“Home is where one starts from.” – T. S. Eliot
Alaska salmon have a most interesting life. A life that takes them from the rivers and streams of Alaska’s wild frontier, to the northern oceans, and back again. In fact, right back to the very place they were born. How they find their way back from the immensity of the Pacific Ocean is a small feat in itself. Not to mention, that they swim from fresh water to salt water and back again changing their entire body chemistry and even look along the way to adapt to their environment.
Starting out as small eggs in a streambed, they hatch and after spending a couple of years in the streams and rivers begin their journey downstream towards the ocean. At the mouth of the streams and rivers, the smolts (juvenile salmon) school together and ready themselves for the trip out into the ocean. During this time, their bodies change to adapt to the seawater (an amazing feat in itself). The young adult salmon then head out to sea and spend several years swimming in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. In a few years, once they have fully matured, they will swim back to their original stream or river where they re-adapt to the fresh water and swim back up the stream to reach their spawning grounds. Sometimes this means swimming up rugged rivers with miles of rapids and waterfalls to leap. With a persistence that has few parallels in nature they seem to gleefully leap and twist, gaining height on precarious resting places before finally reaching the higher level and continuing up stream. As you watch them gather strength for their next leap you cannot help but cheer them on and hope that their sheer will prevails to carry them home.
As they get closer to their freshwater home their bodies morph into what seems a hideous change from their beautiful sleek silver ocean form. They change to a bright red with an almost sinister look about their heads and a large hump on their backs. Once they get back to their natal stream, they breed and lay their eggs. After spawning they generally die within a week, fertilizing the stream and creating a nutrient-rich environment for the new infant salmon that will hopefully hatch to create the new generation.
“I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul… we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.” – Neil Armstrong
One of the most amazing facts about salmon’s journey is their ability to return to their original home stream or lake. Salmon are thought to use several navigation aids to find their way back to where they were hatched. Scientists believe salmon use a combination of a magnetic orientation, celestial orientation, the memory of their home stream’s unique smell, and a circadian calendar to return to their natal stream to spawn.
The memory and smell centers in a salmon’s brain grow rapidly just before it leaves its home stream for the sea. A salmon can detect one drop of water from its home stream mixed up in 250 gallons of ocean water. Salmon will follow this faint scent trail, with the aid of the other methods mentioned above, back to their home stream to spawn. Talk about the ultimate homing instinct!
Like the salmon it was time to start heading for home. Not possessing such natural homing traits I had to rely on maps, a gps and the Milepost book as well as great force of will (yes, it was hard to leave such a beautiful place) to head south, back to the lower 48.
“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
As I mentioned in the last post I was taking the Cassier Highway south for a different route through Canada. I was advised that a must stop during these late summer salmon runs was the Fish Creek viewing platform in the small town of Hyder Alaska. Well the only way to reach Hyder by road was through Canada off the Cassier. Having done a long driving day from Boya Lake on a rather slow highway I was ready to stop for the night at the intersection of the highway that headed down to Stewart and Hyder. Meziadin Lake Provencial Park had been recommended by another traveler I met at Boya Lake and it was a great recommendation. There were campsites right on the lake with electrical hookups and an amazing view right out my front window. The next day, after pondering my excellent campsite, I decided to pay for a few more nights, leave the motorhome there and take a day trip to Hyder.
Stewart & Hyder are located at the end of highway 37A at the head of the Portland canal, a narrow 90 mile long fjord. This fjord forms a natural boundary between the US and Canada.
The easternmost town in Alaska, Hyder sits below snowcapped peaks and glaciers that glint cerulean blue in the sun.
If libertarians had an paradise on earth, it would probably be in Hyder, Alaska. Separated from American governments and bureaucracies by immense wilderness, Hyder has no property taxes or police, and citizens can carry firearms openly. Yet this village, wedged between two Canadian borders, has long relied on neighboring Stewart, British Columbia, for groceries, electricity and other services.
The spirit of international cooperation between Hyder and Stewart goes back to the early 1900s, when the two communities were founded as mining towns on the shores of a fjord abundant with salmon, seals and halibut. While they may be in separate countries, daily life has bound them ever closer through marriages, blizzards and bears that fail to respect international boundaries.
The only road into Hyder passes through Stewart and winds under a hand-painted sign suspended over the roadway, past the old American Custom House (which closed during the Carter administration), a bar and some stores before leading to a few residential streets and a post office nearly hidden by the thick towering pines. Mail arrives by plane that flies from Ketchikan only twice a week, weather permitting. First called Portland City it was decided that there were too many “Portlands” and the name was changed to Hyder after Canadian mining engineer Fredrick Hyder.
Two miles before Hyder is the town of Stewart, British Columbia. Settled in 1905, Stewart is named for an American family, mining brothers who prospected the area a few years earlier. Stewart is a former boomtown that’s seen better days. A few blocks down from the cafes and bars of Main Street is evidence of the bust: row after row of boarded-up homes and shuttered businesses.
The two towns were once home to about 10,000 people, during the gold rush more than a century ago, when Hyder was built on stilts over tidal flats and Stewart was notorious for its brothels. During the early part of the century the area was flush with gold and silver mines but World War I caused many of the men from the mines to head off to war.
Some rare diplomatic friction occurred two years ago when the Canadian government closed the border between midnight and 8 a.m. to save costs. Hell was raised by the local residents who complained that they could be cut off from emergency medical care, or worse, and that tourists would be unable to see the bears at Alaska’s popular Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site. In protest, some Hyderites installed a sign near the crossing that declares “Checkpoint Charlie” and then “You are leaving the American sector.” The Canadians eventually relented, but only after Alaska’s senator Lisa Murkowski, got involved. As you can see the sign remains to this day but the border crossing is open 24 hours.
Hyder is a great day trip where you can visit the Fish Creek site and look for bears and also travel the Granduc (Salmon Glacier) Road. The Granduc Road is a dirt road completed in 1965 for access to the Granduc Mine located northwest of Hyder. It offers spectacular views of the Salmon Glacier and Summit Lake. Climbing the valley it passes the sites of several mines and overlooks. The visitor center in Stewart offers a “self guided auto tour” brochure for the road and it is worth the stop to pick one up.
The views of the Salmon Glacier from the road are awesome. Summit Lake is located at the north end of the glacier and every year around mid-July the lake breaks an ice-dam and flows under the Salmon Glacier into the salmon River. This action causes the river to raise 4-5 feet for several days.
Salmon Glacier is the fifth largest glacier in Canada and is worth a look. You may be wondering how can this glacier be in Canada? Isn’t Hyder in Alaska? Yes, Hyder is part of Alaska but 13 miles up the road outside of Hyder you cross back into Canada, this international boundary marked by a cone shaped cairn as well as the required forest clearing along the border.
On the way back through Hyder I had to make the stop at Fish Creek observation site. This is an area where those determined salmon run up the river searching for their native homes and of course this attracts the always-opportunistic bears. This is the time of the year when the bears are out in almost frantic search of high calorie foods to help sustain them through the winter months. I had seen two black bears along the road as I was driving down into Stewart and was lucky enough to see a young bear crossing the river from the Fish Creek observation platform. There were quite a few visitors hanging around the platform hoping to see bears feeding on the still abundant salmon heading upstream. Although no more bears appeared while I was on the platform as I pulled out of the parking area a large black bear crossed the road and headed into the woods. Overall I saw five bears on my daytrip into Stewart and Hyder, most of them through the windshield, which is a much safer place to view them!
“A most tremendous-looking animal . . . ” – Meriwether Lewis
I couldn’t leave Hyder without a stop at the “Bus” for halibut and chips. This unique eating place had been recommended by numerous folks that I met on the road as well as several travel publications. Well the food was excellent, fresh fish caught locally and the bus was a fun eclectic place.
I talked with the owner (also cook) and found out a little history. The bus is celebrating 20 years of operation in 2017 (wow) and it is still going strong. The owners work their tails off all summer then take the winters off to travel (much like many Alaskans). 20 years ago a guy brought the bus up to Hyder and ended up selling it to their Nephew who had plans to live in it. One winter was all it took to find out that wasn’t such a great idea and they traded a snowmobile for the bus – and I guess the rest is history! The bus is open everyday until the fish is gone and sees a lively crowd of visitors from all over.
After a great day trip into Hyder it was back to Meziadin Lake. The weather had been overcast and showery and it didn’t seem willing to break. Even so, the campsite at the Provincial Park was beautiful. Early the next morning I was rewarded with a visit from a pair of loons on the lake in front of my site. I generally avoid taking bird photos with the exception of birds of prey (like the bald eagles) and the beautiful loons that grace the Alaskan and Canadian Lakes, so it was a treat to see them right from where I was drinking my morning coffee.
Hearing a splash from the left I glanced over to find a black bear had just walked down the creek next to the campground and started along the beach not 75 yards from my location. He wandered along the beach before walking calmly into the lake and swimming across to an island out in front of the campground. It was very interesting to watch how easily he swam the distance and then shook like a wet puppy as he exited the waters on the island.
“The gypsies believe the bear to be a brother to man because he has the same body beneath his hide, because he drinks beer, because he enjoys music and because he likes to dance.” ― Ernest Hemingway
In a few hours the clouds cleared enough for a stand up paddle exploration of some of the shoreline. The lake is one of only three places in the province where salmon spawn in the bays and inlets of a lake with four species returning yearly.
Alaska has five types of salmon in its rivers, lakes and streams. It’s interesting how little facts come back to you from the depths of your brain.
When I was in Alaska 14 years ago I remember learning how to use your hand to remember the salmon types. So here goes: hold one hand up and spread your fingers. Thumb rhymes with chum – Chum Salmon. Then there is your pointer finger, point to your eye – Sockeye Salmon (okay not exactly the easiest one to relate to!). Your middle finger is the largest finger so you can remember the largest of all of Alaska’s salmon is the king. Now look at the ring finger, what color rings do some people wear? Silver – yep, Silver Salmon. And lastly, your pinky finger, easy enough, the fifth species of Alaska’s salmon is the pink. And there you have it, facts to impress your friends when you visit Alaska!
It is truly the circle of life that provides for the salmon to return home at the end of their lives to spawn future generations of salmon and feed those ever hungry bears.
After a few excellent nights there on the lake it was time to continue the migration south. Canada is a great country and there is much more to see before crossing back into the lower 48.
“Migration is as natural as breathing, as eating, as sleeping. It is part of life, part of nature. So we have to find a way of establishing a proper kind of scenario for modern migration to exist. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean the world. We need to find ways of making that migration not forced.” – Gael Garcia Bernal