Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Maps and Mazes

Trout are my favorite animal. There are two reasons for this. The first has to do with evolution. Ask me what I like about the natural world, what fascinates and intrigues me, and I’ll say evolution. But what does that mean? I’ll tell you. It’s the diversity of life on earth. It’s the 9000 different species of birds that have adapted to live in deserts, mountains, swamps, polar ice caps, and over the open ocean. It is finding a plant that is the exclusive food of a certain species of caterpillar, and knowing that the butterfly that spawns of that insect is the sole living creature to pollinate the flowers of that particular plant. It is seeing mule deer in Idaho, whitetail deer in West Virginia, and key deer in Florida in the same year. It’s looking at seahorses in a glass tank and watching them move in a way that is outside our ken and knowing that it was millennia of lives and deaths and successes and failures all played out through minute and mysterious changes to a certain molecule with a penchant for self-replication that led up to that alien yet perfect movement.

You take one family of animals – salmonids (salmon, trout, and char) – and you’ve got yourself a snapshot of evolution in all its entirety and beauty. There are more than 70 species of trout in North America, from Mexican Golden Trout living in high altitude streams in the Sierra Madres to cutthroat trout living in Yellowstone to arctic char inhabiting deep lakes the farthest reaches of the arctic circle. At first glance they are all very similar, but take a closer look and you’ll see that tremendous differences exist in their behavior, feeding habits, mating patterns, and of course appearance. Even within a single species there are not-so-subtle differences among populations in particular regions or even particular streams. Take rainbow trout, the coastal variety of which is found along the Pacific coast from southern California to central Alaska. In each region, differences in the environment – the length of the seasons, the availability of food, the presence or absence of predators – have led to adaptations that make these trout distinctly different from members of their own species living indifferent areas. Rio del Presidio rainbow trout in Mexico feed mainly on hatching insects and rarely exceed 9 inches in length. Some rainbow trout called steelheads – the Columbia River is famous for them - have even evolved to make sea runs like salmon. These anadromous trout migrate to the open ocean, feed on invertebrates, and then return to freshwater to spawn. Our rainbows here in Bristol Bay drainages stay in freshwater for their entire lives, but they time their movements from lakes to streams to coincide with salmon runs. They feast on rich salmon eggs and fry, gifts of nutrients from the open ocean hundreds of miles away. They can easily exceed 30 inches in length – veritable monsters of our deepwater lakes and flowing rivers. But despite these significant differences, all these rainbow trout belong to the same species. They are close enough genetically to mate and produce fertile offspring.

That’s what I mean by a snapshot of evolution. Take those populations of rainbows, keep them isolated for another few thousand years, let them continue to evolve to suit their own particular lakes or streams, and all of the sudden you have a different fish entirely. A new species. The diversity of life on earth.

You find that kind of intraspecies diversity in all kinds of animals. The whitetail deer I see in Florida have a different yearly cycle than the whitetails I see in West Virginia due primarily to the lack of seasons in south Florida. Virginia deer are bigger as well – more body mass is better for colder climates. Our key deer, a whitetail subspecies living in the subtropical Florida Keys, are the smallest of them all, really only the size of a large dog. But despite their differences, all those deer are pretty much the same in appearance. There is something special about trout. Besides size, behavior, and movements, the different populations of trout look different. Which brings me to the second reason I love trout: they are beautiful almost beyond comprehension. I can’t begin to describe the rich colors, the intricate patterns, the mysterious designs that adorn the back of a rainbow trout. It’s like you’ve discovered a part of nature that is a physical and living celebration of the beauty and allure of all the natural world. Like buried deep in the 4 million year history of evolution, hidden in those endless lines of code that are DNA sequences, there is a hidden instinct for creativity and beauty. Always yearning to come out, we catch glimpses of it in all our living things, but it is on the back of trout that this instinct was finally manifest in all its glory.

I sought to behold that beauty firsthand on my trip last weekend. You see, the kind of amazing diversity I was discussing earlier exists here in Katmai country. In the freshwater lakes and rivers of the Naknek drainage we have all five species of salmon (pink, coho, chum, king and sockeye), rainbow trout, lake trout, and arctic char. In May I fish Brooks Lake for lake trout drawn to the surface from their homes in the deep by the rays of the springtime sun and the promise of emerging sockeye fry to feed on. Come early June I fish Brooks River for rainbows attracted to the flowing water for the same reason. Late June brings the sockeye salmon and I fish them until they become wasted and deteriorated from spawning. And I fish Margot Creek in August for arctic char who have followed the salmon up the creek to feed on their just-laid eggs. It’s these char that I want to tell you about.

Arctic char are specialists of the far north, in fact living in lakes farther north than any other species of freshwater fish. Here in Katmai we find them in Margot Creek in August where they are drawn from the deepwater of Naknek Lake to feed on freshly-laid salmon eggs. They are a silver fish dotted with gorgeous pink spots. You stand in a rushing mountain stream, the greens and tans of the forest behind you, the blues and grays of riverbed in front, and from these sublime hues of nature your flyline draws an animal secretly displaying the most remarkable and unexpected of colors – pink. Babygirl pink on the back of a fish. A beauty that we as men are privileged to know. Take a look.

But there is more. Legends exist of a “golden-fin trout” that exists only in Idavain Lake, a high-elevation lake in the backcountry of Katmai. I was intrigued by these legends. A snippet in an out-of-print book suggests these “trout” are actually a unique population of char that in their centuries of isolation developed a singular coloration. Old-timers say they were actual golden trout from the lower 48 stocked in Idavain Lake by a lodge owner back in the day, surely died out by now. A fishing guide here says they exist, he knows someone who caught one, a fishing guide there says they are a myth.

So I set out to unravel the mystery. I took a one of our 17-foot Lunds from Brooks camp to the north shore of Naknek Lake where is left it, hoping the south winds would not increase and swamp it while I was away. You see, many people fish Idavain Creek where it spills into Naknek Lake, but few ever see the source of this creek high up in the mountains. Idavain Lake is separated from Naknek Lake proper by a series of waterfalls that preclude getting there in a boat, so hiking in is the only option. I set out with a full pack – tent, sleeping bag, food for 2 days, fishing gear – for a 5 mile hike straight through the trailless boreal forest of Alaska. It was about as bad as bushwhacks come. Cottonwood forests littered with downed trees, alder and willow thickets that tear at your face and clothes, thick spongy moss that makes it seem as if you are hiking through mud. All of this on a straight incline up a mountain ridge. Bear scat was prevalent, as was sign of moose. Two and a half long hours later I reached the top of the ridge and caught my first glimpse of Idavain Lake. Five miles long and 2 miles wide, this expansive backcountry lake situated in a mountain valley is gorgeous. I hiked down to near the shore and set up camp. I woke up Saturday to a chorus of songbirds, a view I consider myself lucky to have experienced in my short life, and the knowledge that I was the only person within maybe a 10 mile radius. I spent that day exploring, birdwatching, glassing the hillsides (unsuccessfully) for moose, and of course fishing. It was near the outlet of the lake into Idavain Creek on the east shore about a mile from my camp that I struck gold. Golden-fin trout, that is. The wind from the west was pushing waves and presumably baitfish onto the east shore, and I caught several of these little guys before trouble with my fishing reel forced me to stop. As for the legends the old book proved right, the "golden-fin trout" label was a misnomer. The fish were clearly arctic char – the pink dots removed any doubt of that – but with coloration entirely different from the char I catch in Naknek Lake and Margot Creek. Their back was darker and tinted with a glorious gold the color of sunlight. So there you have it. An isolated population of char, so close and yet so far from their brethren in Naknek Lake, and with a unique set of genes that expressed themselves in a magnificent and distinct color.

I said before that I could not express in words the beauty of trout but my favorite author did a pretty good job and I will share his words with you, as well as this picture.

Oh, I forgot. There is a third reason I love trout. They taste delicious. Alaska natives say arctic char are the finest tasting of all the freshwater fishes up here and I have to agree. I gutted this little fellow, scored him along his ribcage, stuffed him with butter, fresh garlic, and cajun seasoning, wrapped him up in tinfoil, and cooked him over the open fire. Sitting by myself on a backcountry lake, the sweet smell of campfire smoke drifting my way, the Alaskan sunset on the horizon, not another soul for miles, encircled by a cloud of mosquitos and blackflies, and here I am eating what would be a 50 dollar meal in New York City. Cooked-whole trout, wild caught – a delicacy. That’s what life is all about folks.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

from The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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