After we set the anchor in a little cove, I stood and leaned against the rail of the ship that bright morning and I watched water spill down the side of the mountain in front of me, breaking into a couple of waterfalls bringing meltwater from the snow down to the tidewater. A big brown bear lumbered out of the pines on the lower part of the mountain and began to forage in the beach grass above the waterline directly across from the boat. He could care less about me leaning against the ship's rail not fifty feet away as he moved slowly, hindquarters up and head buried in the grass, down the shoreline smelling and sniffing and chomping his way toward a spot where a river entered the cove.
It was a bright and sunny morning in late May. A deep blue sky set off the green trees and the blindingly white snow clinging to the distant mountain slopes that seemed to plunge straight into the cold sea. We had weighed anchor and made our way across Chatham Strait to Kasnyku Bay and Hidden Falls on the east side of Baronof Island.
We were on the Mist Cove — a small ship patterned after a Korean War-era minesweeper — carrying about twenty passengers and a dozen crewmembers that ran between Juneau and Sitka several times a summer. A non-profit organization The Boat Company puts together these tours that meander through the Tongass National Forest, a huge federal landholding that covers most of the forests and islands and fjords of southeast Alaska. The goal of The Boat Company is to make people fall in love with and appreciate this part of the world.
This is not adventure travel; I'm not kidding myself about that. The Mist Cove has naturalists and guides and chefs on board. The itinerary includes soft activities you would expect to find on any "adventure cruise," like kayaking and hiking and walking through the forest. I almost feel like a weenie for taking a trip like this because I fancy myself a travel writer and these days travel writing seems to be all about traveling into the unknown in extreme and dangerous ways. But my days of playing Danger Girl are long gone — that ship has sailed for so many reasons — so I go where people who know a lot more about a particular part of the world than I do can take me. But I do keep my eyes open.
I got into a skiff with a guide and several others and we ran out of our cove and into an adjacent one, passing several bald eagles perched on snags, blazingly white heads popping against the dark green pines. As we rounded the corner we entered a small protective cove with a dock and several buildings up on a bluff directly in front of us. This was Hidden Falls salmon fish hatchery: the most successful hatchery and economically important program in southeast Alaska.
This spot was chosen for the hatchery because of the cove and the fact that there is no competition with a natural population of salmon in the area. Run by the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (NSRAA) — a non-profit trade organization of fishermen—this hatchery has the largest chum return of any other facility in North America averaging 1.9 million chum returning annually in the past ten years. They also produce and release coho and Chinook salmon.
Hearty Families Join Chum and Grizzly Bears
We got out of the skiff and climbed the stairs to the flat spot on the bluff where the buildings and two rows of big concrete tanks sat. Flat space is at a premium here where the mountains tend to plunge into the sea without leveling off first. We were met by Ben, who had been at Hidden Falls for a couple of years and was going to show us around.
Ben had on a sleeveless t-shirt which showed off the tattoo encircling his muscled right arm, closely cropped brown hair, long white shorts with big colorful flowers on them, and mid-calf length brown gum boots. We were all dressed in our adventure travel wear: North Face jackets and hiking boots. Ben lived in a little brown house with his wife and two kids: a three year old daughter and a four month old son. There was one other little family on the bluff — the hatchery manager and his wife and son — then six other workers who lived in the bunkhouse beyond the cement tanks. Everyone was in their thirties or younger.
Ben walked us through the whole process from raising the young fry in steel tanks in a dark windowless building, to transferring the fingerlings to the concrete tanks to get them used to sun and some salt water, to moving the young fish to holding pens in the cove where they acclimated to the sea before being released. The salmon imprint on the fresh water they are raised in — in this case it's water drawn from a small lake up on the mountain — and will return to that particular spot to spawn when they reach maturity in several years. Each year the staff at Hidden Falls release about 85 million young chum into the Chatham Strait and the return of 1.9 million mature fish several years later to spawn is considered a huge success.
The hatchery sets a goal of how many fish they are going to raise each year then makes a deal with commercial fisheries allowing them to fish at the mouth of the cove for a certain number of days per week; the public gets to fish on the remaining days. Boats crowd the entrance of the cove when the salmon start to run and the fish are hauled out of the water as fast as they can be hooked. There can be up to a hundred boats at the mouth of the cove on the public days and it must seem odd to the hatchery workers to see so many people in one spot because there are no communities within many, many, many miles of Hidden Falls.
As we walked along the narrow gravel path leading to the processing building, Ben stopped and pointed to a metal gate that spanned a narrow spot on the river that emptied into the inlet of the cove. Above the gate was a large pool maybe fifty feet across and a hundred feet long ending at the falls and below the gate was the inlet. When the gate was down the fish were barred from entering the pool, which is the one thing they all want to do. Consequently, they push and push and push and pile one on top of the other until it's a writhing mass of fish.