They say that hundred years ago you stand on the banks of the Columbia RIver and imagine walking across the river on the backs of salmon. We don't see that kind of abundance today at Broughton Beach, just down the road. We can't really fathom it by watching the salmon that are left run each fall up a muddy, dam-chastened river. We need to see it in the flesh to really get it. We need to wade in a place like Yantarni Creek.
Yantarni is 400 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, and a few weeks ago I bore down on it in a growling Dehavilland Beaver, drifting across a low dune at the creek's mouth and bumping gently to landing on a grass strip along the streambank. A small group of friends and colleagues tumbled out of the plane, part of week's long exploratory fishing trip to the Bristol Bay region with the conservation organization I work for. We walked down to the edge of the creek. It was alive. Crawling with spawning pink salmon. We'd been told to expect active coho salmon, willing to bite on flies. But not this. And coming more than an hour in the plane south from Bristol's fecund rivers and lakes, across the intimidating peaks of the Alaska Peninsula and then hugging a severe coast marked by several-thousand-foot drops and steep glaciers as we made our way southwest along the peninsula to Yantarni, I wasn't sure what sort of life we would find.
But here in a gentle, uninhabited valley, the creek dropped out of the heights 10 miles away and spread out into five or six braids, before snaking around the dune and out to the sea. It washed clear and cold over cobbled flats. And the humpbacked pink males flocked to the place. Everywhere in the shallows their dorsal fins were cutting paths to hollowed bowls of redds. For an eye used to homing in on the novelty of one or two redds, it was staggering -- a quantum mental leap just to absorb it all. Through the first afternoon, I set down my rod a lot and gravitated to the smallest side channels. There I could break the scene down into the small components of a few nests. I tried not to disturb the dance of submerged females shadowed by dominant males, with the opportunistic young bucks darting in and out to get a shot at eternity. They were all skittish of my own shadow, let alone my feet. I trudged through many a redd in my boots -- you couldn't avoid it in moving up and down the river. But I never got used to walking through that hallowed ground.
With time and settled patience along the larger spawning channels -- maybe 50 feet across -- you could watch waves of fish move through a whole cycle of energy in this last flourish of their lives. The expectant, deliberate move up from the lower reaches into a redd. The athletic contest around the nest. And then the slow drift away from the action, succumbing to the current, dropping out, belly to the sky, carried to the margins of the creek and expiring into sheer nutrients.
The coho were leapfrogging the beds and working their way up the creek to higher pools to spawn. For the moment, at least, the bears left the creek alone (though the other plane flying in just ahead of us had spied one on a stream at the far south end of the valley). Friends who knew what they were doing got the coho to rise and swim across the surface to chomp on a fly skidding across the water. One fisherman likened it to a Jaws scene.
At one point our guide called me over to a clear, deep pool against a bank. It was no bigger than my kitchen end to end. There were two dozen fish there, just resting. Several sizeable cohos, at least one Dolly Varden and lots of pinks. "Just fling a line in there and strip your fly through extremely fast." On the third try, one coho lept for it and, once on, put up a big fight. (After that first fish, the camera seemed the most sporting device to use there.)
Why were coho biting? The logic is they are done feeding when they enter fresh water but haven't yet lost their predatory feistiness. But of the coho we kept for that night's meal, one fish's stomach was full of pink eggs. Apparently some coho were still hungry. When a cook who had flown in with us laid them out in steaks on our table in the mess tent that night, all the coho melted mildly on your tongue.
On the second and final day at Yantarni, I walked in heavy waders down to the beach, over the dune, and down a mile or two on untread sand to some cliffs. The gentle hills up behind bled into a fall burgundy and the dune grass into a fiery red. At the crest of the dune, the grass was here and there matted into a trail (thankfully I didn't realize until long after that these were probably bear trails.) A gentle surf chased shore dodgers up and down the tide line. The bay beyond was dotted with a few rock towers. I saw one tug with a barge making its way outside the towers. No fishing boats plied, though. This bay is closed to commercial fishing. The pinks swim up to spawn with impunity at Yantarni, forming a reserve, a hedge against whatever ailments well up elsewhere.
And standing on the shallow rock reefs at low tide and looking across at this sweep, the plastic detritus of bottles and buckets and nylon netting at the back of the beach faded from view. The exhaustive human experiment paused for a moment. Oxygen itself seemed in reserve, flowing with a deep, cold clarity. Abundance seeped in.