Salmon like cold water, anything below 58 degrees. Throw in some ice or glacial floats, and boom: they have the perfect habitat in which to swim, spawn and call home. Given that their main source of food also likes the exact same water temperature, the salmon here in Alaska are very fat and happy indeed.
They also like shelter and cloudy water. It protects them from attracting the attention of large predators. Thanks to the choppy waves, glacial silt, muddy estuaries and expansive deltas from rivers like the over 3000 mile long Yukon, they get exactly what they need. But make no mistake: the water here is pristine, flowing just like it has for thousands of years, sustaining wildlife and humans alike with an amazing array of nutrient-dense food.
Only 1% of Alaska is developed, so nature here is thankfully still as it has always been. Rivers aren’t diverted
for roads, dams and houses. Salmon can go about their normal rite to passage. Amidst this wild landscape, salmon hatch, swim to the ocean from the river, live in the ocean until they are ready to spawn, then return to the very river they were born in. They remind us that time on this earth is really about one thing: the circle of life.
South East Alaska
This is where Juneau is located and is part of the Tongass Rain forest, the largest temperate rain forest in the world. The main salmon rivers are the Taku and the Stikine (379 miles long).
S.E. Alaska is full of glacial fjords. Narrow canals and channels divide mountains that start from the sea and go straight up to 3000 feet. Glaciers touch the ocean and are constantly moving and changing. (Watching a glacier calve from a kayak makes one thing very apparent: we humans are small.)
The rain forest here is in constant dampness. It’s also constantly alive. The moss seems to glow. Waterfalls stream down the steep mountainsides. Tramping in the old growth forests is like walking on a mattress. When the salmon run, everything heads to the river to feast. Eagles, bears, mink and fox abound. You can smell the salmon in the air.
As you travel north toward Yakutat, you will find an area called the Yakutat Forelands. When the glaciers receded millions of years ago, they left these glacial moraines. There are old growth meadows and muskegs — kind of like a giant wetland area. The rivers that run through this area are great for juvenile salmon. The bushes and banks provide them with cold fresh water, shelter and food.
As with everything else Alaska there are more bears than cars here. It is still wild and untouched. The rivers flow pure, unpolluted and wild. Fishing is done in the rivers with gill nets or trolling in the oceans. The fish they catch here are Ocean Bright, which is a term we use when we catch salmon at their peak of their, not on their way up river to die. It makes a big difference in taste and texture.
Why does the salmon from here taste so good? I proposed this question to Lionel Uddipa the head chef at Salt today and he just said it’s “clean.” He couldn’t get beyond that word. “It smells clean. It tastes clean. You don’t want to mask the taste. You want to enhance it.”
Besides salmon, they also have one other very special thing here: great surfing. It’s quite a visual when you take it all in. Distant mountains, meadows, forests, and crashing ocean on the beach.
Bristol Bay by plane from Juneau is about 1000 miles north and west. It’s also an incredibly dangerous fishing area. Storms from the west blow in directly. The huge tidal swings with rivers flowing into the ocean, creating currents and waves that would be hard to navigate for even the most seasoned fisherman. The air is continually buzzing with thousands of screeching seagulls, terns, and other water birds all jousting for a position as a million salmon run up the stream and run out en masse. The energy here — with so much movement and activity from every direction — is thrilling.
As you get closer to the river entrances, it’s much like Yakutat’s low brush meadows: rolling hills and shimmering rivers for thousands of square miles, all untouched and beautifully preserved. And the farther north you go, the clearer and clearer the water gets. The Katmai region is the area where you can witness the Brown bears catching salmon in their mouths.
Unlike Coho, which are all over Alaska, Sockeye are particular about where they spawn. They like lakes and fortunately for them there are many exquisite ones here that feed the 6 major rivers: Togiak, Nushagak, Kuichak, Naknek, Egegik, and Ugashik. Their lifecycle may occur in a very short period of time, but they’re so abundant here that all it takes is one season to provide the world with more than half its wild sockeye.