This story was originally published on salmonlife.org, an Alaska-based storytelling initiative hosted by The Salmon Project. Writing & video by Lee House. Photography by Nathaniel Wilder.
High above the emerald-braided estuary, the pilot radios in, “…crossing the Susitna River, en route to Ivan River Fish Camp.” The flight is quick. He gently banks the small Cessna to begin his descent.
Ivan River Fish Camp is a mere 27-mile flight west of Anchorage, but after crossing Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm and the gaping mouth of the Susitna River, it feels like a world away. It’s here that a motley group of salmon lives convene, under the name of Su Salmon Co, to set-net the runs of salmon bound for the Susitna.
This partnership, made up of homesteaders Mike and Molly Wood, salmon ecologist Sarah O’Neal, and filmmaker Ryan Peterson, seems unlikely at first glance, but it becomes clear when Mike, co-founder of Su Salmon Co, weaves the thread of conservation through their stories. “We all met while fighting that Su hydro-dam project up there,” Mike says in reference to the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project proposed about 180 miles upstream. “The dam really rocked our world. It threatened our food source, our communities, and our families, so we poured our hearts into fighting for the Susitna River. In the end, we all came out as friends.”
The crew has only grown from that initial friendship of fish people. Ryan’s nephew Aden joins the crew for his second year. Aden also brought his friend Jon along this season to fill an extra position. Mike’s longtime friend, Willie, is also onboard as the resident breakfast expert and general construction wizard. There is one more to the Su Salmon team in Anchorage too: Melissa Heuer runs orders and distribution, keeping everything on track from the other side of things. Everyone has their reasons for how they got here, but Mike has a pretty good idea of why they stay. “You don’t really make a living, it is a lifestyle. We do it cause we love it. We do it cause we need the river.”
Though the hydro-project was halted indefinitely in 2016, the team’s mission holds true: to inspire love for the mighty Su and get people caring one delicious salmon at a time. “I firmly believe that if people know where their food comes from, they’ll pay way more attention to protecting that place,” Mike says earnestly, “and that’s what this is all about.” He goes on with a chuckle, “Win their hearts through their stomachs.”
Winning hearts is no small task, but Mike, Ryan, and the rest of the Su Salmon team are optimistic. They agree that the region is ripe for this direct connection to a salmon source. “We have all these super-famous fisheries in Alaska — Bristol Bay, Kenai, Copper River, Southeast, Prince William Sound, but what about this one?” Ryan asks, citing that half of all Alaskans live within a short drive of the Susitna’s immense watershed. “The fish are practically right out their front door,” Mike adds in exclamation as he looks out toward Anchorage.
On a clear day, the distant shimmering of their camp’s metal roofs can actually be seen from downtown Anchorage. The camp is a small, unassuming strip of cabins nestled along one of the spindly Ivan River arms of the Su’s estuary. Sleeping Lady (Mt. Susitna) rises just fifteen miles to the north. Only the top of her sleeping head rises over camp. There is comfort in knowing that the rest of the mountainous mass is tucked beyond periphery, sleeping soundly to the rushing pulse of tides and salmon.
“I firmly believe that if people know where their food comes from, they'll pay way more attention to protecting that place.”
Mike pauses and points in the opposite direction over the grasslands to Cook Inlet. “When those mud bars disappear, it’s ‘go time,’ ” he says, waiting for the tide to overtake thin strips of mud that look as if claws pulled them across the horizon. “The fish will come charging up Cook Inlet and hit right at the beach we’re fishing on,” Mike says eagerly. There is a frenetic energy that overcomes the camp on fishing days. The crew bustles from the cabin out to the dock with coolers, waders, and gloves in tow. They are ready to push off in their boat at a moment’s notice.
What follows is twelve straight hours of fish-slinging madness for the Su Salmon team. They begin by navigating the turbid and choppy waves of the opener, setting the net on the muddy shore, plucking fish as they go, and resetting further up the beach with the pressing tide. When their totes are full, they motor back to camp under the weight of their fresh harvest. Their take is modest, but with the small team they will spend the rest of the night making sure that the fish are, as they say, “gutted, gilled, and chilled.”
Light streaks in from the west as they clean fish through the night. Anchorage shines like small lanterns flickering back toward camp. “They are our family too,” Mike says, motioning his arms toward the faint buildings and homes glinting from across the inlet. “This whole thing is about protecting a place for generations to come. As Alaskans, we all need to see each other as family. It’s homeland security, man,” Mike says smiling through gritted teeth — he is dead serious.
“I wouldn’t want to do this anywhere else,” Mike says, “this is my home.” When he is not fishing, Mike is up with Molly at their homestead outside of Talkeetna. “When I’m up there, I’m paying attention to how many fish are coming up the river, to escapements — basically the health of the Susitna River’s fishery,” Mike reports. He works hard to serve the region he calls home. “I’m on the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission and have put in a ton of effort with the Board of Fish.” To add to it all, Mike also serves as the Board President of the Susitna River Coalition. Around every corner, after every discussion, it is abundantly clear that the Susitna River is truly Mike’s passion; his life force.
“I take from this river, but I try to give back,” Mike says in an upwelling of emotion. “The river has given me everything I have.” Mike pauses to look off into the distance with tears in his eyes. He then looks back. “You know, someday this river will kill me.” Mike is laughing now. The air is fresh, the sea is close, and the scent of salmon permeates everything.