Photos and essay by Bryan Gregson
Alaska's Inside Passage is one of nature's paramount gifts. It holds many treasures, including one of the remaining salmon forests, the Tongass National Forest. As the largest federal forest, the Tongass is a coastal temperate rainforest concealed in an archipelago of inlets and islands.
From my perch on the back deck of the fishing vessel, the morning air was crisp and the smell of the sea, bold, as we sped across the coastal waters of Southeast Alaska. The fog and mist created a calm sense of importance, engulfing something to be unearthed within the earthy green. Old growth spruce trees towered and glinted like cathedral windows as light broke through the branches. Each pour of maté brought strangers to conversation and an uncluttered, conscious mind, as a good cup of hot tea should.
As the boat steamed ahead, so did my appreciation for this isolated corner of the planet: the trees, tumbling vegetation, spirited fish. I had traveled to the Tongass once before, to the north and around the bend in search of salmon. This time, the compass pointed southeast, to rustic townships and untamed wilderness where we would seek out steelhead. To say it’s an inspiring place would be a feeble attempt to capture the respect it warrants.
All five species of Pacific salmon, steelhead, bears, bald eagles, humpback, orca whales, and the Alexander Archipelago wolf call this place home. So do First Peoples, fishermen, trappers and loggers. The fishery is the cornerstone in the local economy. In 2011, Southeast Alaska produced the largest sustainable wild salmon harvest in the state, a total of 73.5 million fish worth more than $200 million. Over 17,000 miles of creeks, rivers and lakes run through 16.8 million acres of national forest, offering optimal conditions for spawning. Token measures are in place to safeguard the habitat, and therefore the long-term survival, of salmon and steelhead. But the Tongass is a threatened forest, and its inhabitants are too.
There are few places left on Earth where steelhead still thrive, and the Tongass could very well be one of the last. Somewhere amongst the nearly 18,000 miles of streams flowing from a multitude of islands lives this elusive saltwater rainbow. It's an inspiring creature living between two worlds, that of pure, glacially-fed, nutrient-rich freshwater and saltwater of the bordering sea, its source of food and place of growth. They are a robust fish, capable of battling trough many obstacles. But like every good thing on this planet, there is a kryptonite that can cripple even the strongest of the species. This magnificent species is on the decline. Loss of habitat is the top reason for the disheartening demise of these remarkable fish. Deforestation from logging is the primary culprit, stripping banks of cover and degrading stream beds.
The location of the fish is not an easy one to reach. As if the landscape wasn’t challenging enough, big tides make things more complex. Anchoring our lumbering boat offshore and using a small zodiac to land on the beach, we explored the wet emerald forest on foot. Soggy muskegs canvased the ground from the water to the tree-lined perimeter. It was a bit of a slow jaunt, balance required.
The rivers are lined with thick patches of Devil's club. At times there was no way around them but through. The entire stem and leaf are literally covered in thousands of tiny sharp thorns awaiting any creature that might brush against it. It would seem Mother Nature certainly knows how fragile her ecosystems are, lining Her rivers here with a myriad of challenges: thorny plants, steep rock walls, fluctuating water flows, constant rain, wind, fog, cold temperatures and powerful tides.
Within the swirls of clear water, as if with brush strokes, chrome steelhead appeared, revealing a flamboyant masterpiece. Out of the salt and into freshwater they swim, through logjams and root wads, up steep gradients and waterfalls, nothing stops their determination. The fish are fresh from their sea run, with only a short journey to their grounds. At first hook, they take to the air, displaying their acrobatic abilities back-to-back. When least expected, they take off for a big run, leaving the angler vulnerable to sharp rocks that will slice a leader. The footing is slick and difficult to maneuver through swift river currents. These wild fish are a powerful challenge to any level of exploring angler.
The more we interacted with our quarry, the more we all appreciated the surroundings in which they lived, their overwhelming struggles, and the raw power of the forest. It’s a simple, yet very complex life, one full of opposition to their survival - something that they can’t control and something they can’t afford to get caught up in it. They have only one job: to exist. So they must press on, regardless.
The thought of impending destruction of their life and the forest makes me cringe. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back to the mighty Tongass, the last of the salmon forests. But I indubitably want it to remain as I remember it: A profoundly wild place of incredible harmony.