Boots in the Mud: A Summer with the Alaska Salmon Program

Peering out the window, Melinda Carr watched as her plane descended, breaking through the thick blanket of clouds.

“Woah,” she said softly, as a vast mountain range revealed itself, expanding far off into the horizon.

The tallest peaks were crowned in ice and snow while the smaller ones were barren, exposing the jagged the rock underneath. Further down the slopes, tall pines covered the sides in a lush green while long, winding rivers carved valleys in the wild landscape on their way out to the sea.

“First time here?” the woman seated next to her asked excitedly.

“Yeah,” Melinda answered.

“Well, welcome to Alaska!” she said with a smile.

Melinda is part of a group of undergraduate students taking a one-of-a-kind course through the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS). Students fly 1,777 miles northwest of Seattle and spend a month with the Alaska Salmon Program at their field stations on the banks of Lake Aleknagik and Lake Nerka. Part of the larger Wood River system, these lakes, their creeks, and the surrounding wilderness serve as a “living laboratory” where students are immersed in one of the most valuable salmon fisheries on the planet. The yearly sockeye salmon runs here are the driving life force for the plants, animals, and people of the region while also sustaining over half of the world’s sockeye catch.

Five students hike across tundra on their way back to camp in Alaska
The class hikes across the tundra on their way back to camp

Every morning, the class of eight students suit up in chest-high waders and water-proof boots, clip on a holster of bear-spray, and take a couple small skiffs out into the wilderness. The day’s fieldwork varies, but often consists of trudging up one of the many meandering creeks to survey thousands of bright-red sockeye salmon returning home to spawn.

The course is taught by SAFS professors Thomas Quinn, Daniel Schindler, and Ray Hilborn – three of the preeminent salmon researchers in the world – with each faculty member covering different topics to provide the class with a comprehensive picture of the salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. Along with the professors, the students work closely with graduate students conducting their own research, Alaska Salmon Program staff (including experienced scientists Jackie Carter and Chris Boatright), and visiting researchers from around the world. Over the summer, students learn about the spawning behavior and life history of adult salmon, the surrounding ecosystems, population dynamics, and fishery management all while developing the necessary skills to ask and answer their own scientific questions.

“You can sit and have a lecture anywhere, but you can’t go see salmon spawning in a stream anytime,” says Liz Landefeld, a sophomore with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “All of the professors for the program were excited for people to see what they have been lecturing about for months.”

For the students, every day is an opportunity to learn and experience something new, building on the previous day’s lessons and honing skills that will help them in their developing careers.  It is also a chance for many of them to see how data they have previously worked with back in Seattle is collected in the field for the first time.

“It’s a really comfortable and open learning environment. If you don’t know how to do something or don’t know something, everyone wants you to know that thing.”

Liz Landefeld

Andrea Odell is a SAFS senior who has worked extensively with data collected in Alaska for her capstone project. For her research she is examining the genetic diversity between sockeye salmon on different creeks at Lake Nerka.

“I’ve done my whole capstone working on A and C Creeks and it’s interesting to see by the data how the population works, but it’s even more interesting to actually come out here and look at it,” she says. “I think it’s a good way to cap off my senior year.”

 

Explore the interactive map below to read stories and experiences from the students.

 

 

To learn more about the Alaska Salmon Program or how to apply, please visit their website at http://depts.washington.edu/aksalmon/ and contact your advisor.

In April 2019, the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences will celebrate its 100th year. To commemorate the Centennial, SAFS has created a new endowment called the Centennial Boots in the Mud Fund that will support experiences like these for students to get out in the field. To encourage support for this effort, the School will match all gifts up to $100,000. Visit http://www.uw.edu/giving/bootsinthemud to learn more. For questions, contact Daniel Webb at 206-221-4573 or dcwebb@uw.edu.

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