Where the rivers run red

Never before has the dependent relationship between the world’s densest brown bear population and nature become more evident than when standing in the middle of the Alaskan salmon run in Katmai National Park.

Words and photographs by Drew McDougall

While the population of this world continues to grow, the amount of developed land also steadily increases, resulting in an ever-diminishing lack of truly wild places. Despite this, there are still hidden gems that remain mostly untouched, and I believe that deep down buried in our biology, all of us have the urge and desire to find these places. As a photographer, guide, and fly fisherman, my travels recently led me to one of these last wild places in the United States – Alaska.

Here, just west of Anchorage, a small town called King Salmon sits on the Nanek river southwest of Katmai National Park. King Salmon is one of those towns where you can stand on one side and see the other, and with only one road leading to the only other surrounding town, Naknek, a commercial fishing town, one’s only access to the tundra, rivers, and mountains is through the use of boats or, more commonly, float planes. In this area, the tundra, rivers and volcanic mountains that make up Katmai National Park create a unique environment in which each distinct part interacts with one another.

Katmai National Park was explored by a group of National Geographic explorers in 1917 after the eruption of Novarupta, one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded. While this eruption displaced the native Alutiiq people, what was uncovered was a system of lakes and rivers that only became more fertile, and would soon function as a hub for an abundance of both flora and fauna. Despite the physical and geographic monuments in this special region, the true marvel and all-encompassing driver for every aspect of nature and the economy in this area is the largest migrations our planet has to offer – the salmon run. With around 60 million fish moving from the ocean into a network of different rivers, the salmon run’s amount of biomass is truly staggering.

Salmon are anadromous, a term which describes fish that live most of their life (3-5 years) in the ocean, but migrate back into freshwater environments to reproduce. Salmon will travel upwards of 2,000 miles to return to the exact location they were born. Researchers believe that they use the Earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell once they reach their river to find their individual birthplaces. After crossing thousands of miles, being beaten and battered along the way, their bodies begin to change completely. Teeth begin to protrude for the defence of their eggs and bright red colours begin to appear for sexual competition along with large humps on the backs of males. Although all five species of salmon experience these changes, the most emblematic salmon species is the sockeye salmon. Starting as a dark blueish-green, sockeye salmon skin transforms into one of nature’s most vivid red hues. When the salmon run begins in mid to late June, the rivers around Katmai National Park are fraught and bursting with sockeye to the point where the crystal-clear waters turn red when viewed from above. It looks as though the arteries of this Alaskan environment are pumping in fresh blood to fuel the entirety of the ecosystem.

While standing in the middle of the river in my waders as fish danced all around me, I felt insignificant in the greater scope of it all. The sheer number of fish, all focusing on one thing and one thing only, instills the sense that our lives as humans are becoming increasingly artificial and disconnected from the rest of nature. Due to the trials and tribulations, the distance, and the currents these salmon fight, they use every bit of bodily energy to reach their spawning ground to reproduce. As a result, once they spawn, they die. However, this morbid ending does not reflect just how much life these fish bring to the rest of the landscape.

“The salmon are, in my opinion, the best example of a keystone species that we see in such a diverse ecosystem,” states Blain Davis, a ten-year veteran guide in Alaska, and someone who has witnessed change and impact here over the past few years. “Legitimately everything from North America’s largest land predator to the macro flora and fauna depend on the return of those fish for day-to-day survival. Literally hundreds of species depend on these five salmon species,” adds Davis.

Their annual mass die-off events leaves hundreds of thousands of fish scattered all around waiting to return back into the environment as vital nutrients. From the banks of the river to the rivers themselves, these fish provide fuel for the surrounding environment and generate new growth, while sustaining the life of larger local predators. Perhaps the most iconic animal of Alaska, and also the one who benefits more than any other from the salmon run, is the brown bear.

Although Alaskan brown bears share the same species name with American grizzlies, ursus arctos, these brown bears couldn’t be more different than their menacing counterparts. While most bears hibernate in Alaska and rely on gorging themselves during the summer months, these brown bears are not the predators that most assume. Solely relying on the salmon run for their main bulk, these opportunistic feeders allow the food to come to them. Using a sense of smell that is five times stronger than that of a dog, over 2,000 bears migrate to the rivers around Katmai once the salmon arrive. During their travels, these brown bears will eat berries, grass, and a variety of other vegetables until they arrive in Katmai National Park to feed on salmon.

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Issue 37
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This feature appears in ISSUE 37: WILD ALASKA of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 37
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_nortek
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_nortek

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