A Visit to Bristol Bay

June 01, 2016 Posted by: Kyle Chisolm

The Naknek River from Paradise Point

During spring break in Duluth, MN, a mass exodus of winter weary folks travel to places where they hope warmth exists. I, on the other hand, planned a trip north to Alaska to visit my sister, Linda Chisholm, who is a ranger for the NPS at Katmai National Park. Being a current AmeriCorps member, I inquired about volunteer opportunities and was given the chance to observe and blog about the Naknek River by Michael Fitz of the NPS. I've lived in coastal areas both salt and fresh water, but I'd never witnessed a true tidal river before. It seemed like a good opportunity; especially if I got to see beluga whales in the process. That was my epic goal overall. My first day here, though, I saw something else I considered epic. Near the mouth of the river, an adult bald eagle guided an adolescent around, occasionally skimming the water's surface in an attempt to teach the younger how to fish (presumably.) With the Bering Sea as the backdrop for this spectacle, it was a good start to things.

As the history person I am, I like to know where something begins. My first official day of river observation, I began at Lake Camp (within the boundaries of Katmai National Park,) on April 6. There to assist me was my brother-in-law, Burton Smith, a volunteer at Katmai.  Lake Camp is where the Naknek River starts its 35 mile journey from Naknek Lake, to Bristol Bay on the Bering Sea. The first thing I noticed was that even here, miles away, tidal forces affected the level of water. I didn't expect that.  Along the shoreline I noticed various animals tracks, including that of a muskrat who had slipped into the water about 20 yards from me.  It swam along the shoreline before disappearing  10 minutes later. I also found various aquatic snails and what appeared to be a cache of fish an animal had previously enjoyed. Bones and mostly complete skeletal structures were strewn all about in an impressive scene of carnage. 

A muskrat swims in the Naknek River

It was then that a text message came from my sister; seal and beluga sightings were coming in from Shearwater Art and Espresso in Naknek.  Even though belugas were not the day's objective, AND despite the distance from Lake Camp, Burt and I decided to head that way.  Naturally, when we arrived, the animals had moved too far up river so, on the advice of Kaitlin Woody (the proprietor of Shearwater), we went back up river to Martin Monsen Park to see if we could catch up. Sure enough, we heard some puffing, and saw three belugas heading far up river from us. However, it was obvious most belugas had passed by already.  

A beluga whale surfaces in the distance

Giving up on belugas for the day, we travelled back up river to Paradise Point just beyond the King Salmon Airport, which was quite the vista. Down below, the river was split into two separate colors: a deep indigo on the far side, and much lighter turquoise on the near. A multitude of swans occupied various points along the shore, putting on quite a performance of honking. In the distance, someone fired a gun three times, scattering a cloud of swans to the safety of a pond inland from the river. Perhaps the shooter was tired of all the honking.  Scanning with my binoculars, I tried to see where the shots came from, but to no avail. It was time to move on anyway as the weather abruptly changed. A cold wind moved in and brought with precipitation that didn't quite fall as rain or hail. It was something in-between that fell solid but exploded on impact. If I had to name it, I'd call it "rail." After this first full day of getting me familiar with the river, we were ready for belugas the next day.

The next morning, the first stop was Shearwater around 10:00, which was roughly the time seals and beluga were sighted the previous day. Today's tide change was scheduled for an hour later, though, so the intent was to be early and catch the river's reverse flow from low to high. Along the banks below Shearwater, were many ducks, swans, a bald eagle, and even a few seals that occasionally poked their heads up at the water's surface. However, no belugas. Roughly an hour later, we changed venues to the city dock and got a good view of the river. We waited there till the flow reversed  around 11:30 and by 11:40 the first belugas started to puff by. Success! After an initial group of whales went by, we traveled once again to Martin Monsen Park, where the water was clearer than the city dock, and waited about  an hour before the tidal flow there reversed. At 12:30, gulls flew by (the harbinger of belugas) and, ten minutes later, distinctive "V" shaped wakes rounded the bend and made their way toward the park. Once the puffing began, I knew for certain the belugas had arrived.  Twenty minutes of pictures and video later, my phone informed me that I had run out of memory.  Despite that setback, I didn't feel cheated. My goal to spot the belugas as they came with the tide was accomplished.

Beluga whales breach in the Naknek River

As my time in King Salmon and Naknek comes to an end, I have some final thoughts. There's a level of quiet here that I've never experienced elsewhere and have heard sounds I hadn't before: water and gas pockets that gurgled through river mud or a bird's wings cutting the air as it flew over. It's little details like this we don't always notice, but if one can get to a place where the world is still wild, yet calm, one can. I look forward to when I come back.  

Last updated: June 1, 2016

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