It Takes a Watershed

           Alaska is the world’s last great stronghold of wild salmon, with massive numbers of all five Pacific species returning to their natal waters from southeast Alaska on up to the Bristol Bay watersheds and farther along the coast to the Yukon River and beyond.  Due to a changing climate, salmon are even beginning to show up in the northern arctic rivers along the Chukchi Sea.

            In a new book aimed at young readers, A King Salmon Journey (Univ. of Alaska 2014), authors Debbie Miller and John Eiler, and illustrator Jon Van Zyle, trace the incredible true story of one particular salmon, which they appropriately name Chinook.  They know this individual animal's story because she was one of about 3,000 fish that Eiler, a noted salmon biologist, gently captured as it returned to the Yukon River to begin its long swim to the spawning grounds.  Before releasing the fish, Eiler implanted radio tracking devices that could track not only their progress up the river but also other data such as depth in the water, allowing a detailed and fact-based reconstruction of their adventures.

            Of all the fish that Eiler and his team tagged near the mouth of the mighty Yukon, this one, Chinook, swam the farthest to the spawning area where she had spent the first year of her life five years before the marathon swim.  All told, Chinook swam 2,007 miles in 63 days, depending on her ample stores of fatty oils for sustenance because, like other anadromous species, she stopped eating upon entering fresh water.   The journey took this hardy individual past numerous hazards and obstacles and far beyond the Canadian border.

            Acclaimed Alaskan author Debbie Miller is known for her classic nature writing, especially Midnight Wilderness and On Arctic Ground, as well as for other books targeted at younger audiences, such as Grizzly Bears of Alaska.  In her collaboration with Eiler, she also did her own field research, including canoeing about 75 miles along the final stretches of Chinook’s epic journey.  Miller and Eiler have combined their insights into a graceful book that, while perhaps aimed at a younger audience, resonated with this adult reader as graceful, engaging and informative.

            Other tagged salmon make cameo appearances in the narrative, driving home the mystery and the splendor of this annual migration.  Here is one that I particularly enjoyed:  “As Chinook continues to follow the Yukon, another female salmon turns up the Porcupine.  This fish detours up the tributary for more than 200 miles before realizing she is in the wrong place.  Turning around, she swims back to the Yukon and continues searching for her birthplace.”  Can you imagine swimming 200 miles out of your way?

            At a recent book signing, Eiler talked about his salmon research while Miller focused on the writing project and the importance of habitat protection.  “It takes a watershed,” she observed, “to raise a salmon.”  Which I might add is all the more reason to support the EPA’s recent proposal to protect the Bristol Bay watershed by restricting large-scale mining activities in its headwaters.

            By reaching out to the next generation of readers and citizens, books like A King Salmon Journey give voice to these amazing animals and help to ensure that their critical habitat will be preserved.