It was hard to believe this was a restoration project. Excavators in a river in the middle of the wilderness, muddy water, the loud roar of the engine, my East coast romantic self wanted to throw a little tantrum. But I was here to interview the forest service crew working restoring 12 mile river and after several interviews and a couple of answers to my questions I was able to look past all the machinery and get a sense of the project the forest service had in mind.
When we started walking along the muddy tracks left by the excavator I felt like we were following the path of a Cyclops. Branches lay broken everywhere, roots stuck violently out of the mud, alder leaves littered deep murky puddles, the only thing missing was Odysseus’s headless men laying scattered around. Greg Killinger, fisheries watershed and soils staff officer of the Tongass National Forest, led the way. It started to rain. I tried to readjust the hard helmet I was required to wear, it was sticky and greasy but it made for a pretty cool hair doo that night.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Tongass National Forest was heavily logged. One island in particular, Prince of Wales Island took the worst of most of the logging. The logging companies would clear cut an area all the way to the banks of rivers. The Tongass in Southeast Alaska produces 70 percent of the United State’s salmon. These rivers are their homes. With no old growth along the banks the rivers become what the forest service terms “simplified.” The trees hold the bank together as well as provide vital habit for different types of salmon. The spruces, hemlocks, and cedar fulfill their most important role in the rainforest once they fall into the river. These fallen old growth essentially add character to the river: deep pools form, all kind of nooks and crannies for juvenile salmon and trout, and areas of faster and slower flow.
The salmon creek restoration project run by the United States Forest Service and its partners restores these logged creeks to their original state. At this point the forest along the rivers has had 40 years to regenerate. Old growth trees are 10 diameters across and much larger meaning they not pushed and displaced as easily by the winter floods. The pools created by old growth trees stay around longer and the river is more stable. The trees that have fallen in 12 mile creek are too small and get swept away easily. The forest service cuts trees from older and more developed second growth forests and uses a helicopter to bring those trees to the creek, which is better than building another logging road to get the trees in. Those larger second growth are strategically placed in the river.
About a mile upriver was the scene of work done 2 weeks ago. I couldn’t believe how different it was. The river was clear, the logs positioned peacefully along the banks and across the river. I put my go pro in the water and got some shots of juvenile Coho salmon. They moved right in. Further up river was the scene of last years work. Moss had grown over most of the logs and honestly I would not be able to tell that there was any kind of excavator here. I noticed large dark pools, gnarled branches, and all the signs of a healthy stream.
One of the Forest Service personal that I interviewed said that the fish love the “chaos” that they were helping to restore. I’m thinking of chaos as what nature produces without our constant presence. I’ve come to really appreciate and love this beautiful salmon world and I think our species can learn a lot from embracing this wonderful “chaos.”