Ghosts of the Spring: Alaska Edition

In Alaska by Mark Hieronymus

A visual update on our work to secure protections for steelhead in Southeast Alaska

Entering its fifth year, our Alaska Fish Habitat Mapping and Community Science Project is an ongoing effort by Trout Unlimited and Wild Steelheaders United staff and volunteers to expand Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADFG) Anadromous Waters Catalog (AWC) by documenting previously unknown anadromous waters and species in Southeast Alaska.

As we’ve shared previously on our blog and in our short film, this work is critical for not just documenting and adding stream miles and species to the AWC, but also adding protections for all streams and species by accounting for the variation in migration and spawn timing, along with varied habitat use.

During the 2022 field season, the project engaged 18 volunteer observers for a total of 172 hours over 10 survey days and conducted 4 additional surveys without volunteer assistance. In aggregate, these surveys resulted in 16 AWC nominations for species and/or waters additions, with a net total of over 73,500 feet (nearly 14 miles) of anadromous habitat in 20 water bodies (including two new steelhead streams!). With the 2022 nominations, this project has added over 356,000 feet (over 67.4 miles) of waters/species to the AWC since its inception in 2018.

What follows are some of the words and images that first appeared in the Umpqua Feather Merchants 2021 product catalog (“Indexing the Tongass: Signature Tyer Mark Hieronymus”). We’ve added some additional detail and photographs in this expanded version, with all pictures credited to Trout Unlimited.

We at TU thank Umpqua for all they have done to our support steelhead and salmon habitat in Alaska and the Lower 48.

In order to fly off into the wilderness and look for steelhead in places they haven’t been officially documented before, you need to pack methodically, and with a host of “what-ifs” in mind. Satellite communicator, data collection tools, bug dope, bear protection, wilderness first aid kit, food, water, emergency survival gear – all the items necessary for a trip to go right in an environment where things occasionally go very wrong. When the plane drops you off at the saltwater mouth of a remote river and heads back to civilization, there’s no walking back to the truck to grab forgotten gear.
After months of poring over all available data, weeks of survey planning and site selection, packing, unpacking, repacking, second-guessing…the Game, as they say, is now on.
On the surface, the task is a deceptively simple one: walk the river from its mouth to the furthest upstream point a steelhead could conceivably be found. There are no roads, nor convenient access points. Fresh tracks on the tideline and conspicuously bear-shaped trails through the thick riparian growth serve as a constant reminder that you are a guest in this house.
Late spring snowpacks are the beauty and the beast of these small, coastal river systems. The snowmelt, bone-cracking cold, is the diurnal pulse of the river, a coded signal to the fish that conditions are right for their return. Occasionally, the deep snow can make travel conditions more akin to a black-diamond ski run than a steelhead river.
The never-ending logjams are like gates the river has placed to keep at bay those of lesser faith and conviction. When coupled with the seemingly impenetrable growths of Devil’s Club lining its length, it begins to feel as if the river doesn’t want you here, and is actively trying to discourage further upstream travel. But you press on, because conservation of these fish and their habitat is worth the blood you might leave behind.
The very obstacles making these watersheds difficult to move about in – remoteness, challenging terrain, lack of roads, logjams, hip-deep snow – are the same features that make them amazingly fecund “fish factories”, prime habitat for salmonids. But with most known steelhead streams in southeast Alaska hosting fewer than 200 total returning adults annually, finding these elusive creatures during their roughly 3-week-long window of availability makes looking for a needle in a haystack seem like child’s play.
If your hunch is correct and you successfully locate a steelhead in the miles of river, there’s a lot to do before victory can be declared. Irrefutable documentation of the species in that location is necessary – “I’m pretty sure I saw a fish” will not suffice. The best way to get official evidence is to photograph the fish in situ, and sometimes, that involves going out on a limb.
If the bank (or limb) -bound observer is unable to get clear pictures of the target species, the site is marked with a waypoint and the upstream journey continues. If additional data documenting use of the habitat by steelhead is not collected by the upstream end of the survey, it’s time to go in after them. While jumping into 38-degree water loaded with hazards isn’t most folks’ ideal snorkeling situation, a Steinbeckian paraphrase comes to mind: “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”
The goods. The receipt. The evidence.
In order for a river to be recognized as steelhead habitat, Alaska state law requires at least two steelhead to be documented in the same survey event as using the habitat in question for spawning, rearing, or migration.
When all is said and done, it all comes down to the data. Check your GPS to be sure you entered the waypoint, then write down the coordinates by hand to be certain. While all you really need is one good fish picture for ID purposes, additional pics are insurance, and photos of the habitat in which the steelhead were encountered serve to further our knowledge and understanding of these secretive, special fish. When you get back to the office, tired and sore from your miles in the American Salmon Forest, there is yet more work ahead. Data needs to be transcribed from your ratty field notebook, geospatial data must be downloaded from your devices to render the maps which help tell the story of steelhead habitat use, a tale the fish themselves are unable to tell. All these data need to be distilled into an airtight case for the state to include steelhead in the assemblage of the river and afford them the conservation measures they deserve. Then you go to sleep, get up, and do it all over again.

For the last five years, Mark has been documenting steelhead habitat use in waters with no previous AWC listing of the species. Accompanied on various trips by our staff, donors, chapter volunteers, as well as state and federal agency biologists, Mark has gathered the required data and submitted nominations for the inclusion of steelhead in 12 rivers and one lake. In addition to directed observations, Mark has assisted in the process of preparing geospatial data and nominations for the inclusion of steelhead in two additional rivers and one lake based on observations by community science data collectors. Steelhead habitat documentation is but one facet of the Alaska Fish Habitat Mapping Project, which has added over 356,000 feet (over 67.4 miles) of waters/species to the AWC since its inception in 2018.

For more information on our Alaska Fish Habitat Mapping Project, please visit America’s Salmon Forest.

For more information on the State of Alaska’s Anadromous Waters Catalog and the conservation measures afforded listed streams and species, please visit the ADFG website.