I’ve always loved salmon, but it was after an adventurous trip to Alaska that I discovered a newfound respect for this selfless fish of Alaska. It was on a bright yellow raft, floating down the freezing glacier-fed waters of the Kenai river that I got a chance to learn about salmon first hand.
As I spotted several fishermen in their gray chest waders dotted along the river banks expertly handling their fishing rods, our guide Mckenzie, a true environmentalist and passionate lover of nature, explained the important role that salmon plays in Alaska’s life cycle. There are five types, he said, teaching us how to easily remember them: ‘chum’ is your thumb, ‘sockeye’ is your index finger (imagine poking someone’s eye out), ‘king’ is your middle finger, ‘silver’ is your ring finger and ‘pink’ is for your pinkie.
Most of life in Alaska connects back to this amazing fish that gives back with lots of heart and soul. After it is born in the river, environmental cues cause the fry to begin their migration downstream towards the ocean, where they can live up to seven years.
Once they are ready to spawn, they come back to their natal streams, and scientists the world over don’t know or understand how they can detect the way home. They arrive in such abundance in the fresh water streams that fisherman just have to cast their line in the water to get lucky. But thankfully restrictions are put in place to prevent over fishing. Salmon provides an essential sustenance for the fishermen during the winter season, and because the fish have to cleaned on the spot after they are caught and thrown back into the river, their carcass attracts and feeds the bears and the leftovers decompose, nourish and rejuvenate the soil and trees with nitrogen. It makes it possible for the life cycle to keep on turning.
The part of the life cycle that I fell in love with the most was how they give away their life to bring on new life in the river. When they reach fresh water, they stop feeding and their bodies instinctively prepare for spawning and their eventual death. McKenzie, a first class rafter and hiker, calls the salmon during this stage ‘zombie fish’ because their heads turn a bright orange, their bodies a vibrant green and they switch into automatic pilot, looking for the safest spot to build their nests or ‘Reds’. The males develop a huge hump on their backs ready to fight off other males for spawning rights with females, and once the eggs and milt are released simultaneously, the eggs are covered with loose gravel and both male and female travel upstream to build another nest. The salmon with the tastiest and most delicate fillets are usually caught before their color turns, otherwise they are deemed as nutrients for the river habitat.
The King Salmon is Alaska’s state fish. Its large size and high quality flesh make it one of Alaska’s most valuable commercial fisheries as well as Alaska’s more prized sport fish. Silver or coho are the most sought after by restaurant owners and are sold as a delicacy in Europe because their fillets are the perfect size and color. Coho is great off the grill and a nice fish to smoke. Sockeye is what I enjoyed during our trip; it’s also called red salmon because it turns a bright red scarlet when it’s preparing to spawn and is considered the most economically important type of salmon in Alaska. If you’ve ever had lox and bagels in the US you’ve most probably had sockeye, as it’s considered the best for a velvety, lightly smoked salmon. Pink salmon are also called humpies because the males develop a hooked snout, sharp teeth and an enormous hump behind the head, and they’re usually canned, smoked or used for salmon salad sandwiches. Finally, chum are great fighters, making them fun for sport fishermen catch, and they’re best enjoyed smoked or dried.