Saturday, July 30, 2016

Valdez, AK - The Pinks Come Home

One of the cool places to visit in Valdez is the Hatchery on the other side of the bay. The hatchery raises and releases two different kinds of salmon each year. Thus, this is the place these salmon call ‘home’ and the place where they come to spawn. But the hatchery, skullduggers that they are, then take the eggs of the returning salmon and use them for the next years batch. Poor salmon, victims of their own instinct to swim home to lay their eggs. And, then they die. What kind of life cycle is this? But, boy, do we all depend upon this life cycle. Sport fishermen, commercial fishermen, gulls, seals, sea lions, eagles, bears - and tourists.

There are actually 3 hatcheries on the bay outside Valdez, each breeding its own type of salmon.
Meanwhile it’s quite a show that they all put on for tourists. We all know when they’re coming and gather here to watch them swim in. And, boy are there lots of them - although this year we heard that they expected 18,000,000 and only got 11,000,000. Lots of fish, lots of sea gulls, lots of tourists and, if we’re lucky, we might spot a bear or two stoking up for the winter. Here’s the scene. We’ve got salmon streaming home, gulls looking for an easy meal, bears cruising the wetlands and fishermen lining the banks with their lines in the water. Who knew that this would be so much fun.

First the salmon, the most important players in this little play, roiling the waters is large groups, waiting to swim up the ladders into the hatchery.

Then there were the gulls.
Watching the gulls was loads of fun. They’d float in on an incoming wave til they got under the bridge, then they’d fly back out about 30’ and ride another wave in. A carnival ride for the gulls. I watched one through 4 rides. He was having a great time. So, even if he’s full of salmon, he’s got this cool carnival ride to occupy his time. And, he wasn’t the only one. They were all doing it. So many gulls, I wondered if they had a traffic control tower or if they ran into each other. Yep, they did. Zig one way to avoid another gull and zig right into the one on the other side.

Back to the salmon to watch. They’re supposed to go up a special channel that goes up 29 ladder steps to the top and into the hatchery.
Some of them miss the mark and land on the wier here and die there. Most of them make it to the right entry and then they struggle up the ladder. They’ve got to go through the special opening in each ladder to get to the next higher rung. Then they can hide out in a corner to catch their breath and gather strength for the next opening and rung.

Today when they got to the top, to the huge 80’ tank at the end, they hit a gate because it was Sunday and the hatchery was closed. They’d all swim towards the end and, finding the gate shut, would drift back to the beginning of the tank. Then, when there were lots of them, they’d swish their tails, jump a bit, cause a stir in the water and then ‘wave’ towards the end, splashing and roiling the water as they swam. Then they’d repeat this every 5 minutes or so. I’d be watching the wave reach the end and then I’d look down into the tank and note that there were no salmon there. Sure enough, they had all drifted towards the other end for their next wave. And then it came in, splashing, roiling and surging towards the locked door.

As we walked up the ramp beside the salmon ladder, we read all kinds of informational signs about what the hatchery does. So, along with all the fun, we can learn a lot too. And, believe you me, I know little about salmon. This hatchery has two types of salmon: silver and pink.
They leave the hatchery, out through the Prince William Sound in to the Pacific where they swim around for several years and then head back to the hatchery.




I could watch the gulls or the salmon for hours. Well, maybe not - but it was so intriguing.
We saw the salmon, the gulls, the sport fishermen lining the banks around the hatchery, some seals and sea lions out in the bay but no eagles and no bears - until we left. Too many people here so we saw none here but we did espy one on our way out. It’s a wetlands along the road and lots of salmon with a poor inner GPS land here in the little river that meanders on this side of the road. When the tide goes out, they are stuck on the river bottom, squirming and dying. Some bears know this and wait for a dying salmon to ‘catch’. Here’s one. He knew we were here, but way across the wetlands (close to the open doors of the car for a quick retreat) - but he was much too busy to care about us) but he just kept eating.
Then he finished with one and found another. He kept checking around to see what we were doing. There were about 5 with us while we were watching him. But, never fear, we were well away from him.
When he finished with that one, he found another and scampered up the slope into the brush. He ate two and put a third into his mouth to go.
A fun hour - or two - at the hatchery.

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