At the highest point on the Russian River rests a rustic cabin near an Alaska Department of Fish and Game weir — a low dam built across the river used to count salmon. Two fisheries technicians spend the summer at this spot counting every fish passing through the weir’s trap.
The early run Russian River fish swim 77 miles up the Kenai River before fighting through the various spots of their natal stream, said Patti Berkhahn, Fish and Game habitat and fishery biologist. They finish the journey at Goat Creek, or Upper Russian River.
“That’s primarily where those early run salmon spawn,” she said. “You want to see big bears? They’re probably packed full up there right now.”
Berkhahn told of the likely bear encounter to a group of Alaska residents and tourists Thursday during an annual hike to the Russian River Falls. On the latter part of the hike, the group visited the weir. Along the way, the biologist detailed the watershed’s escapement goals, salmon species and management methods.
The weir and the cabin serve as a remote field camp. The “two Toms,” both fisheries technicians, spend their alternating workweeks counting sockeye. Some days are spent, in their entirety, counting fish, and other days are slow; they walk down to the weir when salmon are heard banging against metal pickets.
On Fridays, they sample a number of the salmon. It’s ASL sampling; the age, sex and length of the sockeye are determined, said Fisheries Technician III Tom Johnson. In the weir’s trap is a table with an attached burlap sack. The fish are placed in the sack with a portion of their bodies exposed, and Tom Rhyner — the other Tom — tweezes three scales off the fish. The data and samples are gathered in less than a minute. Later, the data is sent to the Soldotna Fish and Game office for analysis.
Johnson said the cabin and the weir are the result of 35 years of work. He commended Berkhahn, who once worked at the remote site, for her involvement.
Each year the hike includes a speaker, someone from an agency with ties to the Kenai Peninsula’s watersheds. This year, Rhonda McCormick with the Kenai Watershed Forum shared her agency’s projects and desired goals. During its beginnings, the group’s mission included protecting the Kenai River but has since expanded to the entire Kenai Peninsula.
Her speech was cut short, however. A brown bear sow and two cubs emerged across the river. The visitors gathered near the weir to watch the bears forage for food. The bears didn’t get too close to the weir, as Fish and Game added an electric fence a few years back to prevent the large animals from knocking over portions of the management tool.
Berkhahn outlined the reasons for the high number of bears earlier during the hike. Before reaching the falls, she stopped and explained Fish and Game’s established escapement goals and the richness of the Upper Russian River’s habitat.
The early run of sockeye salmon is counted from June 10 through July 15. After that, the salmon are considered late run fish, a different genetic stock that spawn at other areas in the river, Berkhahn said.
The early run escapement goal range is 22,000 to 42,000 sockeye salmon. This year, the technicians at the weir counted a total of 24,115 sockeye. The run was on the lower end compared to previous years, but it matched the past three years, Rhyner said at the research site. This is his 11th year counting fish at the weir.
“This is the first year in a long time, in my recent memory, that they didn’t open the Russian River sanctuary (early), and they let it open on July 15 by regulation,” Berkhahn said. “We don’t want to open it up and say anglers can fish when there aren’t a lot of fish in there.”
The early run average is about 39,000 sockeye, she added.
The late run, Berkhahn said, is more of a mixed bag. The sockeye will spawn anywhere between the river’s two lakes.
The late run escapement goal is 30,000 to 110,000 sockeye salmon. The late run’s average is 65,000 sockeye. About 13,000 sockeye had been counted as of Monday, but the technicians generally continue to count until Labor Day.
Silvers, kings, chum and pink salmon have also traveled as far as the weir. The Upper Russian River sees all five species of salmon. This abundance of fish attracts brown bears.
The group didn’t spot any bears at the Russian River falls. A plethora of fish gathered in front of the river’s fish ladder, or fish pass. The man made tunnel that opened in the late 1970s is the length of a football field and is used when the river’s water gets too high for the fish to jump up the falls. Instead, the pass is opened. It consists of small pools of water and waterfalls in succession. This winter’s record snowfall caused Fish and Game to open the pass for the first time in five years. It was closed about three weeks ago.
Prior to the pass’s completion, fish were carried up the falls through other methods.
“I’ve seen pictures of crews with buckets on their backs,” Berkhahn said. “They put (the salmon) in the buckets with the fins sticking out the top, hike them over the falls and dump them in the water above.”
One year, a helicopter with a large fish tote lifted a pool of salmon up to Upper Russian Lake, she added.
Despite recent lows for escapement goals, there are more fish in the river than in the past. Management of the Upper river is complex, Berkhahn said. Anglers, commercial fishermen and dipnetters have caught their share of sockeye before the fish even reach the weir. She said she believes the health of river is sustainable with continued management.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.