Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Salmon In The Trees
Documenting the circle of life in Alaska’s Tongass rain forest
Just a few days before, there wasn’t a single salmon in this stream. In a few weeks, the only visible evidence of what took place here will be spawned-out carcasses littering the stream banks. The cleanup crews of birds, otters and mink will scour the remains. Heavy fall rains will wash the fish bones out to sea, and bears will curl up in their dens as snow dusts the mountaintops. The show will be over, but the annual payout is rich. Bald eagles, fueled by salmon, will soar greater distances to find food during the lean winter months. Female bears, padded with fat reserves, will give birth in their dens and nurse their tiny cubs with salmon-enriched milk. The forest, fertilized with supercharged soil from decayed fish, will sprout new growth come spring.
And the salmon? Those that survived their time in the ocean, by dodging the hooks, nets, beaks and jaws of predators, and returned to their birth streams to spawn and die, are still here. These salmon live on in frolicking spring cubs, plump blueberries, new growth rings in tree trunks and downy eaglets perched in their nests. And the next generation of salmon is swaddled in the streams and incubated by the forest. The fertilized eggs will soon hatch, ensuring that the cycle of life is a circle, always flowing, never broken. What goes around comes around.
The Tongass National Forest boasts nearly a third of all that remains of the planet’s rare old-growth temperate rain forests, making it a national treasure as well as a global one. Rarer still is that all of the pieces are here—ancient forests, wild salmon, grizzly bears, wolves, Steller sea lions, humpback whales and more. The circle is whole. And we’re part of it, too. The Tongass is a place where people live with salmon in their streets and bears in their backyards. It’s a land of remarkable contrasts. One of the world’s largest densities of brown bears is 20 minutes by floatplane from the Internet cafes and 30,000 residents of Juneau, the state capital of Alaska. Cruise ships carrying more than 2,000 passengers ply the same waters as mom-and-pop fishermen.
That the modern world has arrived and hasn’t broken the circle of life in the 21st-century Tongass is nothing short of astounding. But we’re on our way to carving up this extraordinary forest. We only have to look south to the once-magnificent salmon rain forests of Washington, Oregon and northern California to see how quickly we can decimate ancient trees, wild salmon and a rich way of life.
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