Amy Gulick brings 25 years of experience photographing and writing about nature to audiences ranging from the World Wilderness Congress to school classrooms. With science, humor, and adventure, Amy helps people understand ecological connections and why they matter to humanity.
The Salmon Way
By Amy Gulick
Almost three decades ago, my husband, Chris, and I hiked along a stream on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, far from any significant human civilization. Deep in the wet forest, the water tumbled over rocks and raced toward somewhere unseen. But something was strange. The water was bleeding. Blurry red streaks just beneath the white riffles. Only instead of flowing downstream with the water, the red mass was pulsing upstream.
“Sockeye salmon,” said Chris in a hushed voice, the kind you use when you’re in a sacred place.
“Where are they going?” I asked in a whisper.
“Back to where they were born.”
“Where are they coming from?”
I stared at these crimson creatures fighting so hard against the current. The opposing flows of water and fish were confusing yet hypnotizing. The salmon seemed to be on a liquid treadmill, swimming hard and not going anywhere. But by some sleight of hand, or fin, the fish magically inched forward, one step closer to home. Chris and I stood for a long while watching the salmon, soaking in the moist air and the earthy smell of the forest, listening to the rushing water and the croaks of ravens. Curiosity broke the spell.
“How did they find their way here?” I said.
Chris never took his eyes off the wonder before him. A smile crept across his face, the kind of smile that reflects deep contentment. “One of the great mysteries of life,” he said.
On that day, immersed for the first time in the land of wild salmon, witnessing a phenomenon that predates human beings, something in me awoke—that part deep inside all of us that is connected to the animals, plants, water, rocks, fire, and ice of this earth. Wild salmon show all who encounter them that life is a dance of rhythms, balance, and strength. Through twists and turns, ups and downs, we learn to trust the unseen and bow with grace for the time we are here. From the fish we learn what it means to be a part of the world, what it means to be human, what it means to be.
In today’s world, many of us have lost our connection to the land, and thus our true nature. We have forgotten what it means to live among fantastic creatures, jaw-dropping beauty, and real danger. We have forgotten that a community extends beyond our relationships with other human beings. But the salmon people of Alaska have not forgotten. They know that they are a part of a community of fish, rivers, oceans, forests, and tundra. They share the salmon with bears, eagles, seals, beluga whales, and each other. They show gratitude to these remarkable fish that have seen them through times of plenty and times of scarcity.
Salmon are a gift. To the land, water, animals, plants, and people. And when you are on the receiving end of a gift, you give back. It is the salmon way. This gift culture goes beyond just sharing salmon; it includes sharing moose, berries, firewood, laughter, sweat, and tears. This generosity of spirit forges relationships, and relationships create communities. In Alaska there are many different kinds of salmon communities—Native and non-Native cultures, and commercial, sport, subsistence, and personal use fishing. Sometimes these communities overlap; sometimes they clash. Whether people fish for their food, for their livelihood, for fun, or all of the above, they are connected in some way by way of salmon.
Intrigued that there are still places where people are an integral part of a salmonscape, I set out to explore the web of human relationships that revolve around salmon in Alaska. Regardless of where I went or whom I met in Alaska salmon country, I learned that the common bond among people of wildly different backgrounds is their deep connection to these remarkable fish. This book honors and celebrates the salmon people of Alaska, who shared with me their ways of life, their homes, and their hearts. Everywhere I went, whether I met with people for ten minutes or ten days, I left with salmon in my hands—either dry strips in a ziplock bag, frozen fillets in a vacuum-sealed pouch, or smoked chunks in a glass jar. A stranger in their land, I was struck by the generosity that the salmon people showed me. Salmon brought us together, helped us speak a common language, and bridged our differences. I learned that while Alaskans may have differing relationships with salmon, and not everyone agrees on how best to conserve the fish, everyone wants the relationship to continue. Forever.
Throughout my Alaska travels, I posed the question, “What would your life be like without salmon?” Most people looked at me as if I’d asked them what their lives would be like without oxygen. Their responses were in the same vein: “Without salmon, there would be no community.” Alaska is one of the few places left in the world where salmon still thrive. Where salmon people live connected to the land with an appreciation for what nourishes both body and spirit. Where history doesn’t have to repeat itself. That wild salmon endure in Alaska in the twenty-first century is a testament to their resilience and their habitat remaining largely intact. Salmon have survived ice ages, volcanic eruptions, drought, fire, gold rushes, and European and Russian settlement. That they can still flourish in Alaska is also a testament to a different way of thinking—and living—that respects and honors the relationship between salmon and people.
Salmon were a driving force for Alaska statehood in 1959, and the forty-ninth state prioritized maintaining its salmon runs for its citizens in perpetuity. Whether this is being accomplished is a matter of fierce debate in meeting rooms and living rooms, in headlines and along coastlines, and in homelands and home streams. Threats to salmon in Alaska include those that are preventable—overfishing and habitat degradation—as well as those that are unknown, particularly the effects of a changing climate and acidifying ocean. This much is clear: a salmon-filled future depends on people fighting for the fish more than fighting over them. Salmon unite more than they divide. It’s worth celebrating that Alaska is still a place where salmon continue to build communities. Where the salmon way is still a way of life.