When An Alaskan Salmon Runs (or Why It Sucks Being A Salmon)

Anchorage, Alaska

I’ve decided that it sucks being an Alaskan salmon. It’s all because they taste too darn good!

(Seriously, I don’t know why people bother with their farmed counterpart, with meat so pale dye needs to be added to it.)

Delicious salmon cake from Marx Brother, Anchorage
Delicious salmon cake from Marx Brother, Anchorage

Being tasty is good, but then everyone wants to eat you. Everyone.

Being an Alaskan salmon means fending off the bears – both black bears and grizzlies. During an Alaskan salmon run, bears can be so spoiled for choice they’d only eat the best part of a salmon: the skin and the eggs, leaving the rest for other animals to feast on.

Then there’s the Alaskan people itself. What Alaskans like more than eating salmon (have you ever heard of salmon bakes?) is fishing for them. Even late in the season we saw people fishing for salmon in rivers.

But the main reason I thought that salmon lead a tough life is that they literally have to suffer and die to breed.

Salmon (like many other animals) return to where they were born to breed.

When they reach breeding age, a salmon would ‘smell’ its way back up its natal body of water. Some species can travel up to 900 miles, drawn by an inexplicable pull to return to where its life started however many years ago.

They swim upstream regardless of obstacles on the way: jumping over waterfalls and dams. They stop eating. Their bodies quickly deteriorate, losing their silver lustre.

When (if, assuming they survive the bears and the eager fishermen) they finally reach their destination, they would spawn and die, their bodies completely depleted of energy. Their decomposing bodies sink to the bottom and become nutrients to feed their hatchlings.

I was fortunate to see a small group of Alaskan salmons making this very death pilgrimage during my last visit to Alaska.

We stopped at a small parking lot with a view of a glacier. There was a platform over a nearby river when one can watch these fish during salmon run season.

alaskan salmon run
Sockeye salmon making their way upstream

In late August, only the Sockeye salmon remains. Some of them have adopted a bright, red color. It makes them easy to spot in the shallow stream.

A little further upstream there was a small rise in the river bed that the fish would have to jump over. A small group of people had gathered watching one fish after another makes a go for it, only to be swept away by the current.

Then another fish decides to try his luck. With a couple of strokes of his tail, he flopped and climbed its way up!

We all cheered when the fish made it through. Phew! I didn’t even realise I was holding my breath. It felt like watching the Olympics all over again.

I wish these salmon luck. I wish they’d spawn many, many more delicious salmon. There’s something poetic about this life cycle. I’m both fascinated and horrified.

And just a little awed.

In Alaska, it is easy to feel that you’re a part of nature.


*Thanks to Hilton Garden Inn in Anchorage for having us over as guests

12 Replies to “When An Alaskan Salmon Runs (or Why It Sucks Being A Salmon)”

  1. Great post!
    I've always found it so strange that salmon swim upstream. I know they feel the urge to do so, but it just seems so unlogical…

  2. I LOVED this post Jill. But now I feel so sorry for the little Salmon fishies that I'm not sure I can ever eat them again! What an incredible plight. Fabulous post 🙂
    Zoë B

  3. I live in Alaska, and I feel lucky to eat wild Alaskan salmon multiple times a week! I agree – the farmed stuff should be banned. In Alaska, we have a saying: "friends don't let friends eat farmed fish." Even though the wild salmon do indeed have it rough near the end of their lives, they get to spend the rest of their lifetimes out swimming in the vast ocean!

  4. If I'm ever able to make it to Anchorage, I'll make it a point to go to Marx Brother. I wonder if they do trout cakes there too.

    I can only imagine that Alaska is a cool natural paradise. I've never seen the Northern Lights, would be another great reason to go.

    1. Marx Brother is the bomb! Everything was delicious! Seeing Northern Light is also on our to do list, it's been playing in the back of my mind lately. The logistic of traveling to Alaska (or other areas where NL happens) in winter is too much for right now to consider. But definitely some day.

  5. Salmon's my favorite fish and I'd gladly eat it daily. I bet wild Alaskan salmon is AMAZING! I would *so* travel to Alaska just to sample some.

  6. How cool!! Definitely didn't see this while I was up there! But on a total side note, did you see the little diorama at the airport in Anchorage? It was an Alaskan nature scene, complete with a taxidermied bear, some (fake) salmon floating in the water and even one poor little guy who had been half eaten by the bear? Its guts were hanging out…literally! Poor, poor, delicious salmon!

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