06 July 2021

Walruses, Eagles and Fishing Oh My! Experiences in King Salmon, an Island in Mountains

Written by: Allison Fink

planeresizeJust after recovering from my jetlag, it was time to board another plane. Instead of going through TSA and waiting at my gate, I stood in front of a FWS-owned Cessna that had four seats and just enough room for our luggage. Kurt explained the flight safety procedures- I was given a noise cancelling headset and an inflatable safety vest equipped with survival gear. As I put my seatbelt on, the reasoning behind the headphones was clear- the loud rumbling let me know that we were ready to go.

On the plane’s GPS, I could see that it would take us two hours to glide over the wilderness. We would arrive in King Salmon, a small fishing town nestled in Bristol Bay. The drive to the airstrip was comically slow, but my heart jumped as we sped up and the tires lifted off the ground. Within seconds Anchorage was shrinking behind us.  About halfway through the trip, we coasted at 1,200 feet high not above, but through the mountains. On my right side It was lush and green, reminiscent of scenery from Jurassic Park. To my left, it was snowing, with glacial mountains so covered that you could hardly see the rock. What blew me away the most was the dotting of civilization- massive stretches of wilderness with a cabin here, a plane parked there, the occasional lonely boat, and so on.

After what only felt like minutes, we landed and took a short break to rest at the refuge.



The geography of Bristol Bay is rather different from that of Anchorage. It is flat, comprised of tundra and dwarfed boreal forest. This time of year, the land blooms with cotton grass so dense that it is reminiscent of the past winter’s snow. To the east, white-tipped mountains line the horizon, a reminder to how isolated from the rest of the world this community is. King Salmon is bordered by a river that leads into Naknek and spills into the sea, with water so clear that small fish can be seen darting in and out of the riverbed.
Before I knew it, it was time to hop into the plane again. This flight was much shorter- only a half hour to Gape Greig, a popular walrus viewing area. We hiked through the tundra on a beachside cliff that looked as though it was cut by a knife. We replaced the storage in the wildlife cameras, pocketing the previous pictures to view later. For the first time, I saw the walruses- they were at sea, heads bobbing in and out of the surf as they grunted at one another in contentment.      

A few weeks later, we traveled to cape Seniavin in a two-person plane that formed a glass box around us. Beneath us, we spotted caribou, moose, and even a whale. It took us much longer to navigate this site. Thick vegetation came up to my waist. The hike feel like wading through water.  We treaded carefully, as the narrow trails we followed were created by bears who like to rest in the meadow.

The long hike was worth it- we were able to install a new camera and adjust the previous ones to be less effected by wind. As we worked on the cameras, the walruses were hauled out beneath us. Watching them interact with each other in the wild was fascinating. My favorite walrus was one who laid on its back, moving its giant body back and forth likebrush a dog trying to scratch an itch.

Aside from trips to the Haulout sites, most of my time in King Salmon has been spent at the office. I am responsible for documenting camera activity and making information accessible to other FWS employees or partnering organizations.

The wildlife cameras take one image per minute over several months- therefore, it takes hours to look through every picture for activity.

People walking along the beach, planes going by, and even the occasional surprise from a fox or bear were fun to observe. Sorting tens of thousands of photos into small, easy-to-understand chunks is a long but satisfying process.




Office life here is anything but monotonous. I often receive a knock on my door from other employees to ask how my day has been, or to chat about projects happening around the refuge. Last week, I was called in to witness the registering of a beach-found walrus skull. The refuge’s biologist drilled a hole into the back of the tusk and helped its new owner fill out a form. This is how I learned that Alaska is one of the few places worldwide where the collection and sale of ivory is legal. Here are some resources if it's something you would like to try yourself:

eagleBy far, the most exciting detour was a call to rescue a Bald Eagle.It had broken its wing and had been stranded on the beach for multiple days. A few other FWS refuge members and I loaded up a very large pet carrier and some blankets into the refuge manager’s car and drove onto the beach. The eagle was too hurt to fly away as we shrouded it in blankets and gently guided it into the carrier- it was a good thing we sized up, as the bird was bigger than some dogs.

I was appointed “eaglesitter” and let the bird rest in my garage for the night. The next morning, eagle-sitting duties were handed to Alaska Airlines, who gave the eagle the fastest flight of its life to a sanctuary in Anchorage.

I have spent my weekends enjoying rural Alaska life and the culture of Bristol Bay. The summer is its busiest time as commercial fishermen flock her to catch plentiful salmon. I have spent evenings walking on the beach, where the vessels look like a city of their own. I have also tried my luck at some fishing myself. The pike I managed to catch slipped out of my hands when I stopped to take a photo. Oh well.

Until next time,



Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: Directorate Fellows Program

Location: Alaska Office of Law Enforcement

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