Throughout most of the summer in Southeast Alaska, most conversations start with questions like “Are they running up the river yet?” “How’s your catch so far? “When are you heading out to get salmon?”
After spending the past 10 summers in Southeast Alaska, we’ve come to appreciate the connection between these small coastal communities and salmon. This past summer we had the incredible opportunity to team up with the Sitka Conservation Society and the Forest Service to explore those close ties, and understand what role public lands play in ensuring the continuity of this vital resource. We are proud to share the result of that effort, a 30-minute documentary film titled The Salmon Forest, which follows salmon on their great migration from the streams of the forest, to the ocean, and back. Along the way, we meet many of the people whose lives are closely tied to salmon as well as the animals of the forest that depend on salmon.
For more details about the film check out: www.salmonforest.com
As far as natural history is concerned, we knew we needed to capture salmon at each life stage. This can be both extremely easy at times and exceedingly challenging. To start, the salmon run was extremely delayed last summer due to a drought and low numbers made it challenging to find salmon until late August (that took a lot of patience). When they did arrive we were able to capture them like never before with a full underwater housing (Sony A7sII) that allowed us to see salmon from a whole new perspective, and even capture their behavior as they paired up and spawn.
One of the key points of the film was showing the connection between the forest and the salmon streams. Capturing this relationship on film was a challenge, but critical to drive home the message of the film. Given the limitations for drone usage in public lands, we brought a a cable camera system (Dacytl cam) that we set up across a beautiful stretch of Indian River near Sitka, Alaska. The result – a dynamic shot that showed seamlessly how interconnected the forest is to the river, and with the glimmer of the sun also highlighted its beauty.
Timing was everything in trying to film sockeye leap up a waterfall in their journey to the lake, a sight to behold! (Though that also meant seeing many jump right into rocks).
From tiny eggs, to juveniles and finally full-grown salmon spawning – there are few sights more inspiring that rivers full of salmon!
Stewards of the Land
At the heart of the film, we explore the important link between healthy forests and healthy salmon populations. The Tongass National Forest is America’s largest National Forest and we had the incredible opportunity to spend time with the Forest Service teams charged with stewarding this salmon producing forest. Biologist Sheila Jacobson, hydrologists KK Prussian and their whole team sent us head first into the world of salmon as we monitored sights on Prince of Wales Island. We will never look at a stream the same way again! It was impressive to see the team in action as they conducted top-stream surveys, and was a challenge to keep up with Sheila as she snorkeled her way up the streams.
Fisheries are a huge part of the economy in SE Alaska, and a critical part of the story we set out to tell. We had the opportunity to spend time with both a trolling fisherman (who catches fish individually on a line) as well as a seiner (who uses a large net to bring in the big catch). Our time aboard the sein boat Cloud 9 was a lot of fun thanks to the great crew, but also resulted in lots of scales (and even some blood) on our lenses. Fishing is extremely challenging and in the end we felt lucky to capture one of the largest hauls that season!
Salmon have played a critical role for the Native peoples of Southeast Alaska for generations. As part of the documentary we had the incredible opportunity to attended the annual culture camp in Kake to learn about the connection between salmon and traditions in Tlingit Culture. Joel Jackson, a local community leader, taught the group how to make newspaper style smoked salmon, a technique he learned from his father, while other members of the community shared their unique salmon recipes. We are thankful to the people of Kake for being so welcoming and sharing a taste of their traditions with us.
Bears are a critical part of the ecosystem in Southeast Alaska, and play a crucial role in dragging the carcass of salmon out into the forest. Salmon are also central to their diet. Ben and Chas flew out to Pack Creek to film bears as they began their summer feast. A mother bear struggled to catch fish for her two hungry cubs, and Ben and Chas were there to film her when she finally caught a fish – only to see one of the cubs greedily steal it away. A 600mm lens is not exactly the most portable, but it certainly paid off to get up close and personal with these bears. When filming bears safety is always the top priority. Ben’s long history filming bears has helped him develop strong practices to ensure that even while focusing on getting the shots, everyone involved in the shoot – and the bears, are safe.
The Next Generation
Salmon are an important part of family life in Southeast Alaska, and we had so much fun filming the Kasaka family in what has to be the coolest backyard – National Forest land with a river full of salmon running through it! Tad takes clients who jet in from all over the world fly-fishing in SE Alaska, but it’s after work hours that he has the most important job – teaching his young sons how to fish. Filming his young son say “thank you fish” as he put his catch back in the river was one of the sweetest moments of the summer.