I was invited to a screening of the new documentary film “Understory: A Journey Into the Tongass“, this past Earth Day.
The Tongass National Forest is one of the last remaining intact temperate rain forests in the world, and the U.S. Forest Service considers it their crown jewel. At 16.7 acres, it’s not difficult to see why.
The Tongass National Forest was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, and today the Forest sees roughly 2 million visitors a year.
The documentary Understory follows three women as they circumnavigate Prince of Wales Island by boat, exploring the forest that is vital to the local salmon fishing industry, and embroiled in the current “roadless rule” debate.
National Park Week Day II; Today’s Park Theme: Volunteer Sunday
Wrangell-St Elias may very well be my favorite road accessible park in Alaska. Denali is closer, and I visit it the most, but Wrangell-St Elias is a trip of its own. First off, it is the largest National Park at 13.2 million acres. It starts at sea level and rises all the way up to 18,008 feet with the summit of Mount St Elias, which is the second highest peak in the United States.
Within Wrangell-St Elias is four mountain ranges: The Chugach, Wrangell, St Elias, and the eastern part of the Alaska Range. Mount Wrangell is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America, and nine of the sixteen tallest peaks in the U.S. are within the boundaries of Wrangell-St Elias.
If you prefer glaciers, Wrangell-St Elias has you covered with 60% of Alaska’s glacier ice within this park. It has the state’s longest tidewater glacier, North America’s largest piedmont glacier, and the world’s longest valley glacier.
The park offers an endless list of things to do. The hiking here is phenomenal, although established trails are few. The beating heart of this park is wilderness. I have seen the gamut of Alaska wildlife with Wrangell-St Elias.
The Edgerton Highway runs along the Copper River Valley to Chitina, where the McCarthy Road follows the old CR&NW Railway grade to the Kennicott River. For years, you had to stop there to take a tram across the river to the town of McCarthy and the mines of Kennecott. Today, the tram sits unused, and a walking bridge spans the river.
The Kennecott Mine and company town were named after the Kennicott Glacier, but they missed the spelling by a letter. It gets confusing trying to keep it straight. Copper ore was discovered here in 1900, and a rush soon started. Eventually, Kennecott would have five mines operating, but by 1938 operations had shut down. During that time span, the mines produced over 4.6 million tons of copper ore, and gross revenues of $200 million. I’m not sure what that dollar amount would add up to today. The Kennecott Mines are now a National Historic Landmark District.
The population of McCarthy in 1920 was 127. By 2010 it had dropped to 28.
Some of the mines like Jumbo can be hiked to, and the green of copper ore can still be seen in the rocks around the area.
Fishing the Copper and Chitina Rivers is an Alaskan tradition, going back millenniums. Dipnetting for salmon is restricted to Alaska residents, but I can tell you that it is an adventure like no other.
If you want a park that you can disappear into, Wrangell-St Elias may just be the place for you. 2018 saw only 79,450 to the nation’s largest park. Like Alaska in general, that’s a lot of elbow room.
The numbers are in, although I think most of us in Alaska knew the gist of things: The salmon runs in 2020 fit the overall theme of the year. They were bleak.
King salmon returns were in the bottom five for harvests since the 1960’s. Sockeye returns were the second lowest since 1962. Coho and pinks were better than the other two species, but they were still down. The numbers coming back for the coho, or silver salmon, ranked 48th, pinks ranked 53rd since 1962.
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game is predicting a better return for pink salmon for 2021. Pinks are the only salmon species that Fish & Game forecasts the upcoming return. They are hopeful that Alaska will see an increase in all five species of salmon that return to our waters.
From a personal experience level: For several years now, I have seen a noticeable increase in our group’s salmon harvest in odd years, and a downturn in even years. 2020 fit in with that nonscientific trend, but it was certainly the hardest we worked to fill the freezer in 2020. Luckily, we made up for it with halibut and lingcod.
King salmon are now known to be returning to Alaska waters at a younger age. This means that they are coming back smaller. The factors causing this are still unknown, although increased predation and water temperature are high on the list of suspects. Salmon sharks and orcas certainly take a bite out of the salmon population, and it would be expected that they may gravitate towards the larger salmon, but these predators are hardly new to the Gulf of Alaska and beyond.
I admit that I am hoping for a rebound in the salmon return for 2021.
It appears that the “Happiness Engineers” here at wordpress have figured out which behind the scenes gremlin has been messing with life between The Circles. This site is not exactly fixed, but the offending “plug in” has been deactivated, and I hope that action does not cause any unforeseen issues. We shall see. For the moment, at least, the site has returned to it’s somewhat normal state.
Due to the hiatus, I am no longer in the habit of collecting post ideas, let alone building posts, so we will go the easy route and bring you bears. After all, with every movie out of Hollywood on Alaska, they always throw in a bear, whether it fits the story line or not. Here between The Circles, we are going all out by bringing you top of the line, Katmai bears.
The application deadline for permits to head to McNeil River to view the Katmai bears was yesterday. I’m late in relaying this information, but it does increase my odds at getting a permit. Camping within the Last Frontier also appears to be loosening up for 2021, as several National Parks and State Parks are either open for reservations, or are about to open. That is good news for most of us in-state.
Due to Canada continuing the ban on cruise ships larger than 250 capacity, there looks to be no cruise ship visits to Alaska until 2022. Cruise ships below that 250 passenger mark will be visiting both Alaska and Canadian ports. This would be a great year to visit Skagway, assuming Canada allows us to drive through Haines Junction.
As promised in the headline, explore.org, the fine folks that bring the Katmai Bear Cam to the world, has a 2020 Bear Close Up video for your bruin viewing pleasure:
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