Let me start off by saying that the oh so creative name of this lake and town in Alaska only makes sense for one of those things. Take a look at this picture I took of my handy map and you will see what I mean. That blue blob is the lake and that tiny place to the right of it is the town. While Big Lake has over 50 miles of shoreline and is well… big, the town of Big Lake has just over 2,000 full-time residents.
So why am I telling you about Big Lake? Well, it was there that last week I had the opportunity to work with a Coho salmon research field crew! To get a better idea of fish migrations and populations, the crew sets fish traps along many miles of creek and lake around Big Lake, then tags, measures, and counts all the captured fish. Anywhere from 4-7 full time crew members work from June-October on this annually recurring US Fish and Wildlife Service project. I came away from the week with a better understanding (and a whole lot of respect!) for the work field crews do, the work my body can handle, and how great a shower feels after a week of wearing the same two shirts every day.
The weather port I called home during my week long stay on Big Lake.
I must say that camp life was a lot more luxurious than I thought it would be…well minus the no-showering. I slept in a weather port with a little cot inside that kept me warm and dry for my entire stay. Also, the crew I worked with was staffed entirely with AMAZING cooks! I ate way better than I do in my little apartment in Anchorage. Among other tasty things, I was treated to King Crab, grilled asparagus, and shrimp curry. Let me tell you, it was a wonderful thing to look forward to after a long day working in the field. Each morning started with breakfast and hot coffee in the cozy warm camper at about 7AM. We then prepared fish traps and all of our gear to head out to a designated site by 8AM or so. Typically three crews of two people each go to survey at different sites. After arriving, we would put on chest waders and boots, plus big packs with all of our gear and needs for the day, then hike out to the water!
Here’s how each day went from there—ready?!
1. Set up 10 fish traps with bait canisters somewhere along the water’s edge.
2. Take 5 traps per person (quite a handful for me!) and set two along 25 meter stretche of water.
3. Record the time each trap is set to make sure each one will have the same soak-time.
4. Find a place along the banks to lounge for an hour!
5. Retrieve the traps in the order of placement.
6. Now comes the tricky part: Count and identify all fish in the traps! There are rainbows, sticklebacks, and sculpins (sometimes over 100 in each trap!) but only Cohos are kept to measure and record.
7. Place captured Cohos into a bucket of water containing a mysterious “fish drug” that makes them “sleepy” enough to stay still and be measured.
Fish wait to be measured then dropped into the “recovery tank” so that the “fish drugs” can wear off before they’re released.
8. Record length measurements and check to make sure that none of the Cohos are recaptures–Cohos previously tagged by the crew. If they are, scan them with a special wand and record the code that comes up.
9. Repeat 1-9 x2! That makes for 30 traps set along about 400 meters of water.
Did I mention that the whole time I was wading through chest deep water, carrying heavy gear, and sitting in the rain for hours on end? Sounds great right?? Well, turns out, it actually is! I got to see the most beautiful areas of forest and was surrounded by Alaskan wildlife. Dozens of large Red Sockeye Salmon would swim inches from me as I set my traps, and eagles and sand hill cranes flew overhead as I lay in the grasses waiting for collection time. It was an amazing experience and a great escape from the Anchorage city life I have been getting used to, plus I made some new fisheries friends in the process.
One last thing: Enjoy this picture I took at an overlook off of the Glenn Highway in Palmer, Alaska. Sheesh this place keeps amazing me!!