Story and Photography by Tyler Hartje
I couldn’t help but stare out the window during the short 45 minute flight from Anchorage to Iliamna — my home base for the next week as I sought to photograph the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) and maybe catch a glimpse of the elusive coastal wolf (Canis lupus). Coming from Seattle, Washington, I am no stranger to vast mountain ranges, winding rivers, and large bodies of water, but the Alaskan scenery left me awestruck. I couldn’t believe that I was going to spend the next week in this incredible place.
It wasn’t until I took to the skies that I realized how vast yet just how vulnerable this area of our planet truly is. From the air, the entire region looks connected, with mountain streams forming rivers which flow into lakes and eventually into Bristol Bay — bringing with it nutrients and life. In that moment the connectedness of the whole ecosystem began to make sense to me. Having spent most of my life on the ground I now had a completely different perspective seeing the area from the window of a small aircraft. I knew that I had to tell the story of this place and all that depends on it to sustain life.
These vast subarctic ecosystems are not only stunningly beautiful, but are vital for all of life on this planet. Winding rivers serve as the lifeblood of this dynamic ecosystem, carrying fresh water and nutrients through the tundra to the lakes and streams where sockeye salmon spawn and bears roam free. Shorebirds migrate from as far as South America to nest in Alaska’s rich tundra ecosystem. Here, they will feed on invertebrates found on the beaches and mudflats, which themselves are fed from the water that flows down these mountains. The presence of these birds is a reminder that animals know no borders, and that the health of a species may depend on the health of multiple regions.
As we journeyed from the beach to the coastal meadows, we found signs of the apex predators we were looking for. Their tracks were a reminder that I wasn’t in Seattle anymore, that I was a visitor to this land ruled by animals much larger and more powerful than myself. We scanned the horizon for grizzly bears, since they were concentrated along the coastline foraging on seeds and grasses for a few more weeks until the salmon returned to the rivers.
Speaking of salmon, Bristol Bay is home to the largest run of sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) in the world. These salmon are born in the nearby rivers and grow up in freshwater lakes before migrating out to sea for several years. They later return to their home streams to spawn and die, providing nutrients for the land and for future generations of sockeye. These salmon are not only essential for the ecosystem, but are essential for us as well. Salmon fishing is a way of life for many along the Alaskan coast, and is a crucial food source for a growing human population. Alaska’a Bristol Bay is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Millions of sockeye salmon may be caught in the Bristol Bay region alone during one salmon season. That’s a lot of fish!
Subarctic Alaska is a reminder that there are still wild places on this planet. Places where the forces of nature still rule. I’m only a visitor to this vulnerable yet resilient landscape where grizzly bears roam free, and I treasure those rare moments when I can disconnect for a while and explore all that nature has to offer. To me, this place is paradise.
Perhaps, after all, the grizzly bear is not more powerful than us humans. Perhaps in numbers man is more powerful than beast, especially with our diesel powered machinery and greed for natural resources. We have the opportunity to protect one of the most incredible wild places on earth. It’s often said about conservation that once you fall in love with a place or a species, you’ll care about it. And once you care about it, you’ll want to protect it. Bristol Bay is a stunningly beautiful place, and I know that I hope it stays that way forever. If you don’t believe me, hop on the next plane to Alaska and see for yourself… I promise you it’s worth protecting.
You may read my whole story on Maptia https://maptia.com/tylerhartje/stories/water-of-life.
Part software developer and part wildlife photographer, Tyler Hartje believes in the power of photography and technology to inspire conservation of wildlife and wild places. You may find more of his work on his website http://tylerhartjephotography.com/ or his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TylerHartjePhoto/. © Tyler Hartje