The lens of my camera is pressed against the window of the small seaplane as it flies under a thick cloud ceiling. The mist clings to the slopes of a temperate rainforest that descend steeply to the rocky coast of Southeast Alaska.
The plane tilts and a small village appears. A number of houses are built on stilts at the water’s edge. We go around and I see fishing boats moored next to a large wharf and a floating post office. The pilot slows down and the pontoons fly over the glassy water inside the bay. We drive to the public wharf and I go out in front of the Point Baker general store.
Life along the Alaskan coast is economically and culturally dependent on fishing. Each summer, millions of salmon – after maturing in the ocean – begin their journey to the rivers in which they spawned. Fishermen, along with whales, eagles and bears, participate in the abundance.
For many in Alaska, salmon represent the wild, rugged landscape that makes their home so special.
Alaska has over 6,000 miles of coastline, more than four times that of any other state. There are a multitude of small fishing villages scattered along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and many can only be reached by boat or plane. A number of these remote communities are indigenous villages, where fishing has been the cornerstone of life for thousands of years.
I grew up fishing in the rivers and lakes of Vermont. My fascination with fish led me to study the history of early industrialization in New England and understand the toll of pollution, dams and overfishing on the East Coast waterways.
Atlantic salmon were once abundant in the northeast, but their number has decreased considerably.
My hunger grew to witness a teeming river of wild salmon and a culture still intertwined with the bounty of the ocean. After college, I started traveling to Alaska every year to fly fishing and work as a photojournalist and documentary maker.
At the Point Baker wharf, I load my bag onto the boat of my friend Joe Sebastian, a local fisherman. Joe turns on the diesel engine and we leave the port.
Joe, originally from the Midwest, moved to Point Baker in 1978 in hopes of becoming a freelance fisherman. When he arrived he bought a commercial fishing license for $ 20 and a small wooden skiff with a six horsepower outboard motor for about $ 1,000.
“The world was a lot less complicated then,” he says.
Joe started fishing, learning the ins and outs of salmon trolling from the elders who made Alaska their home before it became a state. Trolling is a highly selective, low impact fishing method that involves pulling lines through the water and catching individual salmon that choose to bite the hooks. Not to be confused with trawling, which involves the use of giant trolling nets, trolling is slower and less bulky than other methods of salmon fishing. It also maintains the highest quality of fish.
After a decade of fishing in Alaska, Joe and his wife, Joan, purchased a 42-foot wooden fishing boat. They raised their children at Point Baker in the winter and on their boat, the Alta E, in the summer.
“Honestly, it wasn’t always a good time – seasickness, cramped quarters and fishy clothes,” says their daughter Elsa, now 30, recalling her childhood. Yet she became a fisherman anyway. “Spending summers on the ocean becomes who you are,” she says. “I love the way fishing is fundamentally part of an ecosystem to me.”
Alaska is home to five species of Pacific salmon. These fish are anadromous; they start their life in rivers and freshwater lakes and eventually make their way on rivers and in the ocean. Depending on the species, salmon can spend about one to seven years in the ocean before beginning their journey back to the freshwater where they were born.
The ability of salmon to find their way home is one of nature’s greatest miracles. Among other aids to navigation, salmon can detect a a single drop of water from its original stream mixed in 250 gallons of salt water.
Once salmon enter their original watershed, some spawn immediately and others travel thousands of miles or more upstream. Shortly after they reproduce, they die and decompose.
Over the past 50 years, anadromous fish populations have declined dramatically in California, Oregon, and Washington. Alaska remains the last great salmon stronghold of the United States.
Salmon are extremely sensitive to water quality and depend on cold, clean, oxygenated water to survive – and Alaska is not immune to the same threats that have decimated salmon further south. Logging and mining are degrading some salmon habitats in Alaska, and climate change is exacerbating these impacts.
Many Alaskans are still concerned about the threat of the Bristol Bay pebble mine project, the permit of which was denied by the Army Corps of Engineers in November. This region of southwest Alaska is home to the largest run of sockeye salmon in the world. Since the 1960s, more than half of the sockeye salmon returning to Bristol Bay have been caught each year, with no effect on their overall abundance, according to Daniel Schindler, a biologist at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Attracted by this legendary fishing, a few friends fly to Dillingham to join me on a 10 day fly fishing excursion deep in the stern Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. We load a seaplane with food, an inflatable raft, fishing rods and camping gear. We fly low over the tundra, crossing river after river full of salmon. A few hundred feet above, we can see sockeye salmon in dense schools in the slow eddies of the rivers.
We land on an alpine lake at the source of the Goodnews River, inflate our raft and float downstream. We start to throw and the action unfolds without interruption.
For three friends who grew up in New England, the trip was the manifestation of a dream we have held our entire lives. As children, we gazed down at the depths of New England rivers, imagining them throbbing with monster fish.
Here in Alaska, that dream is still alive.