Three decades ago, I hiked along a stream in Alaska far from any significant human civilization. Deep in the wet forest, the water tumbled over rocks and raced toward somewhere unseen. But something was strange. The water was bleeding. Blurry red streaks just beneath the white riffles. Only instead of flowing downstream with the water, the red mass was pulsing upstream. Sockeye salmon, in their crimson spawning colors, were fighting against the current. The opposing flows of water and fish were confusing yet hypnotizing. The salmon seemed to be on a liquid treadmill, swimming hard and not going anywhere. But by some sleight of hand, or fin, the fish magically inched forward, one step closer to home. I stood for a long while watching the salmon, soaking in the moist air and the earthy smell of the forest, listening to the rushing water and the croaks of ravens. My life was forever changed.
On that day, immersed for the first time in the land of wild salmon, witnessing a phenomenon that predates human beings, something in me awoke—that part deep inside all of us that is connected to the animals, plants, land and water of this earth. Wild salmon show all who encounter them that life is a dance of rhythms, balance and strength. Through twists and turns, ups and downs, we learn to trust the unseen and bow with grace for the time we are here.
In today’s world, many of us have lost our connection to wild places and thus our true nature. We have forgotten what it means to live among fantastic creatures, jaw-dropping beauty and real danger. We have forgotten that a community extends beyond our relationships with other human beings. But the salmon people of Alaska have not forgotten. They know that they are a part of a community of fish, rivers, oceans, forests and tundra. They share the salmon with bears, eagles, seals, beluga whales and each other. They show gratitude to the fish that have seen them through times of plenty and times of scarcity.
Intrigued that Alaska is one of the last places in the world where the lives of people and wild salmon are linked, I set out to explore the web of human relationships that revolve around these remarkable fish. My journey resulted in my book, The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind. Everywhere I went, from remote villages to urban cities, whether I met with people for 10 minutes or 10 days, I left with salmon in my hands—dry strips in a zip-close bag, frozen fillets in a vacuum-sealed pouch or smoked chunks in a glass jar. A stranger in their land, I was struck by the generosity that the salmon people showed me.
Salmon are a gift—to the land, water, animals, plants and people. And when you’re on the receiving end of a gift, you give back. It’s the salmon way. This gift culture goes beyond just sharing salmon; it includes sharing firewood, laughter, sweat and tears. This generosity of spirit forges relationships, and relationships create communities. In Alaska, there are many different kinds of salmon communities: Native and non-Native cultures, and commercial, sport, subsistence and personal-use fishing. Whether people fish for their food, livelihood, fun or all of the above, they are connected in some way through salmon.
That wild salmon endure in Alaska in the 21st century, when they’ve declined elsewhere in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, is a testament to their resilience and their habitat remaining largely intact. It’s also a testament to a different way of thinking—and living—that respects the relationships between salmon and people. Alaska is one of the few places left in the world where salmon people live connected to a home stream with an appreciation for what nourishes both body and spirit. Where salmon continue to build communities. Where the salmon way is still a way of life.