I received my Bachelor of Science in Fisheries and Wildlife Studies from Oregon State University almost a year ago this month. As I find the summer field season winding down and my year as an AmeriCorps volunteer dwindling I find myself at a bit of a crossroads or at a lack of a future plan. I bring up my educational background because it (hopefully) provides some insight on my summer as a Fisheries Technician in the wonderfully grand West-Yakobi Wilderness. During college my major heavily pushed students into one of two tracks- fish or wildlife. I distinctly remember potluck events where fish students and professors competed against wildlife students and professors in horseshoe or bowling events. It all seems kind of silly now, but at the time it felt right. I was strictly a wildlife person enthralled by the intersections of human-wildlife conflicts and the prospects of working (in some capacity) with mammal conservation and management- why would I want to take any fish classes? Fish seemed so unrelatable, so foreign to me.
Coming to Alaska, however, my world sort of turned upside down with fish being the center of life in Southeast. Salmon nourish the forests, the people, and life and there is something so incredibly beautiful about witnessing that. From the tiny, but impactful Pacific Herring to the powerful King Salmon-fish are the ecological foundation of not only our rivers, but the wild Alaskan spirit.
So to say the least, it was a bit of a professional shock when I found myself sitting on the metal pickets of a fishing weir counting sockeye salmon sliding past and immensely enjoying it, or when I found myself in waiters yelling at prowling bears pacing the shoreline, or when I found myself rooting through spawned out sockeye carcasses and cutting off pelvic fins deep within the Tongass. It’s difficult to capture my summer at the weir and all the visceral experiences I had in a neat, composed blog post, but I find that’s true of most of my experiences in Southeast. How do you convey what it’s like to fillet a salmon for the first time, watch a sow dart off with her cubs towards a neighboring beach, or the feeling of plucking the salty, silvery scales off of a fighting salmon?
My time at the weir was wonderfully wild, it was challenging, frustrating, but most importantly I learned so much about a life source that is so integral to the people of Southeast Alaska. Monitoring long-term salmon returns is crucial for future conservation efforts, but it also gave me insight into what it means to be Alaskan. Their sacrificial journey home parallels the resiliency of this place and so many other communities in Alaska. I find myself continuing to be inspired and empowered by the resourceful people who call this place home.
Even though I took away tangible outcomes from my time at the weir: how to tell a coho apart from a pink, how to shoot a shotgun, and how to drive a skiff around, the most powerful lesson I learned is that fish need love too and the things we never see ourselves doing are the things that might provide us with the most insight and knowledge.