The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
Editor’s note: “Throughout my Alaska travels, I posed the question, ‘What would your life be like without salmon?’” Amy Gulick writes in her new book, The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind. It’s a question with a lot of different, if not complex answers. And it’s at the heart of Gulick’s look at Pacific salmon and how the fish and the fishing industry affect so many in the Last Frontier. Tagging along with recreational anglers, guides and commercial fishermen, Gulick explains why the fish and the residents of the 49th state are kindred spirits. The following is excerpted with permission from The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind (Braided River, May 2019) by Amy Gulick.
BY AMY GULICK
Squeezed between two companions in the back of a Cessna seaplane, I feel small. Not because of our cramped quarters but because of the grandeur we are soaring over.
The vast tundra below is beginning its fall transformation to a luxurious carpet of orange and red. Rays of light bend and extend over mountaintops as the rising sun pierces the dawn. Everywhere there is water – inkblot ponds, curlicue creeks, and oblong lakes. What I can’t see are the millions of fish in all that water amid all that beauty.
It’s not so much about the fish; it’s about where the fish take you. These words have been spoken to me many times by my longtime friend Ed, a 73-year-old retired motorcycle-riding preacher who wields a fly rod as his instrument to enlightenment.
Although Ed is not with me in the plane, his words are. Never having been much into sportfishing, yet surrounded by many people in my life who are, I’ve often scratched my head over the appeal. But as I gaze out the window at a view of perpetual glory, I start to get it. I begin to understand Ed and the legions seduced by the allure of fishing.
The pilot skims a lake in the middle of nowhere Alaska and deposits our group of four on the shore. Clad in chest waders and carrying fly rods and camera equipment, we set off across the tundra, a living mosaic of lowbush cranberry, reindeer lichen, and the ever pungent Labrador tea plant.
The spongy ground and our clunky boots make for slow going, giving us time to enjoy our stunning surroundings of nothing but wild country. After a wobbly 45-minute trek, we arrive at a high ridge overlooking Nanuktuk Creek, also known as Little Ku, in Katmai National Preserve.
It’s spawning season, and this stretch of the creek is shallow, narrow, and jammed with tomato-red sockeye salmon. Katmai National Preserve is part of the Bristol Bay watershed, an enormous and rich system of rivers and lakes that boasts the world’s largest run of wild sockeye.
Every year, tens of millions of sockeye stream into nine major rivers, some of the state’s largest lakes, and countless tributaries to spawn the next generation. But we are not here for salmon. We are here because of salmon. Of the many species that feast on this plethora of protein, none seduce more sport fishermen to this part of the world than rainbow trout. And nowhere in Alaska are the rainbows as abundant and large as they are here. It’s easy to see why.
Salmon provide a plentiful diet: nutrient-rich eggs, spawned carcasses of the adults and young salmon that emerge in the spring. Rainbows here can reach monster size – a mind-boggling 30 inches in length. These “trophy” trout are the reason that Bristol Bay fishing is deemed world-class and tops every serious fly fisherman’s bucket list. They are also the reason that another fishing friend of mine has christened the region “The Holy Water.”
ALTHOUGH WE’RE HERE IN pursuit of trout, we learn that trout aren’t the only beings in pursuit of salmon. From our vantagepoint above the creek we spot a big brown bear immersed in a pool upstream. He’s gorging on easy pickings – the salmon swim past him in a steady stream as if they were on a liquid conveyor belt.
“We need to stick together as a group and keep an eye on our packs at all times,” says Heidi Wild, our guide for the day. “The last thing we want is for a bear to come between us or get into our packs while we’re at the creek.”
So we’re going toward danger? With a can of bear spray clipped to Heidi’s slight frame as our only defense? And we’re how far away from any kind of emergency aid? I keep these thoughts to myself as we begin our steep descent. When we reach the creek, the bear is gone from the pool, but there are bruin freeways along both brushy banks. I surrender my reservations and put my utmost trust in our guide.
With wavy blonde hair, blue eyes, and a smile that makes you feel all is right with the world – even if a bear suggests otherwise – Heidi looks much younger than her 38 years. She’s been guiding sport fishermen for only a few years, but her background assures me that she’s got this.
Born in western Canada, Heidi grew up in Washington state and Oregon, spending much of her childhood fishing the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. She became a U.S. citizen at age eighteen so that she could join the U.S. Air Force and serve the country she was proud to call home. She was stationed in the Middle East during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Upon returning stateside, Heidi landed in Alaska for the first time, assigned to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.
“It was quite the contrast going from sand to salmon,” she says. “Alaska felt like coming home, but to a home I had not yet known. Returning to streams, rivers, and mountains, which were always the backdrop to my childhood in the Pacific Northwest, rejuvenated my soul.”
After her time in the military, Heidi remained in Alaska and began a career in the financial services industry. But something kept calling her back to her dual loves of fishing and serving others. So she volunteered with Project Healing Waters, an organization dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled military personnel and veterans through fly fishing.
“The time that I spent with these incredible soldiers was both humbling and profound,” she remembers. “Many of them had difficulty talking about their experiences. But casting into a stream in the wild, the silence of nature enveloped them, speaking volumes where words often fell short. They could just be. Be embraced by the beauty of the land and the abundance of the rivers. Return to something inherent in them, in all of us. I knew with every fiber of my being that I had to bring this sense of purpose, healing, and wonder to people. To reconnect them with nature and fill the devastation and void that life often leaves in its wake.”
Heidi now guides sport fishermen full-time from May through October through a fishing lodge in the Bristol Bay region. She spends her winters building custom fly rods and volunteering with organizations that promote clean water. She wants to ensure that her 14-year-old son and the generations that follow have the opportunity to fish and experience thriving wild places.
THE CURRENT GENERATION OF sockeye before me in Little Ku is ensuring the creation of the next. Paired up and bunched up, the salmon fill this narrow stretch from bank to bank. The trout lurk beneath the salmon, slurping stray eggs floating downstream.
I gingerly walk down the middle of the creek and a wall of fish opens and streams along both sides of me. It’s impossible not to feel like Moses parting the Red Sea. The water sings with the riffles of the shallows and the ripples of the salmon swaying in the current. The rhythms of this place find us and extend an invitation to go with the flow of what is real.
We accept, casting into the water, into our minds, fishing for whatever this way comes. Few words are exchanged. The shared connection to the land, the fish and the crisp air bonds us together better than words ever could. Time slows and becomes irrelevant. What matters is what’s happening now, not what happened years ago or what will happen tomorrow. It’s intoxicating, this business of feeling alive.
“Ooh – is that a bear?” says Heidi, peering toward the willows along the bank.
My inner calm is disrupted by her voice, but I remain hyperfocused in the moment. All that matters is what’s happening now, and what’s happening now is that two of us are downstream of a bear, two of us are upstream, and our packs are in the middle on a small gravel bar in the creek. Exactly the scenario we’ve been so good at avoiding all day. All we can see is the bear’s face peeking through the brush, but it’s clear he’s enormous, his ears melding into the furry hump behind his head. He creeps into a clearing and turns broadside to us – a polite way of intimidating his neighbors by showing his size. It’s effective.
“Let’s slowly wade toward each other and to our packs,” says Heidi, giving a calm command while keeping her eyes on the bear at the water’s edge. As we clump together in the creek and gather our gear, the bear ambles upstream from us and stops. He turns broadside again. I think he’s exercising his patience by not running us off, but I also think he’s telling us that we have overstayed our welcome in his dining room.
“We need to leave the creek now,” Heidi says in a steady voice with a hint of urgency, “but we can’t go back up the bank the way we came down because that’s where the bear is.”
We splash across the creek, salmon bodies thrashing against our legs as they race away from us. When our boots hit the ground on the other side, we pick up the pace, scrambling up a steep bank entangled with a wall of willows. Bashing through the brush, we come into a small clearing, only to discover it’s a bear bed dug into the side of the bank. Fortunately it’s unoccupied. Then we see another bear bed, and another. We keep climbing, announcing our presence with “Hey, bear!” shouts, all the while leery of what might be obstructed just steps in front of us. It’s like we’re on an endless staircase to nowhere.
We push, pull, and grunt our way up and finally reach the top. Flopping onto our backs, blood pumping, hearts racing, no one speaks. The adrenaline subsides and our breathing slows. And then the laughter begins. Laughter at the comical bushwhack up the bank of “bear condos.” Laughter at ourselves for fleeing the scene. And laughter because it’s exhilarating to be in this staggeringly beautiful place sharing this world-class moment with new friends.
My old friend Ed is right. It’s not so much about the fish; it’s about where the fish take you. ASJ
SIDEBAR: Q&A WITH AUTHOR AMY GULICK
BY CHRIS COCOLES
She grew up in the Heartland of America, but Amy Gulick’s heart now belongs to the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and salmon.
Gulick hails from Illinois farm country, but after relocating to Washington state, Gulick began to understand how coveted these remarkable fish are along the Pacific Coast.
“Intrigued that there are still places where people are an integral part of a salmonscape, I set to explore the web of human relationships that revolve around salmon in Alaska,” Gulick writes in her second book about the Last Frontier, The Salmon Way: An Alaska State Of Mind.
We caught up with Gulick to get a little more details on her fascination with salmon.
Chris Cocoles Congratulations on a fantastic book. I know you’ve previously written a book about Alaska, but what was your motivation to take on this project?
Amy Gulick I live in Washington state, where there were once staggering runs of salmon, but today we have less than 10 percent of our historical abundance. And so I’ve always been intrigued that Alaska is still a place – probably the last place in the world –where the lives of people and salmon are linked. I wanted to know what it’s like for people whose lives revolve around these remarkable fish.
CC You touched on this in the book, but what attracted you to your fascination with salmon considering you grew up in Illinois?
AG There is something about salmon that makes me reflect on my own life. The fish face obstacles at every stage of their life cycle, and yet against all odds they persist. Even those that don’t make it to spawn serve a purpose, passing on their life force to bears, birds, marine mammals and people. Salmon teach us that life is temporary and to make the best of it while we’re here.
CC What was your first experience like in Alaska?
AG My first time in Alaska was life altering. In my late 20s, I drove from Puget Sound in Washington through British Columbia, took the Alaska ferry to Haines, drove through the Yukon to Tok, and down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer. I had never seen so much wild country. It was September, and I watched brown and black bears, the Nelchina caribou herd, beluga whales, and spawning salmon all functioning pretty much as they have for millennia.
CC This is your second book about Alaska now – Salmon In The Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rainforest in 2010 being your first project from up there. Do you learn something new about the state and maybe about yourself every time you’re there?
AG Every time I’m in Alaska, I am reminded just how enormous and diverse the state is. And how Alaska Natives, as well as newcomers, have adapted to live in temperate rainforest, boreal forest, tundra, the Arctic, and coastal environments. I am constantly humbled by the raw beauty, the harshness of the wild, and the graciousness of the people I meet.
CC In my job as editor of this magazine, so many Lower 48ers I’ve encountered have been mesmerized by the lure of Alaska. Why do you think that is?
AG In much of the Lower 48, we’ve created living environments where most people are disconnected from what’s real, where we don’t have to think much about where our food or water comes from. We control our temperature, our sound, our scenery by pressing a button. Alaska shows us what is real and helps us connect to our true nature.
CC Your husband Chris was raised in a commercial fishing atmosphere and you wrote about both the commercial fish industry and sportfishing in The Salmon Way. Were you able to get a lot of perspective about the similarities and differences between both industries?
AG When I was working on The Salmon Way, I spent time with a diversity of salmon people to understand the similarities and differences among commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, Alaska Natives, subsistence folks, and people who fish for personal use. And you know what? Regardless of whether people fish for their food, livelihood or fun, I found that when I asked people what salmon meant to them, everyone said the same thing: Family, community, culture, and connection to the land and a valued way of life.
CC From what I read you were able to really capture the essence of why salmon are such a critical natural resource in Alaska. Given the political climate right now and the controversy of salmon conservationists fighting against projects like the Pebble Mine, how important is it for Alaskans and others to keep fighting for salmon?
AG Because I live in a region that has decimated its salmon by degrading their habitat, I see how difficult it is to bring the fish back. And once they’re gone, people move on and pretty soon they don’t even know what they lost. Alaska is the last place in the world where we have an opportunity to get it right. It’s why I made my book: To celebrate that the salmon way is still a way of life.
But there is a cautionary tale to tell too. We live in a time where salmon won’t be around if people don’t fight for them. Whether it’s a Pebble Mine, Susitna Dam, Chuitna Coal, or who knows what else, we lose salmon one stream at a time, one river at a time. It’s a gradual process, but in a few generations they’re gone. So it’s clear that a salmon-filled future in Alaska depends on people fighting for the fish and for a way of life.
CC Throughout the book you’ve profiled many different folks who are involved in one way or another with salmon and/or fishing. Was there was one person you met who really had a lasting impact on you?
AG Everyone I met touched me in some way, but if I had to choose one person who made a lasting impact on me I would say it was a Native Tlingit woman in Sitka. She taught me the difference between viewing salmon as a “resource” or viewing them as a “relationship.” The word “resource” implies an end product, a commodity. But “relationship” is so much deeper and multi-faceted. If you have a relationship with salmon, then you also have a relationship to a river, a home stream and the ocean. And you probably have relationships with people in your community connected to each other by way of salmon. We show gratitude for healthy relationships because they make our lives richer.
CC In recent years, Alaska and throughout the West Coast, from your current home near Seattle all the way down to California, have endured some difficult times with salmon runs. Do you feel good about the health and future of Pacific salmon here on the West Coast?
AG Salmon have survived ice ages, volcanic eruptions, drought, floods, and fire. They are hardy creatures that can thrive as long as they have what they need. And that’s the kicker – salmon are one of those species that needs it all. They need clean, healthy, unobstructed freshwater rivers, streams and lakes to spawn and rear, and they need a productive ocean to mature.
In the Lower 48, their freshwater habitat has been decimated and so the outlook there isn’t good. But in Alaska, the habitat is largely intact. Threats to salmon in Alaska include those that are preventable – overfishing and habitat degradation; and those that are unknown – the effects of a changing climate and acidifying ocean. Maintaining as much healthy habitat as possible will be key to the resiliency of salmon to withstand whatever stressors they’ll face in the future. I have hope for salmon in Alaska because there is still so much habitat for them and many people want their salmon ways of life to continue. Forever.
CC In the book you refer to salmon as “a gift.” Can you expand on that a bit?
AG Throughout my travels while I was working on the book, no matter where I went or whom I met with, I always seemed to leave with salmon in my hands. I was so touched by the generosity that the salmon people showed me. Many Alaskans told me that salmon are a gift – to the land, waters, animals, plants, and people. And when you’re on the receiving end of a gift, you give back. It’s a way to honor, respect and give thanks to the fish. It’s the salmon way, and it’s the Alaska way.
Editor’s note: Writer and photographer Amy Gulick has received numerous honors including a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation, the Daniel Housberg Wilderness Image Award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and the Voice of the Wild Award from the Alaska Wilderness League. She is the recipient of both the Mission Award and the Philip Hyde Grant Award from the North American Nature Photography Association.
Her first book, Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rainforest (Braided River, 2010) is both a Nautilus and Independent Publisher Book Award winner. She lives with her husband on an island in Washington’s Puget Sound. Follow Amy at amygulick.com. For more information on her book visit thesalmonway.org.