Just got back from a 10 day field trip. Went up the Berners River to sample the adult coho salmon escapement there. It’s a place few people ever go, as we were at the headwaters, and accessible by helicopter, only, although I guess someone could maybe walk up there. I did the same trip 16 years ago, and realized when we were walking up stream and after 200 yards I was already 100 yards behind – I ain’t 33 anymore.
Neon Leon, the project leader, has been doing this trip for 30+ years. He walks from camp downstream and upstream to count how many coho salmon are there spawning. On the second day, we walked to the headwaters of the river after an evening of pouring rain and wind. When we got near the source, the river split, with one fork going towards one group of the towering mountains on one side of the valley and the other fork going towards tower mountains on the other side of the valley. The weather had been pouring rain since the night before. We ate lunch at the source of the spring creek, and then headed back downstream. When we got to the river fork, the river had risen greatly. It looked like we might not be able to cross the river to get back to the side of the river our tent was on. The other two said we’d do a “swift water” technique where the largest person (me!) would cross, with the other two behind me in a sort of a tripod. I would block the water for them, and they would support me by hand in getting across the river. It was precarious, but we 3 made it across the river at about 345 pm.
Night comes pretty early in late Oct here. We managed to cross to our side of the river. From there, Leon lead us over hill and dale. We did not get into the river again as it was too strong of current. We crossed tributary creeks that normally you could skip across that were now raging torrents. Of course, as we coursed through the woods and muskegs as night fell and we donned our headlamps, Leon related bear attacks at dusk. So, in our hip waders, we traversed unknown miles back downstream in the woods. At one point, we came down near the river, which I only knew because I could hear it, and I saw a trail in my headlamp and directed Leon to it. And suddenly – there was our tent. I let out a whoop as I thought we were in for more miles of trudging. Wow, was that a welcome site. When we got to the tent, I was thoroughly soaked from head to toe, and began stripping down and hung my clothes on the nails and dowels above the stove. Then I started a fire in the woodstove, and looked for the nearest snake-bite kit for relief. Leon said he’d turn off his watch alarm for the night as the rain and wind continued. We gradually awoke the next morning. To my amazement, the river level dropped as quickly as it rose as the rain tapered off.
By mid-day, we were able to get back out on the river and try to seine the schooling coho salmon. The water was still kind of high the next few days, and we were scratching for less than a 100 fish a day. Our goal was 600 fish for scale samples, and I wasn’t sure we’d make it. After another day of little rain, the river continued to drop and at some point the combination of the lower water and our improved technique of beach seining we finally reached the 600 fish goal for scale collection. Then we just seined and looked for fish marked by clipping their adipose fin when they were outmigrating smolt. We ate well the entire trip. Neon Leon mostly did breakfast, and I did several dinners and Scott filled in a few days. Wow. I may not be 33 anymore, but I think the trips like this that I survive mean more as the years go by. I managed about 4 gallons of high bush cranberries during the trip, and was busy juiciing some and freezing the rest today, along with other catch-up chores. Hopefully, I’ll get to go to the Berners again.
– Mark Stopha Alaska
Wild Salmon Company
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK 99801