by KTNA Staff ~ August 4th, 2014
Audio: 7 min 5 sec.
on a long bushwhack up a
by Robin Song
As I had hoped, the third Sunday in July dawned sunny and clear. I had planned a hike up Montana Creek to search for King Salmon, and now I had the weather on my side. I parked at the Luthman trailhead and the dogs and I headed out at one pm. I was pleased to see the pools we passed teaming with fingerling salmon, the promise of the future. I’m not good at crossing logs, and Lyra and Darby trotted across the old fallen cottonwood while I threw dignity into the creek and sat and inched my way across. That accomplished, I changed into the deck shoes I had brought so I could wade along the shoreline whenever possible, to stave off having to slog through the thick forest undergrowth as long as I could. But the gravel and sand shoreline soon petered out and I had to go into the forest. There began hours of pushing through shoulder-high Devil’s Club and rose bushes, and tangles of ferns, pootski, and bushes with slender branches so woven together that I had to part them and climb through. It was tough and slow-going, and the dogs and I went to whatever tiny space of shoreline we could find to traverse, the dogs wading into the water to cool off after their struggles through the undergrowth.
Far upstream we came upon the first Kings. Four males and a female were almost motionless in the current, facing upstream, and holding steady with gentle undulations of their tails. All the salmon had spawned already, and were now spending their last days hanging out in the waters of their birth years before. When they had left this creek, after a year or two as juveniles and headed downstream and on out to the ocean, they had spent four or five years there maturing and no doubt having all kinds of adventures. They had answered the call in their DNA to return to their birth stream to spawn and had begun the long journey home. Their bodies prepared for this final chapter of their lives by absorbing the outer silver scales when they reached fresh water, revealing the bright red layer beneath on the males, and the greenish-brown layer on the females. The males’ jaws had changed shape and grown big pointed teeth, to be used in future battles over females and spawning territories. The challenges the salmon face, both natural and man-made, to overcome before they can reach their spawning grounds, are remarkable and well-documented in books, videos and TV programs. I think of these stories when I watch the salmon before me, and my admiration for them is unbounded.
During my hike I kept an eye out for eagles, but the fish are too vital and fast for the raptors to catch, just yet. Eventually the fish will lose the strength to hold out against the current and they will let go and let it take them downstream to fetch up against logs in the water, or they will come to rest in quiet pools. The raptors will then be able to pluck them from the water and end their lives, as decreed long ago. But the salmon still have one last gift before they die-as their flesh decays, nutrients slough off into the water and goes into the eggs which have been laid, nourishing the embryos.
Land predators also take their share; bears, coyotes and foxes pull the dying salmon onshore. Whatever is left, after the magpies and grayjays finish with the remains, eventually feeds the soil and plants with nutrients, which helps keep the forest healthy. The eggs are food for many animals and birds as well, so during the salmon’s entire life cycle, they are a gift on many levels.
The most Kings I saw gathered in a pool in the creek that day was twelve. While watching them, a merganser floated by, riding the current downstream. I sat on a log to eat my lunch while Lyra and Darby napped. Just downstream a family of flycatchers flashed out from branches to nip insects out of the air, then zipped back to the trees.
I hiked upstream another hour or so and saw rain clouds moving in- it was time to head back. When we came to a small stretch of sandy shore with a big cottonwood log primed for sitting, I took a break. Ahead of me, in the fast current were five big male Kings, one small Jack, and a female. Just in front of me was a large deep pool of crystal-clear water. I was filming the salmon with my little video camera when suddenly the head of a beaver popped up in the pool. The dogs were napping in the sand behind me and I was standing very still. The wind was in my favor, so the beaver didn’t know we were there. I have watched beaver in ponds and lakes, but this was my first sighting in fast water. In the clear pool I could watch its legs and tail moving under water. I knew its eyesight wasn’t good, so if I kept still, it probably wouldn’t see me. Sure enough, it paddled just upstream and climbed out onto the shore, stood up on its hind legs, reached for a birch sapling, pulled it down and neatly nipped off a branch. It carried it back into the water and headed towards me, stopping a few yards away to eat its lunch.
A few minutes later I was startled when a second beaver arrived. It also climbed out and nipped a branch off the same tasty sapling, joining the first beaver in the pool, where they ate side by side. They were identical in size and coloring. On the small size, I guessed that they might be siblings. This guess became stronger when a third beaver arrived from downstream. This beaver was much larger than the other two, and darker brown. When it got close to the pair, the third beaver dove and headed out across the creek. It surfaced heading upstream beside the rocks of the far shoreline, and kept going.
My feeling is that this was the mama of the pair, and since they were now weaned and on their own, she wanted nothing to do with them. They paid her no further mind, and continued with their sapling lunch. She was soon out of sight around a bend upriver.
One of the beavers dove into the pool after awhile and headed down the creek. The remaining beaver continued to return to the sapling to cut slender branches, bringing them into the pool in front of me to strip them of leaves and nibble on the juicy twigs, holding them between its front paws and hefty claws.
Suddenly the breeze shifted just a little, carrying my scent to the beaver. It hesitated, turning its head in my direction, sniffing the air. Then it dove noisily into the pool and shot out into the creek, heading past the startled salmon and on upstream. I didn’t see it again. The ‘magic spell’ had been broken.
I sighed and tucked the camera away into the waist pack and headed on downstream again, letting the dogs break trail for me. A few bends later I got my “cherry on the Sunday”, if you will. I glanced up to the top of a tall old cottonwood across the creek and there sat an adult Bald Eagle in all its regal glory, on a branch jutting out over the water. It alternated watching me and the dogs and looking down into the current at the Kings wriggling over shallow rapids there. I snapped a few photos, wished it a good life, then headed onwards.
It was exactly eight pm when I got back to the car. That was a great hike. Kings are the only salmon I had not been able to spend much time with, in past spawning seasons, and this hike had made up for that. The beavers had been a special and unexpected gift. That’s Alaska for you- full of wonderful surprises. Get out there and explore on foot with well-behaved and quiet dogs, and she will reward you will lavish experiences to tuck away into your memories. All she requires is your respect and patience.
Writer’s Voice 080314
Searching For Kings, by Robin Song