Turnagain Arm, south of Anchorage, received its name from one William Bligh, who was serving under Captain James Cook, during his search for the Northwest Passage. Bligh was sent out with a party to explore the two arms of what is now Cook Inlet. Both arms of the inlet led to rivers, and not the famed Northwest Passage, and Bligh testily named the final arm Turn-Again, because they had to turn around for a second time. It’s no wonder his crew would eventually mutiny.
At low tide, Turnagain Arm becomes a large mud flat. The tides here are the largest in the United States, coming in at 40 feet. The arm is also known for its tidal bores, which can be as high as six feet, which is an impressive sight, as it rushes across the arm. Beluga whales often surf the bore as it comes in.
The Eklutna River, in South-central Alaska, was once a source of a thriving salmon population. A hydroelectric dam was built in the late 1920’s to send power to the growing town of Anchorage, ending the Eklutna’s salmon run. The dam stopped being a power source in 1955, and the residents of the village of Eklutna have been trying to get the dam removed for decades.
That finally happened in 2018, when the Lower Eklutna dam was removed. That was only step one in the battle to return salmon to the river. Now, the river needs to get its water back.
The water from the river was diverted from its natural valley to a tunnel which provides power to the grid. The Eklutna power station is a clean, renewable source of power, but 90% of the water flow, only adds 3% to the power grid. The other 10% of the river’s water adds up to 90% of Anchorage’s water supply. Zero percent goes to the river.
The 8-1/2 minute video details the effort to regain some balance and allow water to flow back into the river basin.
November in Haines, Alaska normally means bald eagles. The largest concentration of bald eagles in the world happens at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where the Tsirku River, warmed by ground water, meets the Chilkat River. This span of open water, and a late run of chum salmon bring in eagles in large numbers. In normal years, one spot on the river can contain 500 eagles, with the total number of the raptors in the thousands.
Haines is the home of the festival, and it brings in visitors from around the globe. People come year after year to photograph and hang out with the bald eagles, mingling with fellow birders and outdoor enthusiasts. This year, the festival was canceled due to Covid-19. It’s just another blow to local businesses, in a year full of them.
Oddly enough, the eagles didn’t show up either. One count had 46 bald eagles on a spot along the river, when in normal years, there would be around 500. The eagles didn’t come to the Chilkat, because the chum salmon never showed up. The run was a record low, and that has hit eagles, bears and fishermen alike. The bears, who normally fatten up on the late season salmon bounty, have been breaking into local homes and cabins more than usual, seeking out food.
Like all of our salmon runs that have been in decline, no one can answer the “Why question”. Is it the warming ocean and rivers? Over fishing? Are the hatchery fish too much competition for the wild ones for food out in the ocean? Or, are all these theories tied in together?
One thing is for certain: The entire ecosystem up here runs off of a strong salmon run. And so does the economy.
Salmon is a vital resource in the state, so it should come as no surprise that Alaska has been studying salmon since before statehood. For over 60 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has kept detailed records of length, weight, age and escapement for four species of Pacific salmon that spawn here.
The salmon that return to Alaska from their time in the ocean, are now smaller than they have been historically. The reason: They are returning to spawn at a younger age.
The Chinook, Alaska’s state fish, has been the hardest hit. King salmon are, on average, coming in at 8% smaller than in the 1980’s. The coho, or silver salmon is 3.3% smaller, chum is at 2.4%, and the sockeye 2.1. The decrease in size has accelerated since 2010 for all four species.
At first glance, what is 8% really? Well, the ramifications are large and far reaching. The Yukon-Kuskokwim River system is the largest subsistence area in the entire country. It takes more fish to feed a family. Commercial fishermen also must catch more fish to make the same amount of money.
Environmentally, the entire ecosystem relies on the salmon returning to spawn. Just the reduction in chinook salmon size alone means a reduction of 16% in egg production, i.e. future salmon populations; and a 28% reduction in nutrients going back into the river systems. For the pocket book issues: the reduction in king salmon means a 26% reduction as a food source, and a 21% reduction in the value of the fishery.
There does not appear to be one smoking gun for the change in Alaska’s salmon population, but a series of events that effect each species differently. Warming ocean temperatures are partly to blame, but so is competition between wild and hatchery populations. Size-selective fishing seems to also be a part of the equation, especially with the mighty chinook.
Wild salmon can stay out in the ocean for up to 7 years, but now they are often returning to fresh water to spawn at 4 years.
Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Dept of Fish & Game; Alaska Public Media; Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
A large glacial dam gave way in Southeast Alaska this summer. Known by its Icelandic term: jökulhlaup, the power of this sudden release of pent up water can be incredibly destructive.
Desolation Lake, which sits above the Lituya Glacier in Desolation Valley, collects meltwater from both the Desolation and Fairweather Glaciers. That meltwater is normally blocked by the Lituya Glacier, forming the roughly four square mile lake.
The water level suddenly dropped 200 feet.
A commercial fisherman, Jim Moore, along with his two grandsons, tried to enter Lituya Bay to fish for Chinooks in August. They should have been riding the tide into the bay, but the unusually muddy water was moving outward, and it was filled with trees and other debris. The bay was also filled with small icebergs. Moore managed to bring some of the ancient ice onboard for his coolers, then left the bay, instead of fighting the dangerous current.
It is one of the largest jökulhlaups known to have occurred in Alaska. The water found a path under the Lituya Glacier, causing a rush that would have rivaled the hourly discharge of the Amazon River. It would have lasted for several days.*
Lituya Bay has a history. In 1958, an earthquake triggered a landslide that started one of the largest known tsunamis at over 1700 feet.
The winner of Katmai’s Fat Bear Week, is Bear #747. The bear that shares a number with a wide-body jet airplane, is the champion of 2020.
747 first appeared on the Brooks River scene in 2004. At that time, the young, male bruin could not maintain prime fishing spots against the other bears. That is no longer the case.
747 is now one of the most dominate bears at Brooks Falls, and he is a talented catcher of salmon. He is not the most aggressive of the bears, but 747 does not have to be. Most bears get out of his way just because of his size. In 2019, 747 was estimated to weigh 1400 pounds. He has attained that weight, if not more, in 2020.
In full disclosure: 747 was my personal favorite for this year’s Fat Bear Week. No attempt was made to influence voters.
There will not be a repeat winner this year in Katmai. Last year’s champ, Holly, lost to eventual finalist Chunk.
Voting starts at 8am ADT on Tuesday for the title. “Wide Body” 747 takes on “Chunk”, Bear #32.
The amount of weight these brown bears put on over the course of the summer is really astounding. The bears enter a state of hyperphagia, which suppresses leptin, which is the chemical in the bears’ body that tells the animal that it is full.
Bears often eat dozens of sockeye salmon at a time, although one especially motivated bear was documented eating 40 salmon in one sitting! Each salmon brings in around 4000 calories.
A bear fishing Brooks River in Katmai can easily gain four pounds a day eating salmon, sedge grasses and berries. As salmon numbers tail off in September, the bears will start to move away from the river and dine elsewhere. Although, stragglers will remain around the Brooks River & Brooks Falls through the month of October.
The bracket for Fat Bear Week has dropped. Voting starts tomorrow, September 30. Four bruins have earned a first round bye: Fan favorite Otis; “Wide-Body” 747; last year’s champion, Holly; and Grazer,Bear #128.
This year, Katmai National Park has a new, secure, tamper-proof, website for voting. Each day, voting will end at 6pm ADT.
To vote for the fattest bear on the Brooks River, head over to this site: