Grizzlies line up on the far bank and just pluck them from the inlet and have a feast. Ben said he counted sixteen there at one time as he sat on the hatchery manager's porch and ate his dinner. He said he didn't mind the bears as long as they stayed on their side of the river. He said that he drew an imaginary dividing line through the property and one side was for the bears and the other was theirs. "They come over here," he said pointing to the ground around the hatchery, "and I am going to make it as unpleasant an experience for them as I can."
12-hour Days of Fish and Isolation
When the hatchery is ready to process the brood stock (or the fish that are waiting to spawn) they lift the gate and let several hundred fish into the holding pond at a time. These fish want to swim up the falls to the source of the clear mountain lake water of their birth. But they can't do it because it's too steep, so they head for the metal fish ladder and crowd their way to their death. They fall from the fish ladder into a big tank in the processing building where they are shocked for 60 seconds. Then the sorter picks them out of the tank and sends the females to one guy who will open it up and strip her of her eggs and the males to another guy who will open it up and retrieve the sperm or milt. The bloody carcasses are then thrown onto a conveyer belt that takes them to the grinder. Eventually the fish parts will end up in fish food and fertilizer.
The spawning season is an intense three-week period at the height of the summer, which means the hatchery workers will be putting in twelve-hour days, seven days a week. "If I'm the sorter my job is to bury the guy below me in fish," says Ben. "And his job is to bury the person below him." It's hard, tedious work lifting and dealing with fish that weigh about seven pounds apiece. The fish handlers frequently change up the jobs in the processing room so that they can work different muscles and give the ones they've just used a rest. "This is not a job for someone who wants to work on a research project and has a fisheries degree," says Ben. "We are creating as many fish as possible here — that's our job — and it can be hard, monotonous work."
As we walked through the processing shed then into the hatchery building where the eggs are incubated and hatched in large stainless steel tanks and then out and around the concrete tanks, I was struck by what a small patch of land this was. The flat land couldn't have been more than an acre all hemmed in by sheer mountains and water. It was clear that this place could get very small very quickly. Ben said this kind of isolation wasn't for everybody. "Last year one guy got on the sea plane on Thursday to go to town for the weekend and then he just never came back," said Ben.
Getting anything to the hatchery like groceries or supplies or mail meant it was coming by sea plane. The sea plane came twice a week during the good weather then once a week or not at all during the long winter months. Going to town meant hopping a ride on the sea plane, which flew up and over the mountains to the west side of Baronof and then down to the town of Sitka, which must have seemed like a goddamn city with its one stop light at the main intersection in town. Ben really likes the isolation of the job and has only been to town a handful of times since starting his job a couple of years. The last time was four months earlier when his son was born. He has that kind of I'm-going-to-go-feral look about him that was confirmed when he told of hiking up the mountain last year and shooting a mountain goat that he slung over his shoulders and brought back down to eat.
Last year a humpback whale and her calf discovered the cove and spent their days eating the profits. As we walked to the dock Ben said he didn't know what they were going to do this year if the whales came back. I realized that everywhere I looked it was man versus nature — man vs. bear, man vs. salmon, man vs. whale, man vs. the weather, man vs. water — and I could see that each battle was just that, a battle, and that sometimes man won and sometimes he didn't. But those little setbacks, those lost battles, just meant he was going to try harder to win the next time around.
We boarded the skiff and waved goodbye to Ben and his wife and kids who came down to the dock to see us off and as we were leaving the cove we noticed a rippling in the water right beyond the salmon pens. Within seconds a long white flipper and one fluke were in the air as a humpback whale turned in a tight circle while it fed on salmon fingerlings. We watched it do barrel rolls and bubble netting and swim in tight circles in one little spot in the cove for about half an hour before we moved on. Made me wonder what Ben and his Hidden Falls buddies were going to do about their "humpback problem."
Rachel Dickinson writes for a number of publications including The Atlantic, Audubon, and National Geographic Traveler. Her latest book is Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West.
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Other United States and Canada travel stories from the archives