American Salmon Forest Sessions

(This article originally appeared in The Drake.)

A playlist for flying out to a remote southeast Alaskan salmon stream.

By: Dan Kirkwood

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I occasionally work as a guide in America’s Tongass National Forest, leading bear-watching trips among towering old growth trees and cascading creeks flush with Alaskan salmon. Though more than one million people visit this sparsely populated maze of islands in southeast Alaska every year, few venture out to the remote streams where, every summer, a seemingly limitless supply of wild salmon feed some of the highest densities of brown bears in the world.

Everyone wants to see bears. Especially the coastal brown bear, the larger, better-fed version of the grizzly. To get close, we board a floatplane in Juneau and head out to some of the best wild salmon streams in the world, where bears gather to feed.

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Inspired by the pilots who like to pump classic rock through the headsets, I came up with my own playlist for two twenty minute flights…and some tips from me to you for cruising around the Alaskan wilderness in search of wild bears.

History Eraser (Courtney Barnett)

For the van-ride from hangar to float pond, some nonchalant slacker rock to ease the nerves. An antique floatplane might sound daunting, but you came here to see bears. You will not be daunted. So play it cool. It’s ok if you take selfies with the plane, but do listen to the safety briefing. Try a #safetybriefingselfie if it helps with the nerves about bears. In the places we watch bears, they’re pretty accustomed to us – they don’t want trouble any more than we do. That said, they are still…you know…bears.

Thirsty Man (Blitzen Trapper)

Cleared-for-takeoff, this tune has the classic retro feel to match the pilot’s aviators and the wisps of fog on the float pond. The pilot operates the plane with pulleys and levers. The old plane roars like a lion – it wants to fly. Earplugs are good. If they give you a headset, it is polite to not bother the pilot with too much chatter.

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Her Tenere (Bombino)

Looking out under the wing, sparse houses tick by under the floats, then the road ends. Islands and ocean. Trees and high peaks are hidden in cloud. This is a tune with a nomadic feel.

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Southern Grammar (Hiss Golden Messenger)

The plane bucks and the mountain walls seem very close. This groove is solid enough to grab hold of with white knuckles. Each mountain ridge reveals a valley. Each valley gathers a stream. Each stream is full of wild salmon. The salmon feed the bears. The bears fertilize the forest with the salmon. The forest keeps the stream good for salmon. Having lots of salmon is a good thing. The bears would rather eat fish than eat you.

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Life of Sin (Sturgill Simpson)

The Tongass has lots of protected Wilderness, but not much in the rich valley bottoms. Some valleys have been stripped clean, and places that get logged aren’t as good for fish or bears. It seems like there are fish everywhere, but there are a handful of especially good salmon watersheds (called the Tongass 77). Logging these places would be a sin.

Wild Mountain Nation (Blitzen Trapper)

The plane climbs down, its shadow flickering alongside. The shadow and floats come together then touch. You’re in bear country now, a citizen of the Wild Mountain Nation. It makes life taste a little sharper. Pro tip: When shuttling gear onto the beach, someone usually conks their head on the tail of the plane. Don’t do that.

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Mountain of Storms (Ugly Cassanova)

One last tune before…


Intermission (bear watching)

(Don’t actually listen to music in bear country. Stay focused.)


Love is All (Tallest Man On Earth)

Almost time to head back.

Sometimes we see lots of bears, sometimes just a few. Sometimes they charge after fish, sending sheets of water into the air, sometimes they nap in the tall grass or melt back into the trees. Sometimes we sit in the rain, sometimes the sun. Sometimes the bears come close. You just never know.

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Side B, the flight home.

Wildcat (Ratatat)

After a day in the wilderness, it’s funny how far away you can hear the plane coming to get you. Once airborne, keep your eyes open. Bears seen from the plane totally count.

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Can’t Do Without You (Caribou)

The plane felt uncomfortably full on the way out, but now it just feels nice to lean into the warmth of humanity. The pilot adjusts the trim with finger and thumb, hand light on the yoke. He cracks the window for a little breeze.

Atlantis (STRFKR)

If the sun is breaking under the clouds, it might make everything that orangey red color. I like this tune for the feeling of a day well-spent.

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Coffee (Sylvan Esso)

Cell service resumes as town comes into sight. Coffee will be needed to bring the wind-burned brain back to the jangle of human relations. Resist, then succumb to posting selfies and blurry bear pics while still in the air. I have had pilots ask me to take their picture: they think this is cool too.

Bang A Gong (Get it On) (T. Rex)

I had to include some classic rock for lining up with the float pond and landing. Once on the dock, initiate high fives. I will have told you about writing to the Forest Service or signing some petition online to protect those salmon and bears. Do it.