Excerpt, from Part 1: A Park Portrait
It is mid-September in the Wood River Mountains, only a few days from the autumn equinox. The range’s foothills and the valleys that dissect these Southwestern Alaska mountains have been set afire, as forests and tundra burn in shades of gold, orange, crimson. Like the calendar, the flaming leaves of willow, dwarf birch, and bearberry remind us that this is the season of endings and transitions: end of summer’s greening, blooming wildflowers, salmon runs, long daylight hours. Migratory birds have begun their seasonal journeys to southern wintering grounds, grizzly and black bears are fattening up for winter’s months-long sleep and red squirrels busily harvest piles of spruce cones. Soon storm clouds will drop “termination dust” on the highest peaks and ice will form thin plates along lake edges.
From the seat of a float plane thousands of feet above this autumn landscape, the waters of Little Togiak Lake appear dark, calm, lifeless amid the riot of color. Yet the distant lake surface, like the fiery foliage, can mislead. Anyone lucky enough to stand beside the upper end of Little Togiak would marvel at the frenzied, abundant life concentrated here on an exquisite September afternoon of blue skies and blazing-hot sun. Just offshore, in the lake’s pale aquamarine shallows, hundreds of bright red sockeye salmon bump bodies while schooled at the mouth of a gin-clear creek, also named Little Togiak. Hundreds more dart and splash in the narrow creek’s riffled shallows, bound for spawning grounds upstream. Other sockeyes, already bonded in male-female pairs, guard nest sites they’ve built along the lake shore. The couples circle relentlessly in a sort of mating dance and aggressively attack any other fish that intrude upon their breeding grounds.
Though large numbers of sockeyes have yet to spawn, some have already completed the final ritual of their lives. The green heads, white spines, and decaying maroon bodies of salmon -- many of them partly consumed -- lie scattered along the sand beach that borders the lake and creek. Dead and dying sockeyes have predictably attracted a variety of predators and scavengers: bear, char, fox, eagle, raven, gull. Most obvious at midday are the glaucous-winged gulls, screeching loudly and continuously. Dozens of gulls float upon the lake, perch on rock ledges, hover overhead, pick at carcasses. Bear is hidden, but the nearby presence of grizzly is told by tracked mud and large, red-and-blue piles of berry-rich scat.
The sense of exuberant life ripples outward beyond the lake shallows and beach. Dense clouds of insects zoom and swirl through 70° air, while flocks of black-capped and boreal chickadees sing in their raspy way as they hunt bugs in dense willow thickets. Magpies squawk in stands of spruce trees beyond the thickets. Red squirrels chatter and ravens caw. And from somewhere far out on the lake, a common loon wails mournfully.
Moving even farther from shore, Little Togiak’s forested valley bottom is bounded by foothills of the Wood River Range. Rubbly, broken, and deeply incised faces of brown and gray rocks are softened by dark green carpets of alder that give way, several hundred feet above the lake, to red and orange tundra meadows. To the north, sharply angular pyramidal towers rise into a pale blue sky, their upper reaches of bare rock speckled with remnant snowfields. Even those hills carry signs of abundant animal life. Interwoven rows of tracks crisscross the mountains’ flanks: caribou highways.
Something else in abundance is the sense of solitude: once the float plane’s engine has been turned off, the day is still and silent except for the splash of salmon, songs of birds, rush of creek and distant waterfalls, the buzz of fly and yellowjacket. There are no human structures -- and likely no other people -- for miles in any direction.
Places like this -- seasonally rich in wildlife and fish (especially sockeye salmon) yet largely free of human presence -- are scattered throughout Wood-Tikchik State Park, an immense wilderness area in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, some 325 miles southwest of Anchorage. At 1.6 million acres, Wood-Tikchik is the nation’s largest state park. Here, in one unit, is 15 percent of our country’s entire state park acreage, all of it accessible only by boat, plane, or foot. No roads, no developed trails. And few other visitor amenities. The only land routes through the park are those regularly used by wildlife. And the only way to easily get into the park -- at least for those who don’t live nearby and own powerboats -- is by air. Most recreational visitors fly in from Dillingham, a coastal fishing community of about 2,500 people that serves as the region’s economic and transportation hub and is conveniently located near Wood-Tikchik’s southern border.
Stretching 80 miles from north to south, and 40 miles across at its widest point, this parkland spans a climatic transitional zone. Within 25 miles of the coast, its more southern reaches are heavily influenced by Bristol Bay’s maritime climate, while northern portions are drier and have more extreme temperature swings, reflective of Alaska’s Interior. Summer highs may reach into the 80s -- though temperatures are much more likely to fall between 45° and 65° -- while winter lows range from 30° above to 30° below 0.
Despite its inland setting, Wood-Tikchik is for the most part a water-based park dominated by, and named after, the Wood River and Tikchik Lakes systems, each characterized by a north-south series of large and interconnected clearwater lakes, up to 50 miles long. The east-west-trending lakes fill glacially carved trenches and bridge two disparate landscapes as they stretch, serpent-like, across the wilderness. Fjord-like western arms are dotted with islands and surrounded by the Wood River Mountains, a barely explored range of jagged spires and remote alpine valleys. The shallower eastern waters are bounded by the Nushagak Lowlands, a mosaic of boggy tundra and boreal forest.
Separated by less than 10 miles of foothills and lowlands, the two river-and-lake systems provide critical fish and wildlife habitat for a large portion of the animals to inhabit Wood-Tikchik. More than 140 species of birds and nearly three dozen types of mammals have been identified here: everything from grizzly bears and moose to porcupines, little brown bats, trumpeter swans, ospreys, and tree swallows. But Wood-Tikchik is best known for its fish. Lakes and streams provide critical breeding habitat for five species of Pacific salmon and they support healthy populations of numerous other fish species, including several popular with anglers: rainbow trout, Arctic char, Arctic grayling, northern pike. The most abundant and ecologically important species, by far, is the sockeye salmon. Fishery biologists estimate that 15 percent of Bristol Bay’s annual sockeye return is bound for Wood-Tikchik’s waters. After surviving a dash past commercial fishing nets, a million or more sockeye annually migrate up the Wood River system to spawn, while several hundred thousand travel up the Nushagak and Nuyakuk Rivers to the Tikchik Lakes chain.
“Without the sockeyes, Wood-Tikchik’s ecosystem wouldn’t be nearly as rich,” says Bud Hodson, former chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries and a longtime lodge owner who’s worked the Wood-Tikchik area since the mid-1970s. “When all those salmon die and decay, it’s like putting Miracle Grow into the lake systems; they’re adding all kinds of nutrients. Plus the sockeyes [and their eggs] are a major food source. They feed all kinds of animals: other fish, bears, raptors, gulls . . . ”
No wonder, then, that one of Wood-Tikchik State Park’s primary purposes is to protect the region’s fish and wildlife habitat. Another is to preserve the area for continued subsistence and recreational uses.
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