It’s 10:30 pm in southwest Alaska, and the sun has yet to sink below the horizon. I’m sitting on a wooden platform some 20 feet above the south bank of the Brooks River, at a point just downstream from a waterfall. Until I leave at 7 am tomorrow morning, the platform will be closed to visitors.
I’m here to count fish.
Brooks Falls acts as a natural barrier, or at least a hurdle, to salmon that swim upriver towards Lake Brooks and beyond in search of the gravel beds where they were spawned. When they reach the falls, they jump - and jump - and jump - until they make it. A colleague of mine who has counted a lot of fish over a number of years at exactly this spot estimates that only 6% to 7% of all jumps are successful. He also believes that most of the fish that want to get upriver eventually do get there. Unless an eagle or an osprey or a bear gets them first.
Sitting a few feet from me is the bear monitor, a woman whose job is to observe and collect data on the brown bears that congregate here during the salmon run. When she isn’t busy watching, writing, and snapping photos, I see her take readings from a handheld device that gauges the temperature, speed and direction of the wind. We work in silence and keep a low profile, as these are the only hours in July when the falls are given over to the bears alone and the platforms aren’t bustling with visitors.
I do a survey every 15 minutes, scanning the base of the falls for one minute at a time to count every fish that breaks the surface of the water. At 10:30 pm I count 11 fish, 15 minutes later it is 7 fish. At 11 pm I count 8 fish.
Only two weeks ago, there were times when I would count — or at least estimate — upwards of 300 sockeye salmon jumping per minute. But the present downturn doesn’t mean the run is finished, since both the arrival of the salmon here and their pushes upriver tend to come in fits and spurts that depend on various factors, including tides and water temperature. This summer will likely turn out to be the hottest on record, and as salmon like it cold, they may be staging out in Naknek Lake, waiting for the river to cool down before they move in. Some will spawn right here in the Brooks River, while others still have many miles to travel. They will do this only once in their lives, and then they will die. The fish we are seeing now are no longer eating, but their color hasn’t changed yet. Sockeye turn bright red before they spawn. This is their bodies consuming themselves.
At 11:30 pm I see, in addition to 11 jumping salmon, 13 bears, among them some of the largest adult male residents of the area. For the most part these dominant bears sit nearly motionless in the pools under the falls, waiting for salmon to bump against their bodies, where they can be trapped by paw and claw with an absolute minimum of effort. By midnight the sun has set, but the bears are still clearly visible. A blond, big-eared adult female called 128 Grazer is fishing the lip with confidence and poise, her massive belly sagging ponderously. One of the first bears to arrive here in June, she has already put away an incredible amount of salmon. When another bear rears up from below the lip in an attempt to steal her latest catch, she lazily turns away, sacrificing the greater part of it in what looks to me like bored indifference.
It’s been a long day, and I’ve spent nearly all of it here at Brooks Falls. As I recall everything I’ve seen over the last 15 hours, the images begin to feel strangely interconnected and dreamlike. The cub I saw licking salmon blood from its sibling’s face while fishing with its mother on the lip of the falls. The gulls that took flight in a raucous panic when a young eagle swooped onto the scene to nab a fish. The bear with an inch-thick tapeworm many feet in length streaming from its rear – and the visitor who was worried the poor thing had been hooked by a hapless angler. The thunderous growls, audible a mile away, of bears contesting a fishing spot (the first time I heard this, I took it for a floatplane engine). The two cubs I’d seen playing with a visitor’s purple selfie stick that had been gnawed nearly beyond recognition.
Catching myself beginning to nod, I stretch out my legs and scratch at the mosquito and white socks bites I’ve accumulated over the last two hours. To stay awake, I decide I should try to corral my thoughts in a more analytic direction. But at 12:14:33 am, there’s still just enough light to count salmon. I pinch the cold out of my cheeks and get into position.
Why do I feel such a sense of urgency and importance in this apparently robotic and monotonous act of counting?
Seeing my tally grow and watching my colleague carefully record her data, I am suddenly struck, and deeply impressed, by the grandeur of the millennia-old human history of steady plodding, dead ends and breakthroughs, failures and achievements, which we call science. There is no quick or easy payoff for this tenacious commitment to careful observation, collection, reflection and revision. Science, in its most beautiful and complete sense, is the ultimate long game.
I had never studied nature in any formal way before I started working in our national parks last year. As a ranger for media and interpretation, a tinge of pride wells up in me as I realize that I too am now playing a role, however tiny and obscure, in this ancient and awesome process of science.
Thanks to conversations with the naturalists, biologists and rangers I’m surrounded by here, in the last month I’ve learned more than I’d ever thought possible about the ecology and biology of the sockeye salmon – Oncorhynchus nerka – that choke the Brooks River every summer. Their early development is spent in these same waters, where they grow up learning the smells and tastes of home. Once their bodies adapt to saltwater, they head out to sea to drift thousands of miles around the big loop of currents that form the Alaska Gyre. After as few as 3 or as many as 5 or even 7 years, they will return – probably guided at least in part by cues from the crystalline magnetite contained in their noses – to Bristol Bay and the vicinity of the Naknek River. Around the time their bodies readapt to freshwater, their powerful olfactory system takes over. From river to lake to river to stream, over waterfalls and across riffles, they smell and taste their way home in anticipation of a final metamorphosis:
In the chill of amorous nights
Which conceived you
Where you yourself conceived…
Prior to the twentieth century, many naturalists were also amateur poets. Look hard enough and you’ll find people who were good at both. One of them was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who is usually considered the founder of modern German literature. One of his poems, which aims to “celebrate the living,” addresses a life marked by the same unwavering pursuit of metamorphosis, biological fulfillment and death we find in the Pacific salmon. When the “silent candle” flickers, the “you” addressed by the poem is overcome by a “strange feeling”:
No longer will you remain
In the shadow’s dark embrace
A new longing tears you open,
Upwards! To a higher consummation.
The poet isn’t speaking to a fish here, but to a member of Lepidoptera such as the gypsy moth. This transfixed “butterfly” of the night, having passed through the larval and pupal stages and emerged from its cocoon, travels a great distance “thirsting for light,” only to meet its fate in a fiery death by candle flame. Although its imagery is specific to moths, the poem also speaks to the experience of other “semelparous” species – like Alaska’s fairy slipper orchids, darner dragonflies, and five species of Pacific salmon – whose lives culminate in a single, fatal act of reproduction. It ends like this:
And until you grasp this,
This: Die and become!
You’re nothing but a somber guest
On the darkened Earth.
Does this also speak to us?
Just one salmon jumps in the 4-o’clock minute as a lone bear wades in the far pool. A dense veil of mist curls upward from the tumbling river and dissipates slowly. The obnoxious gulls, an otherwise constant presence, are nowhere to be seen.
We had also left the falls for the two darkest hours of night – to give even the most human-wary bears a chance to approach – but now we’re back, slightly refreshed from a nap in the Treehouse, for another three-hour monitoring session. The Treehouse is a covered platform several hundred feet from here, the spot where July’s thronging visitors await their allotted hour of photographic revery. Its roof hosts a colony of bats whose excrement gathers steadily on the platform below until it’s swept away by rangers like myself. But walking back to the falls from the Treehouse tonight, I experienced these bats for the first time on the wing, flitting and darting within inches of my chilled skin in their agile pursuit of insects, their mammalian warmth palpable, familiar and uncanny. Entranced and delighted, I was almost willing to forgive them their disrespectful treatment of the Treehouse floor where I’d slept.
And with an alarming suddenness that is particular to Ursus arctos, the brown bear in the far pool comes bounding towards us through the opaque mist, crossing the river in a series of mad dashes from pool to pool until it reaches a spot near the old fish ladder where it climbs up and crosses back across the lip to the far side. From its size and behavior I guess it is a “subadult,” or adolescent, of possibly three and a half years. Another bear of about the same age emerges from the thicket on the far bank as both rear up in mock battle, crashing into the water in a loose bear hug. Probably siblings, these bears may only play like this on a regular basis for a few years of their lives before their more strictly goal-oriented, less “social” instincts begin to outweigh their drive to play. There are exceptions to this, and they are just as wonderful to behold in bears as they are in human beings.
In a nutshell, my job is to help visitors and the broader public find meaning in this place. The National Park Service trains its rangers to interpret the life and land it preserves and protects by creating connections between “tangibles” – specific resources, like the bears and the salmon – and “intangibles” or ideas, like hope and tenacity and perseverance. If the culture and community that has been growing up for some years now around the Bearcams on explore.org is any indication, people are eager and thirsty to find human meaning in the lives of bears, who seem so close to us. And while there is no doubt that the sockeye salmon’s position as Katmai’s keystone species earns them plenty of respect, to a park interpretive ranger they present a very different challenge. Learning about fish is fascinating, but can we also learn from them?
In a mind-boggling evolutionary sense, we did graduate from fish school on our path to Homo sapiens some 400 million years ago. But unlike human beings, Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon population is as robust as ever and – barring a preventable mining catastrophe – faces no immediate threat of devastation.
400 million years is a long time. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we forgot a lesson or two along the way. But we can still try to remember. Maybe a 270-year-old naturalist’s poem can help us ask the right questions. Maybe science can, too.
What would it mean to be more than just temporary visitors on planet Earth? What would it take to finally stake a permanent claim here? And how can we participate in eternal life even though our bodies will inevitably perish?
Some gulls are back to retake their lucrative positions downriver of the falls, where they will spend the next hours gorging themselves on the scraps of bears. I count 7 fish.
Will we ever be ready to die and become? To give up our way of life for the sake of our life? For the sake of life?
As day returns to the Brooks River on July 7, 2019, for a brief interval the sun on the horizon is salmon-roe orange.
July 16, 2019
Last updated: July 16, 2019