Salmon In The Trees

Documenting the circle of life in Alaska’s Tongass rain forest
This Article Features Photo Zoom

At 16.8 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S.; about 40% of the Tongass consists of glacial ice fields, alpine tundra, wetlands and water; bears play a significant role in spreading nutrient-packed salmon carcasses throughout the forest—the bodies of the salmon decay into the soil, and trees absorb the nutrients through their roots.


Crouched on a rock near a churning waterfall, I’m entranced by thousands of salmon thronging in a pool. Fin to fin, tail to tail, they sway against the current as one giant mob, like concert groupies in a mosh pit. I forget that they’re individual fish until one springs from the crowded stream, hurling itself against the foaming wall of water. And then another, and another. Fish after fish, leap after leap, so much energy expended, so much energy delivered. The long green arms of Sitka spruce and hemlock trees spread across the stream as if to welcome the salmon back into their forested fold. Click, click, click goes my camera in a frenzied attempt to freeze an airborne fish in my frame.

They’re fast—much faster than my reflexes. I try again and again. Hours vaporize, like the mist rising into the forest from the spray of the waterfall. But for the salmon, every minute is precious because their time is coming to an end. They have stopped eating. They’re in their final act, spawning, and they won’t stop pushing upstream until they die. Their instinctive drive to pass on their genes is hammered home to me with every leaping fish.

Click, click, click—lots of empty frames. I need to concentrate, but the distractions are many, and wonderful. The harpy screams of ravens emanating from the forest jolt my soul. Bald eagles swoop from treetops to rock tops, eyeballing the feast before them. Bears march into the stream with purpose, causing me to stand at attention. They know I’m here, but they seem focused on the fish at hand, or at paw. With one eye pressed against the viewfinder and one eye open for bears, I attempt to focus on anything, but instead just bask in the present. I’ve never felt more alive. It’s like I’m swirling in the middle of a wild performance with throbbing music, leaping dancers and flashing lights. I have a front-row seat to one of the greatest shows on earth, one that plays out every year all over the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Circle Of Life
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.

More than 50 species feed on salmon, including bald eagles, bears, mink, river otters, sea lions, orcas and humans.

Looking To The Past To Move Forward
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.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
The straits of southeastern Alaska that weave among thousands of forested islands are home to an array of marine life, including Dall’s porpoises, humpback whales and Steller sea lions.

Not too long ago, we thought we could improve upon what nature had perfected. We put bounties on bald eagles and Dolly Varden trout, thinking we were helping salmon by killing their predators. We tidied salmon streams, not realizing that nature’s chaos nurtures life. We built hatcheries and treated salmon like commodities instead of fine-tuned creatures that have carried their genetic message for millennia. We clear-cut ancient forests, not heeding the wisdom written in those growth rings of trees many centuries older than us. We did all of this with the best of intentions, thinking we were doing the salmon, forests and ourselves a favor.

That scientists have discovered salmon in the trees tells us that everything is connected. And if we start tossing away the pieces, we eventually unravel the whole glorious show. Salmon link the land to the sea, and they can’t survive if both aren’t healthy. Neither can we. Long ago, we knew how to live within nature’s constraints. We need the Tongass, if for no other reason than to connect us to the world that we once knew. When the circle is whole, so are we.

We’ve been given a great gift and an even greater responsibility. The Tongass is public land that belongs to all Americans. All the pieces are still here. But for how long? Its biological riches are vulnerable to the demand for minerals, timber, seafood, tourism and who knows what else down the road. Despite these threats, we can get it right in the Tongass simply because there’s still time, and we know it’s the right thing to do.

Tongass National Forest Quick Facts

Location: Southeastern Alaska; also called the Panhandle of Alaska or the Inside Passage

Size: 16.8 million acres, about the size of West Virginia

Geography: A narrow arc on the mainland coast bordering Alaska and British Columbia, with more than 5,000 islands in the Alexander Archipelago

Ecology: Coastal temperate rain forest with an annual precipitation ranging from 38 inches to more than 220 inches

Some of the world’s highest densities of grizzly bears, black bears, bald eagles and salmon

Number Of Salmon-Spawning Streams: More than 4,500

Salmon In The Trees: Scientists have discovered salmon, in the form of marine-derived nitrogen, in trees near salmon-spawning streams

Trees In The Salmon:
Trees shade the spawning streams, prevent erosion and provide habitat for the juvenile salmon

Threats: Industrial-scale logging began after World War II. Clear-cutting and 5,000+ miles of logging roads have degraded salmon streams and other wildlife habitat in parts of the Tongass. Continued threats include logging, mining, industrial-scale tourism, energy development and global climate change.

Conservation: Enough critical areas of the Tongass are still intact, holding the ecological integrity of the ecosystem together. These areas aren’t protected from resource extraction, but the opportunity exists to preserve them. Amy Gulick’s book, Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest (Braided River, 2010), is part of a collaborative effort with conservation organizations to educate Americans about the significance of the Tongass rain forest.

Amy Gulick is an International League of Conservation Photographers Fellow. Learn about her new book Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest at

Inspired by wild lands and their significance to both wildlife and people, Amy Gulick is a firm believer in the power of visual stories to engage, inform and move viewers. Celebrating the wild and the photographers who use their images to raise awareness is at the core of Gulick’s work featured in Outdoor Photographer.