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Upriver in the Tongass

Salmon push ever forward against the falling water as their ancestors did toward the place of their birth, and their death.

Upriver in the Tongass

(Al Hassall art)

The bear was so close we could smell it. My buddy Mark Hieronymus had stopped dead in his tracks and raised his hand in the universal sign of “halt.” He was about twenty feet in front of me on the trail when he looked over his shoulder and said, “We need to pick our heads up and make some noise . . . there’s a bear around here and he’s really close.” “Can you see him?” I asked? “No, I can smell him,” He replied. I stepped forward and was immediately hit with the musky aroma of bear. We whistled our way past the spot on the river that was covered in fresh salmon carcasses, scat, and the odor of potential danger and death. It’s interesting to see how primal moments like that can focus your attention—even at the end of a long day of trekking and fishing in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National forest.

The Tongass wilderness rises up from the sea in the form of monochrome mountains, towering trees, and tumbling tributaries that briefly become rivers of hope. Cold, clean, life-giving water rolls over multicolored stones, each one slick with biota and thick with the memories of millions of salmon over millions of years. And the salmon push ever forward against the falling water as their ancestors did—away from the ocean that gave them strength, toward the place of their birth, and their death. They will end their days giving their last full measure for the survival of their kind. And in the end, they will drift lifeless against the same wet stones that sheltered them as young fry.

All life on Earth is reflected in their journey. As far as nature is concerned, we all exist so that we might move our species forward in time. Reproduction is our only natural form of self-actualization. The rest is an anthropic invention. In the beginning there was sunlight, clean air, and water. Without this holy trilogy, life would not exist as we know it.

If you envision the rivers as the water that creates them, then just like the essence of life itself, they have no beginning or end. H2O becomes the DNA of the Earth. Without it, we are a lifeless rock, rotating in the sunbaked void. But the rivers are so much more than their water. Rivers are geology in motion, watersheds and weathermakers, the truest bloodstreams on the body of this planet. It is water and sunlight that animate this living, breathing beautiful blue orb that we all call home. Whenever the sun’s energetic light meets the waters of tributaries, rivers, estuaries, and oceans—life follows. Our earliest ancestors were aquatic microbes. Even if it seems difficult to fathom our family resemblance, it is there, nonetheless.

The Tongass forms a large portion of the lungs of the Earth. These forests and waters are temperate twins of those of the Amazon. Here, bald eagles adorn the trees and orcas decorate the sea. It inhales carbon dioxide and breathes out oxygen. It absorbs our poisons and gives us clean air. It turns the sun’s energy into fuel for a myriad of living beings, including us. It shelters black-tailed deer, black and brown bears, and salmon. And at this moment as we walked through thickets of scented devil’s club and spruce trees, the Tongass took my breath away, while giving me reason to breathe.

The day prior, Mark and I joined our mutual friend Captain Alan Corbett on his sleek, silver, vessel The Narwhal. That day was the beginning of the first leg of an epic journey following Pacific salmon and their kin from the sea, upriver, and into the tiniest tributaries that act as rearing waters for what can arguably be called North America’s greatest fish. We shared that day in the deep, dark, cold, salt-laden waters of coastal Alaska catching salmon in their sleek silver oceanic form. But on this day Mark and I would catch coastal cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden char and pink salmon with a fly rod, while eventually making our way up the tiniest of tributaries to catch, document, and release coho fry as part of his work with Trout Unlimited in support of the protection, preservation, and restoration of vital anadromous fish habitat.

The Tongass National Forest has been referred to as “America’s Salmon Forest,” because it supports all five species of Pacific salmon, char, coastal cutthroat, and anadromous rainbow trout. Sockeye, chum, pink, Chinook, and coho salmon depend upon this land and seascape, from the high mountain tributaries with depths measured in inches, to the ocean depths of several thousand feet. These fish cannot live without these forests, and these forests will not survive intact without these fish.

painting of mountains with salmon-filled river flowing beneath
(Al Hassall art)

When we reached the river, the rain had slowed to a mist as we set off down what was more of a bear trail than a human trail. We walked downstream through the tangle of devil’s club, salmonberries, ferns, and moss-encrusted deadfalls. Spruce and hemlock trees formed the overstory, everything else that was green and wet formed the understory, and we formed a waterlogged column with about twenty feet of muddy pathway between us.

Mark started down a steep, muddy embankment and I followed him toward the sound of the rushing river below. Spawning pink salmon were everywhere, the hook-jawed males biting and fighting each other for the chance to spawn with one of the hens who occupied every plausible patch of water where the gravel substrate was of the proper size and texture. We were seeking Dolly Varden char that were trailing just behind the spawning salmon, and eating as many wayward eggs as they could manage. Our goal was to drift an artificial salmon egg just behind the spawners, without snagging or otherwise attracting the attention of the salmon.

We were fishing a beautiful, long, gravel bar with river rounded stones of blue, black, gray, and white, with fallen spruce trees and a deep salmon-filled pool on the opposite side of the river. We began drifting our flies along creases of current just past and behind the spawning salmon, and it took no time at all for Mark to connect with a nice char which he caught and quickly released. I had begun to relax and fall into the rhythm of casting and catching and releasing one lovely char after another.

From time to time my imagination would take over and I’d envision the ghostly image of a massive brown bear standing at the river’s edge with a look of mayhem projected from his blackened marble eyes. It was just my imagination, of course, but it didn’t seem all that unlikely as I stepped over the freshly mangled carcasses of shoreside salmon. I noticed that except for the sounds of the river, the forest was unbearably silent. No birds. No one. Just the sound of silence and the questions it brings.

There were salmon everywhere, sparring and spawning, reeling and rolling, their massive heads out of the water and then back under. To my knowledge, no one has ever been able to say why they roll. I suspect they do it because they can, and that’s reason enough. All I know is, I never want to lose my sense of awe and wonder at the sight of a salmon rolling. I feel sorry for anyone who is immune to these miracles. We should all keep our imaginations, childlike.


In time, we decided to stow our fly rods in our packs and begin the arduous climb through devil’s club and spruce thicket up a tiny tributary of the river. Our plan was to follow the river from the sea, deep into the wet woodlands of the Tongass and then up a tiny tributary in search of this year’s coho fry. From this moment forward our fishing would be done with dip nets. The goal was to put these little tributaries on the map as critical rearing waters, habitat for several species of fish including salmon and coastal cutthroat trout. The hope is that once it has been verified that these tiny tributaries are critical habitat, perhaps they may be afforded some level of protection.

This place was mystical, mesmerizing, and primal. Everything dripped in the waters of life. The broad green leaves of skunk cabbage and arching feathered ferns all carried with them a million tiny diamondlike raindrops. The slender stream tumbled, spun, and tumbled once again, forever following the forces of gravity and destiny toward the river, sea, and sky. Water, water, everywhere, as we followed the path of that trickle of water toward its source, dip nets in hand, catching, recording, and returning one tiny coho fry after another. It was a labor of love, trying to prove the fish were there, so that logging and mining companies might not cause them to vanish.

As anglers, hunters, hikers, or any kind of outdoor enthusiasts, it is easy for us to forget that this place needs these fish and these fish need this place—all of it. If any part of the salmon’s required habitat from tributary, stream, river, estuary, and ocean collapses, then the entire population collapses with it. Tributaries are the foundation of the salmon’s life journey.

We are inextricably connected, and the impact of our choices will reflect not only on the destiny of wild waters and wild fish, but also, the destiny of Homo sapiens as a minor species with outsized influence. Either by choice or by force, humanity will face the inevitable reversal of fortune, and nature will take charge again. Nature doesn’t need us—we need nature.

In the beginning there was sunlight, clean air, and water. Without this holy trilogy, life would not exist as we know it. Humanity is not essential to the existence of life on Earth, but we may have become the major determinant of its destiny. Learning and adaptation are the hallmarks of wisdom. Selflessly swimming against the prevailing current for the benefit of future generations is a profile in courage. I hope we choose to show the wisdom and courage to live up to the appellation we have given ourselves. Homo sapiens – “Wise Man.”

Steve Ramirez is a Texas master naturalist, poet, and Marine Corps veteran. He is the author of Casting Forward (Lyons Press, 2020) and Casting Onward (2022).

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