The Circle Of Life In The Tongass
(This piece is posted with permission, and originally appeared in National Geographic.) 1Frame4Nature is a collection of images and stories from around the globe of your personal connection to nature. However small, when combined with the actions of others, your individual actions can impact real and tangible outcomes for the preservation of our planet.
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Image above: One of the world’s densest populations of black bears (Ursus americanus) resides in the Tongass on Kuiu Island, with three to five bears per square mile. Both black bear cubs and adults can climb trees with their relatively short, curved claws that allow them to hook into bark. In contrast, brown bears have straighter, longer claws, and lose their tree-climbing ability once they become heavy-bodied adults.
iLCP Fellow Amy Gulick’s 1Frame4Nature:
Crouched on a rock near a churning waterfall, I’m entranced by thousands of salmon. Fin to fin, tail to tail, they sway against the current as one giant mob, like concert groupies in a mosh pit. One fish springs from the crowded stream, hurling itself against the foaming wall of water. And then another, and another. Fish after fish, leap after leap, so much energy expended, so much energy delivered. The long green arms of Sitka spruce and hemlock trees spread across the stream as if to welcome the salmon back into their forested fold. Click, click goes my camera in a frenzied attempt to freeze an airborne fish in my frame. Hours vaporize, like the mist rising into the forest from the spray of the waterfall. But for the salmon every minute is precious because their time is coming to an end. They’re in their final act – spawning – and they won’t stop pushing upstream until they die.
Click, click – lots of empty frames. I need to concentrate, but the distractions are many. The harpy screams of ravens emanate from the forest. Bald eagles swoop from treetops to rock tops, eyeballing the feast before them. Bears march into the stream with purpose. They know I’m here, but they are focused on the fish. With one eye pressed against the viewfinder, and one eye open for bears, I attempt to focus on anything but instead just bask in the present. It’s like I’m swirling in the middle of a wild performance with throbbing music, leaping dancers, and flashing lights. I have a front row seat to one of the greatest shows on Earth, one that plays out every year all over the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
Where the Forest Meets the Sea. At close to 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest fringes the coastal panhandle of Alaska and covers thousands of islands in the Alexander Archipelago.
A Cool Forest. One of the rarest ecosystems on Earth, the Tongass is a coastal temperate rainforest. Annual precipitation ranges from 38 to more than 220 inches. Air temperatures range from an average low of 32ºF to an average high of 52ºF year round. This type of forest contains more organic matter per acre than any other ecosystem, including tropical jungles.
Up Close. One of the world’s highest densities of brown bears (Ursus arctos), also known as grizzly bears, is found in the Tongass on Admiralty Island, with nearly one bear per square mile. The indigenous Tlingit of the region call Admiralty Island “Kootznoowoo,” which translates into “fortress of the bears.”
Salmon Time. All five species of Pacific salmon exist in the Tongass—chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, and pink. Born in freshwater streams and rivers, salmon migrate to the oceans to mature. As adults, they return to their birth streams to spawn the next generation. After spawning, the adults die, and their decaying bodies nourish the young fish, other wildlife, and the streamside foliage in the forest.
A Salmon Forest. Every year, millions of wild salmon infuse an upstream flow of nutrients into nearly 5,000 spawning streams throughout the Tongass. In return, the forest plays an important role in the life cycle of salmon. Trees shade the spawning streams, keeping the water temperatures cool for the developing eggs. Trees also prevent erosion from fouling the clean water and gravel beds the salmon need to lay their eggs. And fallen trees over the streams create protected pools for the juvenile fish and provide food for the insects they eat.
A few days before, there wasn’t a single salmon in this stream. In a few weeks, the only visible evidence of what took place here will be spawned-out carcasses littering the stream banks. The cleanup crews of birds, otters, and mink will scour the remains. Heavy fall rains will wash the fish bones out to sea, and bears will curl up in their dens as snow dusts the mountaintops. The show will be over, but the annual payout is rich. Bald eagles, fueled by salmon, will soar greater distances to find food during winter. Female bears, padded with fat reserves, will give birth in their dens and nurse their tiny cubs with salmon-enriched milk. The forest, fertilized with supercharged soil from decayed fish, will sprout new growth come spring. And the next generation of salmon is swaddled in the streams and incubated by the forest. The fertilized eggs will soon hatch, ensuring that the cycle of life is a circle, always flowing, never broken. What goes around comes around.
Feeding Frenzy. More than 50 species have been documented feeding on salmon, including: bald eagles, bears, wolves, mink, sea lions, orcas, ravens and gulls. For many Tongass bears, salmon are an important part of their diet. Rich in protein and fat, the salmon help the bears gain the weight they need to survive winter hibernation. Toward the end of salmon season, the bears target the richest parts of the fish and leave the rest behind.
Take-out Food. Often, bears may carry salmon away from the streams and into the forest in order to avoid conflicts with other bears. In the Tongass, bears are responsible for moving great quantities of salmon into the forest. Researchers say that one bear might carry forty fish from a stream in eight hours.
Call to Action: Caring for Nature. I eat sustainably-managed wild salmon, and do not eat farmed salmon. If demand for wild salmon is strong, then there is an incentive to conserve healthy oceans, rivers, and forests that salmon, bears, eagles — and we — need to thrive.
Amy Gulick is a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Her award-winning book, Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest, documents the importance of the Alaska rain forest to both wild and human communities. See www.amygulick.com.
Amy teamed up with Alaska Wilderness League to help bring together this story.