The Salmon Streams of Tenakee Inlet
Habitat protection by degree
Rounding the turn off Chatham Strait into Chichigof Island’s Tenakee Inlet was one of those moments where we collectively let out a breath we didn’t know we’d been holding. We left the chop of the strait for the calm waters of this stunning 35-mile-long stretch of water on a bluebird day in Southeast Alaska. We had a date with Molly Kemp and Nick Olmstead of Tenakee Springs to tag along on one of their stream temperature data-gathering trips and we couldn’t wait to don the waders and see first-hand what goes into their work, their labor of love.
For decades, these two citizen-scientists – with almost no financial support – have been carefully measuring the temperatures of the salmon streams that flow into the Tenakee. Some streams, they have found, are colder than others, and these are much more likely to keep salmon stocks healthy as the climate warms. They’re using their data to protect these critical watersheds from logging, mining, and other development.
They began collecting this data in 2007 after years of working summers for both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Sitka Science Center collecting otoliths from chum salmon carcasses (scientists use the otoliths almost like tiny GPS systems to discover migration patterns which help them draw lines between where a fish has been against their general health and growth patterns).
It was during these summers on the many rivers in northern Southeast Alaska that Nick and Molly noticed some trends during a particularly hot summer, where warmer water had a devastating effect on the fish. With their data collection, they hoped to quantify their observations and demonstrate the unique value of upper Tenakee streams. They used battery powered temperature loggers, installing and maintaining them with totally volunteer labor within the bays and rivers of Tenakee Inlet.
Along with Molly, Nick, and our high school intern Noah Kamps, we began our path upriver. It wasn’t easy. We did a lot of scrambling both on snow and land, bushwhacking and wading through the rapid running rivers as we had limited time to get the work done before the tide changed. There trees down all along the shore, which we had to climb over, under, or around. We ran into snow just above the tide line, and would often step on the seemingly stable drift only to sink sometimes as deep as our hips. Once we reached the thermometers, secured by cables under logs in deep water, the data download took only seconds, even for nine months of data.
As with any wilderness work where equipment is exposed to the elements, there was maintenance to perform, and Molly and Nick carried everything they needed in their dry packs. The works was done in half an hour, and the thermometers were reset and put back in their spots. We then had a long haul back to our skiff, which would take us to the Endeavour. The five of us spent the night onboard, anchored in the bay. The next morning we took Molly and Nick back to their property near Tenakee Springs for a tour of their cabin, workshop, and garden.
This couple’s commitment to their work really moved us. Molly put it like this: “The salmon reflect the integrity of the world we live in. There are still some pockets of interconnected eco-systems that are functioning, healthy, and vibrant in a way that nothing compares to. There is overwhelming life and abundance that pours out of these streams and either we preserve it or we hand over a planet that’s denuded of everything we value. The other part is emotional. We’re very aware that we’re not the first people to live here. As immigrants, we need to care about this land. When you fall in love with a place, you have no choice in the matter; you have to protect what you love.
- Patsy Urschel
Watch the Video
Bill and Patsy recorded an interview with Molly and Nick up the river on their trek to recover the stream data, finishing on the Endeavour the next morning. Approximately 5 minutes.