It happened to be National Wild Salmon Day, and my hopes for flying out of Dillingham were high. The original plan was to celebrate wild salmon on the Goodnews River with a fly rod in hand. That plan, along with my high hopes, sank with low clouds grounding our flight into the heart of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska air travel ebbs and flows with the weather—and so do its visitors.
The next morning the clouds lifted, gear bags got weighed, emotions surged, and our planes took flight from Lake Aleknagik. Out the window of the Cessna float plane, the glacier-carved peaks of the Ahklun Mountains seemed close enough for our wing to touch. Our pilot, Mike Hink, traced the plane’s route along the broad river valleys. In a place without roads, these rivers become travel corridors for boats and planes alike. From the Ahklun Mountains to the Bering Sea, the North Fork of the Goodnews River would serve as our float trip’s path for some 60 miles.
For the next seven days, I slept on the ground, floated through untouched wilderness, and caught too many salmon, trout, and char to count. The Goodnews River, surrounded by tundra-covered mountains, is steeped in silence and diverse fish and wildlife. Nothing more is needed, with the possible exception of a hot shower.
In the Togiak Wilderness, the only mammals we encountered walked on four legs. On the fifth day of the trip John Jinishian, the owner and operator of Wild River Guides, spotted a brown bear walking in chest-deep grass. No one spoke. Our raft floating at the same pace as the bear, we watched in silence. John whispered, “He’s headed toward a clearing. Get your camera.” The bear stepped onto a mudflat and nosed around the river’s edge. He glanced at our boat while I pressed the camera’s shutter. His attention turned to the water where he found a sockeye for lunch. In August, thousands of sockeye, coho, and even some late-arriving chinook provide the nutrients this bear needs to prosper in the Togiak.
Besides huge salmon runs, the Togiak Refuge is home to arctic char, Dolly Varden, grayling, and rainbow trout. Alaska’s southwest region marks both the northern and western edge of the rainbows’ range in North America. This region’s vast network of lakes and streams supports the greatest population of native rainbow trout in the world. The rainbows flourish here due to the immense runs of salmon that pour into the region’s waterways.
These heavily spotted trout grow large by gorging on the eggs and flesh of spawning salmon. To catch a large rainbow in the Goodnews, you need two key ingredients: spawning sockeye and the correct salmon “bead” tied to your line. A rainbow caught that’s over 24 inches will certainly be a trout of a lifetime. But for me, watching a rainbow smoke line off your reel is exactly what makes this part of Alaska an angling paradise.
While wild rainbows drive the sport-fishing economy, it’s the sockeye that power the overall ecosystem in southwest Alaska. If the rivers and lakes are the arteries and organs of this region, the sockeye are their blood. When sockeye morph from silver to their red spawning color, large schools of these salmon change the water’s glow to crimson. Coming to a pure Alaskan wilderness like the Togiak, I saw the water glow red. I also saw firsthand the importance of salmon in the bigger web of life.