The following book excerpt appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
Editor’s note: Fjords and fish; bears and birds; glaciers and glitz; Prince William Sound represents one of North America’s most spectacular backyards and flanks Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Author Debbie Miller and photographer Hugh Rose chronicled every step they took around the breathtaking Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area, a 2-million-acre natural wonderland on the sound’s west side, then tag-teamed to create a new book that highlights the region’s flora and fauna. The following is excerpted with permission from A Wild Promise: Prince William Sound (published by Braided River, 2018) by Debbie S. Miller; photography by Hugh Rose. Braided River is an imprint of Mountaineers Books.
BY DEBBIE S. MILLER
PHOTOS BY HUGH ROSE
It’s a breathless morning on McClure Bay. Layers of clouds and mist obscure the surrounding mountains, shrouding the rainforest in silence. The rhythmic stroking of paddles breaks the quiet as our kayak slips through the glassy intertidal water. Below, I spot small, purple shore crabs racing between barnacle-specked rocks, while gold rockweed undulates with the current. Every so often we see a dazzling orange or purple starfish, anchored in a sheltered pool.
On this particular day, I’m paddling with Kaz, an 82-year-old woman on her first trip to Alaska. Fit and full of enthusiasm, this is also her first experience in a kayak, and she’s thrilled to be paddling. A retired graphic designer, Kaz sees the beauty in rock and water, the intricate patterns of nature, and the subtle elements of a landscape few would stop to study and photograph.
“What’s that?” Kaz hears a strange new sound.
It’s the shrill, descending chitter of a bald eagle soaring above us. We watch it perch on the crown of a moss-cloaked Sitka spruce. We’re close enough to see the intense golden eyes of this formidable bird. Kaz and I spot several bald eagles, some flying above the forest, others gazing down at us from their evergreen perches. When eagles gather near the head of a bay or an incoming stream, you can safely bet that salmon are there.
Soon we see salmon jumping and wriggling up a nearby shallow inlet stream. It’s low tide, so we can clearly observe the big chum salmon (also known as dog salmon in Alaska because they are traditionally fed to sled dogs). They wiggle and scoot across the water’s surface, dorsal fins and backs exposed. There are hundreds of them, moving through the shallows, thrashing and splashing to reach the clear freshwater inlet.
Without a whisper, Hugh points across the stream, near the forest’s edge. We study the landscape of tall spruce and hemlock, alder thickets, and a fringe of meadow. Something round and dark is moving. A big black bear, looking healthy, with a belly no doubt full of salmon, ambles through the grasses and scattered willows. What a great place to scoop up a favorite fish.
This bear is one of few sighted on Discovery [tour boat] trips in recent years. Their numbers have dropped in the area because of increased hunting pressure, which includes the allowance of bear baiting. While black bears were once regularly seen along the streams and beaches of Prince William Sound, road access to Whittier and overhunting has diminished their population. A number of people have raised their voices about the worrisome decline, including Dean, who has witnessed it.
We watch the sleek bear with glossy, thick black fur swagger up the river in no particular hurry. Near the stream, there are thickets of salmonberries and blueberries, a perfect buffet for the bear. After he disappears in the woods, we beach the kayaks and take a closer look at the salmon as they muscle upstream through water just a few inches deep.
CROUCHED ON THE RIVERBANK, I’m looking into the eyes of several large chum salmon, their heads and slithering bodies well above the water. Chum salmon are hefty fish, second only to king salmon in size. The spawning males have hooked jaws with sharp, canine-like teeth. Their mouths gape as they fin their bodies forward. Some become stranded in the shallows. They twist, jackknife their bodies, and leap to reach deeper water.
The clear water of the stream offers a great chance to see these colorful fish. The males, some of them 10-pounders, have flashing plum stripes streaking across their silver-green bodies. Each fish has a unique psychedelic, tie-dyed pattern of colors. The females’ coloring is more subdued, with a dark stripe running along the midline of their silvery bodies.
The countless streams around Prince William Sound support healthy salmon spawning runs, including four species of Pacific salmon: chum (dog), pink (humpback), red (sockeye), and silver (coho) salmon. Two major state-owned hatcheries in the Chugach wilderness also enhance pink and sockeye runs, largely for commercial fishing.
While the hatcheries produce millions of fish for the commercial fishing industry, some worry that over time such fish will diminish the strength and productivity of wild salmon, and, in fact, some scientists argue that this is already happening.
These wild chum salmon are nearing the end of their lives. After spending three to four years at sea, they now return to their birthplace, the natal stream where we stand. Here the males and females will pair and spawn. In three to four months, their buried fertilized eggs will hatch.
The tiny fry will spend a short time in the stream, then migrate to saltwater when they are 1 to 2 inches long. For several months, they will live in protected waters, hiding in eelgrass beds, eating insects and crustaceans, escaping bigger fish. When ready, the survivors will venture out into the big, deep blue.
This stream is pristine. Each fin, every rock, each wisp of algae is in perfect focus. It is one stream of thousands that flow into Prince William Sound from the glaciated mountains and through the dense forest. The temperate rainforest filters every raindrop through its moss-cloaked branches, its understory of devil’s club and ferns, its thick sedge meadows, and its luxurious carpet of spongy sphagnum moss. This filtering creates the crystalline, pure, oxygen-rich water that spawning salmon need.
EACH STREAM IN THE rainforest is a living thread connecting land to sea. What the stream and sheltering forest give to the salmon, the salmon give back when they return to their birthplace. The spawning salmon are a source of food for many forest creatures, and the marine nutrients from their decaying carcasses enrich the web of life in and around the streams. As much as 70 percent of the nitrogen found in vegetation near spawning streams comes directly from salmon. This means a Sitka spruce in salmon-spawning country can grow more than three times faster than trees living away from such streams.
Amy Gulick’s book Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest eloquently portrays this story. Just as salmon are in the trees, so are trees in the salmon. The leaves and needles of streamside plants provide shelter and food for invertebrates. Some of those tiny creatures fall in the water and become a salmon meal. When leaves, branches, or trees fall in a stream, they provide nutrients and food for bacteria, algae, plankton, and aquatic insects. Young salmon then thrive on these food sources. Each generation of salmon benefits from the nutrient-rich forest that their ancestors helped create. ASJ
Editor’s note: To order A Wild Promise: Prince William Sound, go to https://www.braidedriver.org/wild-promise. For more on the author and photographer, check out https://www.debbiemilleralaska.com/ and https://hughrosephotography.com/.