It has been an interesting and unusual year in the Chilkoot River corridor. With the advent of the pink salmon migration and the emergence of our brown bears I would like to share some news of the season.
About the Chilkoot
The Chilkoot watershed lies north of Haines Alaska and comprises approximately 100 square miles of streams, rivers and lakes feeding into the Lutak Inlet. The watershed is home to bears, eagles, moose, beaver, mountain goats and a variety of other charismatic mega-fauna. The Chilkoot supports four runs of wild salmon as well as Dolly Varden and a sizable spring run of eulachon (hooligan). The Chilkoot Valley was originally carved out by a glacier that traveled south and joined forces with glaciers carving out the Ferebee River valley and the Taiya Inlet to form a larger glacier which continued south carving out the Lynn Canal toward Juneau. The Lynn Canal has the distinction of being the longest and deepest fjord in North America. Remnant glaciers and snow melt now feed the upper Chilkoot River, which feeds into Chilkoot Lake. The lower Chilkoot River is fed by the lake and cuts through a mile-long moraine that formed during the glacier’s retreat. The lower stretch of the Chilkoot River empties into the estuary at the head of the Lutak Inlet. All this was carved by a single glacier long since receded at the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age 10,000 years ago.
Salmon in the Chilkoot
Four varieties of Pacific salmon return to the Chilkoot annually. They run at different times and spawn in different areas of the watershed. Sockeye salmon enter the river in June and generally run through the month of July. They travel up the lower river and spawn in the shallows at the edges of Chilkoot Lake where freshwater streams enter the lake. Some travel further up the river and side streams to “glory holes” reminiscent of primordial environments where the salmonid evolution likely began.
Early in the season reports of very low salmon returns gave rise to premature concerns. The same thing happened last year. Give it a few weeks, I thought. It is possible that warming temperatures cause the salmon to swim deeper, thus avoiding fishing nets and yielding low numbers of catch by the commercial fleet. A few weeks ago a major push returned into the Chilkoot, and for several days the counts approached 20,000 sockeye clearing the weir daily. It was not long before the sockeye exceeded the upper limit of Fish & Game’s escapement goal of 90,000. (Salmon escapement is the amount of a salmon population that does not get caught by commercial or recreational fisheries and return to their freshwater spawning habitat. With low numbers offspring will not be sufficient to replace those harvested. Too many in the lake and overpopulation will compromise the health of the offspring.) As of this blog, the current count is over 130,000.
Behind the sockeye salmon the pink salmon run in late July through August and perhaps into early September. Unlike the sockeye who spawn in the lake, the pink salmon spawn on the banks of the Chilkoot River. While sockeye live in fresh water for a time and salt water for a time, returning about every five years to spawn the next generation, pink salmon offspring head out to sea the year they are born (in the spring following their parent’s spawning). They return to spawn the following year. Alternating years tend to have alternating strong and week runs. Last year was the weakest run on record. The bear population was scrambling for whatever fish were available. One night I counted 14 bears on and around the weir at one time. Such a number of bears sharing a proximity is unheard of. Despite the stress, all the bears appeared to be healthy and putting on good winter weight. This year the pink salmon run is expected to be stronger, and already the count has exceeded last year’s final number.
Bears in the Chilkoot
Early in the season we were seeing a fair number of bears show up early. Speedy (our fifteen year-old favorite mama bear) was out and about with her triplets from last year. A few other bears were noted as well in mid-June. Normally we do not expect to see many bears until late July and August and beyond. At that point they frequent the river to fish for pinks.
A number of unexpected developments along the way. By and large, the bears have not appeared. We have had three young bears appearing along the beach of the upper Lutak inlet during low tides to toss rocks in search of small eels. Two of these bears keep company, and the third is a loner. The first time I saw the twins I expected to see a sow emerge from the forest. No mother bear ever appeared. Same with the loner. These three became fairly reliable at low tides in a generalized location along Lutak. In time, it was speculated that these cubs are Speedy’s offspring. Since early speculation, it appears confirmed as Speedy has been seen going solo now. Normally cubs stay with their mother for two winters beyond their birth, making them between 2-3 years old when the sow separates from her young. That Speedy kicked them out as yearlings is unusual to the extreme. Perhaps she did not put on enough weight the previous season (poor salmon run combined with the fact she fishes poorly) to continue to care for the cubs.
I expect that bear visitation along the Chilkoot River will increase as the season continues and more salmon come to the corridor. The weather is such (warm and dry) that the salmon runs have slowed down somewhat, and the berries are prolific, This may be giving many bears a preference for staying in the higher country and in the shade to forage rather than fish. In recent years Speedy has been a long time arriving, and when she did she does is looking healthy. We can hope the same holds true in 2019. She has been spotted a few times though, and reports are that she looks lean. That appearance may be par for the course this early in the season.
I will add updates to this blog as we move along.
Update: 8/28 – Bear activity is picking up on the river. Speedy is back along with a sow with two cubs who delighted us last year. Lulu (Speedy’s four-year-old daughter) is back along with another handsome youngun we have named Oreo.
It has been a most unusual year. Record high temperatures have kept locals in a daze. Also, Haines is traditionally wet, being at the north end of a temporal rain forest. This year has been dry, and we are now in a condition classified as drought. Since mid-April I have recorded 4.5″ of rain through mid-August. Our town reservoir is depleted and the borough has needed to perform auxiliary pumping to keep water supplied to residents of town. The borough has issued mandatory water restrictions. Thankfully I am on my own well and hopeful for the best. Total burn bans have gone into effect several times this season. Earlier this season multiple wildfires in the interior and the Yukon choked the Chilkat Valley with smoke for weeks. We could not see two miles across the inlet to the Chilkat Range.
2018 was the first year in anyone’s memory that our mountains have been clear of snow. This year is similar. No snow and the glaciers are sitting out completely exposed. This reduces runoff which affects water temperatures which affect salmon runs. Snow melt and glacier recession has also been accelerated due to a record high spruce pollen release in 2019. No one had ever seen the likes of the pollen apocalypse that took place in May. A lot of pollen settled on the snow and ice of the upper elevations, likely accelerating the melting.
(June 17 we finally had a little over a half-inch of rain as measured at my deck station. More rain in the forecast. We can hope, but experience shows these forecasts are subject to change.)
(June 26 we enjoyed an inch of rain which caused a massive slide at 19-mile on Haines Highway, closing the road for a few hours. We also saw termination dust on the peaks of the Chilkat Range. Termination dust is the first powdering of snow that signals the termination of any illusion that there is any summer left.)
I continue to be optimistic about everything. Opportunities for photography abound, some of it wildlife, and much of it just being a part of the landscape and a witness to the world as it unfolds. If you want to come share the wonder, I do offer a variety of tours and extended private workshops: