to know.

On the fifth day, on a gravel bar having lunch, reality unceremoniously arrived–the faint drone of an engine, a jet boat moving up from the lower river, the first mechanical sound we had heard in a few days. It was then that we collectively understood the significance of the wild: the absence of man and his conveniences. Disappointed looks passed between us as though we’d been slapped.

The boat passed. It was a couple of guides from Bristol Bay on their day off headed upriver to fish, perhaps searching for what we had just lost. They stopped and talked to Travis, then continued upriver. The river quieted again. We continued downriver, now painfully aware that we were nearing the end.

We fished from the rafts, drifting over pools, stopping intermittently at runs we knew would hold big rainbows–runs that concentrated the flesh and eggs flushing down from the countless dying salmon upriver.

Travis and David were a hundred yards downriver, pulling rainbows from a deep run. I leaned against the raft, with a cup of coffee watching a caribou move through the brilliant lavender fireweed on the hillside across the river. In the eddy next to me, a king drifted slowly toward the bank on her side. She had no fins to speak of, having worn them out clearing the silt from her nest. Her skin was pale and in the middle stages of decomposition. Her eye was cloudy, and she was undoubtedly blind.

An almost imperceptible motion in what was left of her tail pushed her the last few inches to the gravel. I knelt beside her and watched her gills move slowly until finally they stopped.
Seven years prior, she left this river on an incomparable journey to the ocean, dodging predators, nets and swimming thousands of miles in the Pacific, until something told her to come back. She again dodged and weaved her way through countless dangers, wearing away her body on the gravel and ultimately finishing her life in the pool where she was born. Her success: eggs lying in the gravel and flesh to feed an ecosystem containing hundreds of other species. It was a death of Homeric stature.

The following morning, Coop stood in the river searching for a rolling pink or silver. It was his last chance, as the drone of the Beaver was faint in the distance. The tide was moving and the silvers moved with it, beginning their journey up the river, the last of the salmon to come home. I watched him cast here at the mouth of the river and realized he had changed perceptibly in the past six days, exchanging a bit of the boy for a bit of the man. He looked taller. We were finishing our greatest adventure and perhaps one of our last as man and boy. Soon it would be man and man.

He stands at the mouth of his river, his ocean stretching out in front of him. His nets and predators, his long journeys, all lay before him. How extraordinary to be 10 and yet one never realizes it until 50. I have a father’s faith that he will do something good on his journey, perhaps step up and work to save what’s left.

I’ve already seen most of my nets, dodged most of my predators. My ocean is behind me and I now stand at the mouth of my river looking upstream.

This story first appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal.

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