The value of fresh salmon flesh to bears, otters, birds, and other fish–especially the roe-dependent trout and char–is obvious. But you don’t notice the impact of decaying salmon on the landscape itself until you fly over a river like the ********** in a bush plane. Taking off from a small lake outside *********, our heavily laden De Havilland Beaver bounces through waves of turbulence above gradually thinning spruce forest as we climb towards the ********* Mountains; the trees soon give way to tundra gone brown and red with the colors of early autumn. The only strips of green are alder and willow hugging the banks of the creeks and rivers. The reason: Not every salmon finds a belly. Thousands decompose on beaches or become trapped under submerged logs, releasing nitrogen and phosphorous compounds almost identical to the active ingredients in your Miracle-Gro.
The supply of those compounds has fluctuated wildly over the last century. In 1953, overfishing had reduced runs to such low levels that President Eisenhower declared the state a natural disaster area. Not until the mid-1970s did numbers improve significantly, thanks in part to a hatchery program that exists today largely to increase the commercial harvest.
These days, total salmon numbers flirt with historic highs, but only a portion are truly wild, native stock–undiluted by hatcheries and augmented runs. And in any individual stream, there are other threats: warming water temperatures, increased glacial siltation, and industrial pollution. A current flashpoint is the Pebble Mine, a massive, multibillion-dollar open-pit gold and copper mine proposed for an area near Lake Clark National Park. Critics worry that its location–above the headwaters of two major Bristol Bay tributaries–and potential for toxic runoff could spell disaster for salmon. But private land development might be a more immediate and insidious threat statewide. Conservation groups are tracking hundreds of native allotments that could hit the market in the next decade, each one the potential site of a lodge–with the sewage and boat or plane traffic that entails. One lodge or second home, managed in a sustainable fashion, might have little impact–but several hundred?
At the suggestion of the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit that has preserved more than 6 million wild acres since 1985, I’ve traveled here to see what’s at stake–and to catch (then release) as many monster fish as I can hook. Three childhood friends and longtime hiking partners have joined me. James, Gerry, Steve, and I will float one of the world’s most pristine rivers on three-person rafts packed with basecamping tents, beer, steaks, a deluxe kitchen setup–even a shower with propane-heated water.
If the accoutrements are deluxe, our guides are an embarrassment of riches. Glenn *******, a 30-year veteran of Alaska land management and the former manager of the ******* ********* ********* Refuge, will lead us. Rowing the other rafts are Frank *** and Bill *****, who together represent another 60 years of wildlife and wilderness experience.
Of course, such riches don’t come cheap: It will cost us $7,000 apiece to visit paradise, which includes a $4,500 donation to the Conservation Fund. That’s a steep ticket for guys with kids and mortgages and a penchant for budget travel, but soon after the De Havilland drops us at a sheltered inlet on ********** Lake, we start to taste the benefits.