Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America–I’m an active member of the organization, and TU is an active supporting group of OWAA, and has been for years.
This year’s conference was hosted by Chena Hot Springs Resort, about an hour’s drive outside of Fairbanks, Alaska–I know… tough duty, huh?
After the conference, I was fortunate enough to be able to drive the famed Dalton Highway as part of a conservation tour offered through the conference. The Dalton–you might know it as the “Haul Road” that’s often featured on the hit TV show, “Ice Road Truckers”–is the road that was constructed as the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline was built in the mid-1970s to transport North Slope crude oil to shipping ports to the south. And, truth be told, the pipeline is amazing project still today–it stretches some 800 miles from the Beaufort Sea to Valdez on Prince William Sound southeast of Anchorage. I got to see much of the pipeline on the tour–it’s always pretty cool to see something in person after a lifetime of only seeing glimpses of it on television or in photos.
But the pipeline, while fascinating, isn’t what caught my eye on this tour. I was much more impressed by what I found in the Jim River, about an hour’s drive north of the Arctic Circle. Every summer, a run of king and chum salmon swim from the Bering Sea up the fabled Yukon River, into the Koyukuk River and finally into the Jim River where they spawn and die. In all, the fish travel over 1,000 miles (or a couple hundred miles longer than the famed pipeline) on the final journey of their lives.
Sadly, this year’s run is behind schedule, and I didn’t get to see any fish. But, according to the folks I shared the tour with (if you’re interested in taking a tour, visit Go North Alaska in Fairbanks), September rain (and snow) would help the salmon push their way into the Jim River very soon. My hope was that we’d see some salmon and then get to fly fish for voracious Arctic grayling that gather behind the spawners and eat stray eggs. Not this time, unfortunately.
Even this far inland, salmon leave their mark. The ocean-running fish feed the Arctic’s grizzly bears, wolves, foxes and the like. Grayling munch on the eggs and decaying flesh of the fish, and the flora of the region soaks up the nutrients left behind by every year’s run of dead salmon.
While I marveled at the engineering feat that is the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the fisher in me can’t help but be thoroughly impressed by the 1,000-mile journey the kings and chums undertake every year. It goes to show you that, while we are capable of great things, some of the most impressive events on this planet have been happening for eons… without our help.
I hope to get back to the Jim River again one day, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll time my journey with that of the salmon.