The Chilkoot River Weir

Haines, AK

July 14th to 16th, 2002

Out on the ferry in the, traveling from Juneau to Haines, we spent a leisurely 5 hours on the inside passage. This would be the last of the Alaska state ferry system (also known as the Marine Hwy) for us.  The ferry terminal is several miles from the town and it gave us a chance to see the place from a distance.  At one turn we found the town laid out before us. The quiet bay was silhouetted by Sitka Spruce. The water gave way to a lovely marina with nothing bigger than a charter fishing boat.  No cruise liners.  Not even a ferry. Up the bank on the far side and climbing the hill, the officers' houses of old Fort Seward shown like matching jewels in some natural necklace. Behind all this as a backdrop to this peaceful scene were the giant snow covered mountains, which had been with us since we first arrived in Alaska.  Then in a flash it was gone in the curve of the road, to be revisited over and over again as we drove back and forth along the coastal road. The town is located in the Chilkat Valley and is the historic capital of the Tlingit (Lin get) Indians.  Fort Seward was the first Army post in Alaska. It is now a national historic site with the officers' housing having been turned into residential living, B&B's and condos.  The parade ground is partially occupied by a long house, which puts on different Indian song and dance shows. The producer of the shows is a carver who works in the building next door.  A marvelous artisan, his carvings command a high price for their design and style. In another renovated Army building which once served as the Post hospital, a totem pole carver works on his creations. The rest of the building is an Indian museum with lots of artistic stuff to peruse. We found two other points of interest in this otherwise seemingly mundane town.  The first was the Chilkoot River weir.  This is an adult salmon counting station originally built in 1976.  Operated annually from June to September each year, it gathers information for the management of commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries along the Lynn Canal.  Sockeye salmon found at this weir are the returns from fish, which left here 4 and 5 years ago. A small percentage of the migrating sockeye salmon run is captured so biological information can be collected from these fish.  Once the information is collected the fish are released unharmed into the river.  Information that is collected includes such things as length, sex of fish and the collection of a single fish scale.  From the scale patterns collected, the precise age of the fish can be determined.  Now, by comparing the scales from the fish taken out of the weir with scales taken from commercial fish caught in the Lynn Canal, the percentage of fish caught coming from the Chilkoot River hatchery upstream can be estimated.  That information is used to manage the amount of fish available each year in the canal. Sounds pretty high-tech when described but the operation is anything but. The Chilkoot River is a wonderfully scenic river, some 300 feet across for all except the last half a mile, leading up to the headwaters at the Chilkoot Lake.  At that half mile point where it narrows to not more then a 100 feet or so, the Forest Service has build a salmon barrier. This consisted of a wooden bridge across the river from which, what looked like concrete reinforcing rods (rebar) had been inserted at an angle, down into the water to the river floor.  This blocked the salmon from any further advance up the river.  In the middle of the bridge was an opening, not more then a foot or so.  It was through here that the salmon had to swim in order to reach their desired destination.  The effect was that the salmon had to latterly line up to get through the opening.  The Ranger on duty could easily count them as they passed. The subsequent effect was dramatic.  Far more salmon arrived at the weir than could pass though the gate.  Subsequently, a glutton of splashing, churning, agitated fish, each weighing some 30 lbs or so gathered in the shallows bellow the weir.  The chain reaction should be obvious.  First the eagles swooped in for the feast, next came the bears, looking for an easy meal, right behind them came the fishermen from New York or California with a 3 day license to catch this marvelous tasting creature, and ready to take on any eagle or bear who might interfere. But as the evening approached, and each predator took his share of the hapless fish, the real Alaskan predator rose its ugly head and moved in for the feast.  I once joked with an Alaskan native about man's loss of appreciation for nature ever since he removed himself from the food chain.  The Alaskan just smiled and commented, "Not done much fishing up here have ya?" Like an army of banshees they came, from the woods, from the grass, seemingly from the water itself. Suddenly they were everywhere, biting the eagle, nipping the bear and devouring the sweet, sweaty unprotected fisherman from New York and California.  The Alaskan mosquito knows no boundary and respects no intelligence. She drinks the blood of all who are available.  To this small but unbelievably aggressive bloodsucker, man is definitely still in the food chain! Soon the eagle flew and the bear ran.  The fisherman from New York and California swatted their way back to their respective vehicles and the river returned to its pristine, quite ways.  The only indication of life was the one or two locals who looked more like spacemen in class-A biohazard suits.  We found out that mosquitoes can actually stampede a herd of Caribou.  Another day in Haines was coming to a close.  

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