Embracing The Wild Life In Alaska
The following appears in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
Editor’s note: “I’d pined for a home like this my entire youth, visions of a life lived close to nature and wildlife,” author Tom Walker writes in his new book about living in Alaska as a photographer. Walker grew up in Los Angeles, and in his urban youth some of his best days were spent trout fishing with his dad in the eastern Sierra Nevada Range. Now having lived for more than half a century adjacent to Denali National Park, Walker shares the connection with the Last Frontier’s fauna he’s captured with a camera over years of interactions with everything from bears to salmon to moose. The following is excerpted with permission from Wild Shots: A Photographer’s Life in Alaska (Mountaineers Books, September 2019) by Tom Walker.
BY TOM WALKER
I anchored the boat in a bay at the mouth of a pristine coastal stream in Prince William Sound. Leaden clouds covered the valley, masking the serrated, glacier-clad peaks of the coastal range.
Under the lichen-draped spruce and hemlock canopy skirting the slopes lay a carpet of moss and thickets of spiny devil’s club, alder, ferns, and blueberry bushes. Rufous hummingbirds flitted through the trees while high overhead, marbled murrelets, a small seabird, nested on the mossy limbs of 400-year-old evergreens, some with a basal diameter of nine feet. Tiny birds atop forest monarchs, a scene as if envisioned by Tolkien.
Ashore, standing on limpet- and barnacle-encrusted cobbles and the shards of countless clamshells, I inhaled the scents of the forest and a vibrant spawning stream. Damp salt air mingled with the smell of dead and dying pink salmon, a rich, pungent aroma more of life than death.
Gulls feuded and fussed over fish scraps, their ubiquitous cries filling the air. Two bald eagles perched on the rocks at the stream’s edge, another soared over the tidal flat, scattering the gulls, while just down the bay two juvenile eagles waited high in their enormous nest for a parent to bring food.
Mergansers, trailed by their broods, bobbed in the swift current searching for salmon eggs. Small numbers of silver salmon mixed with large schools of pink salmon now forcing their way upstream against the ebbing tide. Just offshore silvers jumped and twisted in the light, eluding harbor seals lurking below.
EVERY TWO YEARS, PINK salmon return to these natal waters to spawn and die. Over the winter, their eggs, nurtured in the gravel by the nutrient-rich, icy water, mature and hatch. The young, called fry, pulse in spring downstream to continue their lifecycle far out at sea. A magnetic map and chemical clues will guide the mature fish back to this exact spot.
Abundant protein lures meat eaters of all kinds. Twice I had seen coyotes here, once a wolf, and river otters many times. Ravens and crows searched for scraps, stealing from the eagles and gulls alike. At times the stream seemed so packed with salmon that it looked as if I could have stepped across on their backs.
I’ll never forget the first time I came here, by small rented skiff, motoring the calm, gray-green waters of the sound, the distant spouts of humpback whales on the horizon. My companion and I passed a luminous waterfall where a bald eagle perched on a nearby spruce, only the second I’d ever seen. “Look! A bald eagle!” I shouted. My companion scarcely looked. He’d lived here a long time, seen plenty of eagles.
On this day, years later, I came here for the bears. Both black and brown bears lived on this stream and gorged on salmon. A few feet up from the tideline, I saw the first tracks, huge brown bear prints engraved in the sand.
Salmon heads, tails and bones littered the shore, leftovers of feasting carnivores. When I crossed the shallow stream, hordes of fish panicked and pushed ahead; some flipped right onto the bank. Each sandbar, every patch of mud, was engraved with tracks: gulls, crows, black bears, brown bears.
In the upper part of the tidal flat, colored green and gold with moss and seaweed, and near what appeared to be a favored fishing site, I sat down to wait.
Within minutes, a shadow detached from the forest and sauntered into the creek. A brief lunge, a snap of jaws, and like that, the black bear waded out, a pink salmon struggling in its jaws. In a soft, feathery rain, the bear unhurriedly carried its catch into the timber.
Another black bear, smaller and more animated, rushed from the far tree line, ran across the flats, and plunged into the river, salmon escaping in all directions. The young bear charged, left and right, back and forth, pouncing and pawing at every fish but without success. Then, on the bank, it spied a salmon hurtled ashore by the initial panic.
The bear charged forward and seized it with its teeth and front paws. Like a robber fleeing a bank, the bear raced off across the flats for the safety of the woods. I was reminded that not all bears are good fishers.
Over the next two hours, I watched the fishing techniques of a half-dozen black bears of various sizes and ages. Some wandered in, grabbed a fish and departed; others plunged in and bucked the current. All of them got fish; a few settled for spawned-out carcasses. Once, near the head of the tidal flat, where the creek emerged from the forest, a female with a small cub made a brief foray from cover but retreated when another bear appeared close by.
Not one single black bear ate its catch on the bank; they all carried their catch into the safety of the woods. It was telling behavior; something dominant and dangerous lurked there.
A LULL IN THE action descended at midday. Hours dragged by without a single bear in view. Eagles wheeled and called; crows yammered from the stream bank; increasing rain beat a steady tattoo. I watched a pair of otters slide over the rocks and panic a shoal of fish. An uneasy tension pervaded the glowering mists, and I fidgeted with anticipation. Then, there, across the flats, stalked a giant – a brown bear, one of the undisputed masters of this realm.
The bear was deep chocolate brown, almost black. No mistaking this hulk for a black bear, for it was at least three times the size of any other bear I had seen that day. The big humped shoulders, the keg-sized head, the long whitish claws identified the species and signified its status: 1,000 pounds of fur, muscle and power. A thought ran through my head: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil since I’m the biggest, baddest bear in the valley.
The brown bear ambled to the riverbank, scarcely glancing right or left, then wandered upstream, pausing to sniff at scraps and carcasses along the way. He was literally waddling fat, the beneficiary of nature’s munificence. In a pool below a fast riffle that slowed the salmon’s upstream struggle, he waded into massed fish, lowered his head, and in slow motion snapped up a big male pink salmon. He gave the humpbacked fish a slight shake, seemed to study it, and then dropped it back into the water, uninterested. He made another grab and pulled out a fresh, bright female.
Back on the bank the bear used its front paws to pin the salmon to the ground, then ripped the egg sack from the body, sending a scatter of bright red eggs across the rocks. The bear lapped up the nutritious roe, stripped off the skin, then abandoned the rest to the gulls. In early summer it would have eaten the entire fish. Now, having gained tremendous bulk, the bear was picky, stripping the eggs, skin, eyes, and brain, leaving the rest. Others ignored live fish, preferring instead the putrid remains dredged up from the bottom. It was disturbing to watch fish being torn apart, left twitching on the sand, their struggle to spawn ruined, a vivid reminder of the sometimes brutal cycle of life, a macabre dance of predator and prey.
I ENDED MY VIGIL in late afternoon and walked back to the skiff in pounding rain. Before shoving off, I turned for one last look at the mists drifting across the slopes and over the flats. I listened to the birds and watched salmon forging their way upstream, pleased that this remote stream still supported an abundance and variety of life unmatched elsewhere.
All of it harkened to a time when Alaska was wild and pure – solely the kingdom of the great bear, a place where all else gave way to its passage. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Tom Walker’s book Wild Shots: A Photographer’s Life in Alaska and info about how to order a copy, go to mountaineers.org/books/books/
Q&A with Wild Shots author Tom Walker:
Chris Cocoles Congratulations on this latest book. It’s fantastic. Was Wild Shots maybe more sentimental for you than some of your previous work?
Tom Walker I would not say sentimental at all. Maybe reflective would be a better term. At this point in my life, my goal was to record what I think were some fairly unique incidents and insights. Previous works have been how-to, biographies and natural histories, with this work in the latter category.
CC You’ve been in Alaska for 50 years now. What was your early experience like in the Last Frontier?
TW Fifty-four years now. In a word, the experience was invigorating. With so much new and so much of intense interest, I could not soak it all in. Wishing for a few years, I had a must-do list of places to see and experience. The list is longer today.
CC I’m pretty envious of you that Denali National Park is almost your backyard. What’s that been like for you?
TW Heartbreaking. To love some terrain so much and see it change so much in a negative way, it has been difficult. Climate change is very real and to watch the effects on the wildlife and plants that have evolved over millennia is difficult. Here in the Far North, the concept is not abstract but a real ongoing process that people who look to nature can readily see and experience.
CC Tell me about growing up around Los Angeles and how the outdoors shaped your life.
TW The outdoors was salvation. I think some people are just cast into places they are not geared for or supposed to be. At heart I was a country boy and living in the city was for me the proverbial square peg. Once I could wander freely into undeveloped spaces, deserts, shores, and mountains, did I find a measure of peace.
CC You write about your dad’s love of trout fishing and the trips you took in your California days. Can you share a memory of fishing with your dad?
TW Hiking to an alpine lake with my dad, just he and I, to fish for golden trout was a memorable trip complete with a close look at two big mule deer bucks. Fishing a shoreline of a crystalline lake with no one else around was a peerless memory.
CC What’s the biggest challenge about photographing wildlife?
TW Not drowning, dying of hypothermia, falling off a cliff, or crashing in a small plane. The wildlife, if you have studied your critters, poses the least risk. Alaska – and it’s true of northern Canada as well – is difficult country with challenges of weather and remoteness.
CC Do you have a favorite species of animal that you’ve really savored interacting with and taking photos of?
TW Dall sheep. I love the high mountains where they live, the vista they savor every day, and their ability to thrive in such inhospitable (to humans) terrain. Imagine living where the wind shrieks, the thermometer drops to minus 60 or more, and the night can be 24 hours long in winter. They are tough but gorgeous creatures.
CC What has been your fishing experience like since moving to Alaska?
TW Mostly salmon in both saltwater and fresh. Silver salmon and red salmon offer great freshwater fishing. The best sportfishing has been for sheefish, the so-called “tarpon of the north,” which are great fighters and wonderful eating. It may be my weird thinking, but I never fish for king salmon. I worked on a rehab project for this species and don’t want to kill one.
CC You have a chapter about polarizing grizzly bear personality Timothy Treadwell and the relationship you had with him. Can you sum up what his legacy will be?
TW He did more harm than good. He had a true gift in reaching out to children and giving a conservation lesson. But in the end, when he died it was all undone.
CC Obviously, hunting is such a huge part of the fabric of Alaskans. What’s your take on hunting in the state and how it can be better or more effective in terms of conservation?
TW All I will say on this topic is Alaskan wildlife resources are finite and there will never be enough to meet the demand. Overharvest has been a problem in the past and as the population grows, careful management will be needed to guard against future depletions.
CC Salmon in both Alaska and your native state of California are under siege for various reasons. Do you have a hunch on what might happen to these remarkable fish in the future?
TW That’s beyond my expertise. (But) here we have a proposed Pebble Mine that will threaten the greatest wild salmon runs in the world. Imaging risking a pristine food source that feeds thousands, if not tens of thousands of people, for copper. Crazy.
CC You’ve seen a lot in the wilderness in your time exploring. Is there something you haven’t seen that you hope to accomplish someday?
TW Anything to do with wolverines. I have seen about a dozen but would like a closer, longer observation. It’s perhaps our least understood critter. ASJ