August 7, 2012
No lake is more lake than Lake Baikal. Set deep within the Russian subcontinent, Baikal is the deepest, oldest and most voluminous of all lakes, a superstar of superlatives in hydrology, geology, ecology and history. The lake is more than 5,300 feet deep (exact figures vary) at its most profound point, which lies about 4,000 feet below sea level. With 12,248 square miles of surface area, Baikal averages 2,442 feet deep—its crescent moon-shaped figure a vast rift valley that first appeared about 25 million years ago through the divergence of the planet’s crust. Today, Lake Baikal contains some 20 percent of the earth’s lake and river water, making this Russian giant comparable in volume to the entire Amazon basin. So huge is Baikal that it reportedly takes an average of 330 years for a single water molecule to flow through it, from inlet to outlet. Lake Baikal features 27 islands, including one 45 miles in length called Olkhon, while in and around Baikal live more than 1,500 animal species, about 80 percent of which live nowhere else on the planet.
The most famous of these animals may be the nerpa, the only exclusively freshwater seal on the planet. The nerpa numbers an estimated 100,000—a comfortable and well-adapted population of animals whose presence in interior Russia has stumped evolutionary biologists, who aren’t certain when or just how the animals came to be so far from the open ocean. Guided tourist outfits can provide visitors with views of the animals, though the seals are generally skittish around people, who have long hunted them for pelts, fat and flesh. Brown bears and wolves dwell near the lake, too, occupying the top tiers of the Siberian food chain, as do a variety of deer, birds, rodents and smaller predators.
The first European to visit Lake Baikal may have been Russian Kurbat Ivanov, in 1643, though local lore claims that Jesus took a short walk to Lake Baikal and back during his days of desert wandering. Today, a wilderness of forest, plains and semidesert surrounds Baikal in the grand landscape of Siberia, though development along the shores of the lake occurred last century with the building of several urban and resort communities. Ugliest, perhaps, among the defilements of Baikal’s coastline is a paper mill that discharged pollutants into Baikal for years before being closed in 2008 on grounds of ecological protection. But the mill reopened in 2010, supposedly using cleaner and safer practices than previously. Meanwhile, local conservationists have other causes of concern. They have, for example, resisted plans to build a uranium plant in the nearby city of Angarsk. And they raised a stink when a petroleum development company called Transneft nearly built an oil pipeline that would have passed within 3,000 feet of Lake Baikal, threatening its waters with leaks and spills. The planned pipeline route was eventually changed. Tourism development is a minor itch in comparison, though it may produce eyesores like the hotels and vacation communities of Listvyanka, a popular winter and summer tourist town.
If you visit Lake Baikal, remember that winters here are frigid and icebound, with continental cold snaps bringing temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and producing a layer of surface ice as thick as two meters. Summertime is friendlier, offering long, long days and superb opportunities for hiking, biking, camping and fishing. Along the lake’s northern shore, the Frolikha Adventure Coastline Track leads 65 miles through the wilderness. How to reach Lake Baikal? Try the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway.
Other Weird Waters
Dead Sea. Almost nine times as salty as the ocean, with a salinity level of about 30 parts per hundred, the Dead Sea—the lowest point on earth—is inhospitable to nearly all living things, but it’s a blast to bathe in. The water’s salt-boosted density is so great that people endowed with a generous layer of body fat can hardly swim and may merely flail over the surface as if they were crawling across a sandy dune. Better not to try and, instead, just turn over on your back and enjoy the bizarre wonder of a lake in which it may be almost impossible to drown. The Dead Sea’s surface lies 1,378 feet below sea level, and it is 1,083 feet deep. This just in: Life-forms have been found associated with freshwater springs at the bottom of the Dead Sea. Time for a name change?
Lake Titicaca. At 12,500 feet above sea level in a high valley in the Andes Mountains, the giant Lake Titicaca is the loftiest lake commercially navigable by large boats and contains more water than any other lake in South America. Its two main ports are Puno, Peru—a beautiful old town steeped in Incan history—and Challapampa, Bolivia. Isla del Sol is an island on Titicaca’s Bolivian side. Strewn with ruins but without a single paved road, this large island is an adventurer’s playground. Get yourself a fishing rod and a canoe, and go.
Melissani Cave Lake. Locals allegedly knew about the Melissani Cave Lake in Greece all along, but if they did, the world never heard about it until 1953, when an earthquake caused a collapse of rock, exposed the crystal-clear lake and brought sunlight and color to its waters for the first time. The lake has since gained fame—and it happens to be located on the island that Homer named as the home country of Odysseus.
Wuhua Hai Lake. Widely lauded as one of the most beautiful lakes on earth, Wuhua Hai is located in Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, in the high mountains of Sichuan, China. The waters are emerald blue and clear as air, and over the shallow lake bed lie scores of sunken logs visible from above the surface. Forested mountain slopes rise from the lake’s shore, and wild pandas dwell in the woods.
Plitvice Lakes. A chain of 16 lakes connected by streams, caves and waterfalls, the Plitvice Lakes of Croatia gleam in a spectrum of blue to azure colors and demonstrate beautifully what water, nature’s finest sculptor, may make of a soft basin of limestone. The dense green woods surrounding the lakes are home to bears, wolves, eagles and numerous other creatures protected in this national park and Unesco World Heritage site.
Aral Sea. A reminder of the devastating effects of agriculture gone haywire, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has just about dried up since 1960. The two rivers that fed this once-giant inland sea (330 rivers feed Baikal, for comparison) no longer get there, diverted to fields instead. And while the Aral’s blue ovoid shape still appears on most world maps, cartographers must surely soon realize that the sea, once one of the largest and most productive inland waterways and fisheries, has all but dried up, sacrificed over a mere 50 years for the sake of local cotton and rice.
Salton Sea. This lake in southern California’s Imperial Valley is another testament to sloppily conducted water projects—but unlike the diminishing Aral, the Salton Sea was born in the wake of a breach in a diversion canal in 1905. For years the Salton Sea was a productive fishery, but today its increasingly saline waters are so polluted that huge fish die-offs keep the shores littered with decay and rot, and fishermen are advised not to eat the corvina and tilapia they catch.
Lake Karachay. Don’t visit this lake—ever. Just read: Set in the Ural Mountains of western Russia, Karachay has been called the most polluted place on the planet, teeming with radioactive waste and particulates that you want nothing to do with. What a wonder that before the age of modern progress, one could drink from this poisonous cesspool.
So, which ones did we miss? Tell us about more watery wonders in the comment box below.
July 24, 2012
The fifth fatal shark attack in less than a year in the coastal waters of Western Australia has put local swimmers, divers and surfers on edge. Authorities have tried to catch and kill the individual before it attacks again—but their efforts may not stop there. Some officials are already suggesting that lawmakers take a 180-degree turn in shark conservation practices, lift protections from great white sharks and allow people to fish for and kill the animals again after a 14-year moratorium.
The great white shark is a protected species in much of the world and considered vulnerable and threatened in places. Once the popular target of trophy fishermen, who used rods and reels like cranes to haul in sharks as large as two tons, the great white received protection in Western Australia following the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s labeling of the species as “vulnerable.”
But Western Australia Fisheries Minister Norman Moore says he will now be lobbying to legalize sport and commercial fishing for great white sharks in the waters under his jurisdiction.
The most recent attack took the life of 24-year-old Ben Linden, who was paddling on a surfboard on July 14 when a large great white bit the young man in half. A jet skier who came to assist said the shark circled around the victim’s remains before nudging the jet ski, then seizing Linden’s torso in its mouth and disappearing.
Linden’s death was preceded by several other similar events. On September 4, 2011, bodyboarder Kyle James Burden was killed at Bunker Bay, about 190 miles south of Perth. On October 10, 2011, Bryn Martin went missing while taking a swim at Cottesloe Beach in Perth. Later, only his Speedos were recovered. Then, an American tourist, 32-year-old George Wainwright, was killed October 22, 2011, while diving at Rottnest Island, near Perth. Finally, on March 31, 2012, another diver, 33-year-old Peter Kurmann, was attacked and killed near Busselton.
Now, after the Linden attack, people are rethinking how dangerous sharks are, how safe the water is and whether animals that kill people should be allowed to live. Certainly, the rapid-fire recurrence of shark attacks in the past year in Western Australia has been alarming, horrifying and sad, and Fisheries Minister Moore believes a heavy hand must be delivered to protect his state’s precious tourism industry.
“Five fatalities in Western Australia (in ten months) is unprecedented and cause for great alarm,” Moore recently told the press. “It won’t be helping our tourism industry, and those people who want to come here to enjoy an ocean experience will be turned away because of this situation.”He also said recently, “Further action is necessary to deal with it.”
Already, action has been taken. Shark cage diving, though a micro-tourism industry of its own, will probably be banned in Western Australia. Critics, including Moore, had said even before the Linden attack that such operations, which sometimes involve the use of bait and chum to attract sharks to the area and within viewing range of paying customers, could be responsible for bringing great whites into the proximity of heavily used beaches—and, worse, instilling in the sharks an association between humans in the water and free food.
It sounds terrifying. The thing is, sharks aren’t very dangerous. At least, they’re a lot less dangerous than cars, which we cherish and wash on Sunday afternoons and use for driving our kids to church, and for whose deadly wheels most societies all but lay out red carpets. In Western Australia alone, 179 people were killed in 2011 in automobile accidents. And in America, 150 vehicle occupants are killed every year when their cars hit deer in the road.
Sharks killed only 12 people in 2011—worldwide—according to the International Shark Attack File. So, if tourists are afraid of going into the ocean, they should be petrified at the thought of traveling on a paved highway to get there.
For now, lifting protections on great white sharks remains just an idea, and if the suggestion advances toward the desks of Australian lawmakers (who likely drove their cars to work), we will surely hear firm opposition from conservationists and others. In Santa Cruz, California, independent white shark researcher Sean Van Sommeran hopes that people will simply accept that sharks are a part of the environment in Australian waters, rather than back-stepping and rescinding protective regulations on the species.
“People need to come to terms with the environments they go into to recreate,” said Van Sommeran, the founder and director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation. “There are streams with crocodiles and forests with poisonous snakes, and there are sharks in the water. You just need to adjust your behavior to a place, not the other way around.”
Van Sommeran was among those who first campaigned for the protection of great white sharks in the early 1990s. By 1994, the species was fully protected in California waters, and by 1997 white sharks were illegal to take in all United States federal waters. Elsewhere, the species is likewise protected. In South Africa, a fishing ban took effect in 1991; in Namibia, in 1993; in Australia, in 1998; in Malta, in 2000; and in New Zealand, in 2007.
But Van Sommeran notes that these laws have been repeatedly bent to allow for white shark capture in the name of science.
“By 2001, the laws were being undermined by aquariums and scientific collection projects,” he said. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, has offered payment to commercial fishermen who accidentally catch and then turn over juvenile great white sharks, with fees varying depending on the condition of the animal—and top dollar going for live juvenile sharks, which have periodically become popular tourist draws at the aquarium. And in the past several years, laws forbidding white shark fishing have been waived for documentary television crews. The shows Expedition Great White, Shark Men and Shark Wranglers have each portrayed teams of scientists hooking and landing adult great whites, hauling them aboard their vessels and spending 20 minutes or more prodding the animals and fitting them with SPOT, or Smart Position and Temperature, tags. Many critics of the activity have warned that SPOT tagging procedures are potentially harmful to larger sharks.
The popularity of sharks in mainstream culture seems to have increased with more and more televised presentations of sharks in their natural habitats, and the men and women who study them—but concern for sharks’ protection has not necessarily grown, Van Sommeran believes.
“Sharks generate a strange kind of enthusiasm that isn’t at all confined to conservation,” he said. He explains that many of the people stoked on sharks are only stoked on the prospect of catching them. Even today, catch-and-kill shark tournaments are held every year in the United States.
Van Sommeran warns that any steps backward in protecting great white sharks could set a precedent for changing laws that protect other large predators.
“If we remove the protected status of every species that runs afoul of humans, we’ll run out of bears, lions and tigers really soon,” he said.
The International Shark Attack File reports that sharks of all species made unprovoked attacks on 75 people in 2011. The database file adds that shark attacks have grown increasingly common since 1900—a trend that most likely reflects the increasing popularity of surfing, diving, bodyboarding and other water sports. It’s also a trend that comes in spite of the world’s declining populations of sharks, of which people kill 30 million to 70 million per year, according to the International Shark Attack File.
So, perhaps the bottom line to this story should be that although shark attacks are frightening and tragic for those involved, they are not a relatively significant per-capita danger. You might even be safer in the water today than a century ago.
Just be really, really careful while driving to the beach—and beware of hitting a deer.
Following recent attacks, is it time that laws protecting great white sharks be changed? Tell us what you think in the comment box below.
July 21, 2012
About 10 years ago, while passing a hot afternoon on the deck of a tourist lodge in Belize, a friend on his way out to go bird-watching asked why on earth I had my nose buried in a book. “Here we are in the jungle of Belize,” he said. “There are jaguars in the woods, and crocodiles in the swamp, and grackles in the trees—and you’re reading a book?” I explained that reading while traveling—if done right—can serve as a sensory supplement to one’s surrounding environment, not necessarily a distraction, as he believed. I explained that many years from now, any mention of Dove—a sailing memoir by Robin Graham—would sweep me right back to these Belizean tropical forests where I read the book, and the coral reefs off the coast, and the croc-filled lagoons, and the villages, sulking in the boggy Caribbean heat and odors of fermenting cashew apples and mangoes. And I was right. When I think of Dove, I go right back to Belize. Because reading a book charges up the mind with information and memories. These become entangled with the scents and flavors of reality, and rather than detract from an experience, a good book can enrich it. Never in the past 15 years have I left home for a week or more without a piece or two of literature, and below I list some of my favorite reads—and where best to read them.
Montana, Night of the Grizzlies. On August 13, 1967, two different grizzly bears in two different parts of Glacier National Park attacked and killed two unrelated young women in one of the most bizarre stories of modern wilderness tragedy. Night of the Grizzlies, by Jack Olsen, recounts the events that led to the attacks. He describes the tourist lodges and the bear-viewing balconies above the garbage dumps, where grizzlies regularly gather—growing accustomed all the while to humans. When the victims—both 19, for another coincidence—go on their respective overnight trips into the backcountry, butterflies begin fluttering in the reader’s stomach. Night falls, the campers go to sleep and their fates are sealed; the worst nightmare of the human psyche is about to become reality. The deadly maulings were the first bear attacks in Glacier National Park, and Olsen’s book acknowledges the inexplicable nature of the coincidences of that night, then delves into the uncertain future of bears, people and wilderness. NOTE: You might lose sleep in the backcountry after reading this one—but that snapping tree branch outside was probably just the wind. Probably.
Paris, Down and Out in Paris and London. Ernest Hemingway may have spent his days in Paris thoughtfully fingering his beard at sidewalk cafes and drinking the house wine, but George Orwell voluntarily dived into a life of grim poverty as he made a journalistic effort to understand the plight of Europe’s working classes. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell describes short-term jobs in the Parisian restaurant circuit, weeks of unemployment, living in a pay-by-the-week hotel and selling his clothes to scrape up the rent. He lives franc to franc, describing the logistics of saving coins and managing free meals and dodging the landlady. In one especially dismal spell, Orwell and a friend named Boris, living together at the time, go three days without food. Following false rumors of job openings, they drag their feet throughout the city, growing weaker every hour. Orwell even goes fishing in the Seine in the hopes of landing something to fry in a pan. When the pair finally acquires a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, they devour what must be among the most satisfying dinners ever eaten in Paris. Orwell eventually lands steady work, but not before learning how strangely liberating it is to hit rock-bottom, to own nothing in the world but the clothes you’re wearing and have no worries but finding a bite to eat. T. S. Eliot, an editor at Faber & Faber at the time, would later decline the manuscript offered by the young writer: “We did find [the book] of very great interest,” Eliot wrote, “but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.”
Texas, Lonesome Dove. Author Larry McMurtry creates a lovable cast of characters in the cowboy era of Texas in this Pulitzer Prize winner of 1985. The year is 1876, and Gus and Call, a pair of retired Texas Rangers, now operate a cattle ranch by the Rio Grande and spend their days tracking rustlers and warring with bands of Comanche Indians. Just as the reader grows cozy with life on the farm, the prospect of joining a cross-continental cattle drive pulls Gus and Call from their idyllic home and on an adventure to Montana. Through dangerous encounters one after another, the men convince readers they’re invincible, but a tragedy ends the party, only one of the pair returns alive to Texas, and we remember that the American frontier is as brutal as it may be alluring.
Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East, The Innocents Abroad. In 1867, Mark Twain joined a group of wealthy Americans on a cruise ship bound for the Mediterranean—-and in one of his best-selling books he boldly makes a mockery of the most cherished sites and attractions of the Old World. No museum, ruin, impoverished village or biblical site is off-limits to Twain’s criticism. He ridicules, especially, the patriotic Italian guides who lead the group to famed statues and artifacts—such as a particularly dazzling sculpture of Christopher Columbus. “Well, what did he do?” they ask the tour guide (I’m paraphrasing), who had thought the Americans would be flabbergasted. “The great Christopher Colombo!” the guide stammers, incredulous. “He discover America!” “What? We’ve just come from there and we haven’t heard anything about him.” The Italian almost faints. And another hired guide shows them an Egyptian mummy, 3,000 years old. Twain and the boys stare in silence, stifling giggles for ten minutes, before one of them finally asks, “Is he, uh, dead?” Onward, in Greece, Twain sneaks into the Acropolis at night; in Turkey, he describes the “illustrious” stray dogs of Constantinople; in the Bible country, Twain mocks almost every artifact and scrap of cloth advertised as once belonging to Jesus—and only in the presence of the Egyptian sphinx is his teasing manner at last humbled. As he stares at one of the oldest creations of humankind, he likens the sight to how it must feel to finally encounter “the awful presence of God.”
Somewhere on the tropical ocean, Men Against the Sea. The sequel to Mutiny on the Bounty, this novella describes the voyage of the 19 men set adrift by the Bounty’s mutineers. The sailors locate themselves via celestial tracking, set themselves on a course for East Timor, and row more than 3,000 miles across the open ocean with only one man lost—killed by the hostile natives of Tofua. Hunger weakens the men nearly to starvation, but a few mahi mahi, flying fish and fruits harvested from island trees barely keep the men alive. The reader feels their hunger pains and likewise grows queasy each time they must make a landing to find water, surfing their boat over tremendous breakers onto unfriendly shores, often astir with threatening people. The men observe strange hopping animals as big as a man in the vicinity of Australia, and beneath their boat the shapes of monsters appear as fleeting shadows—probably the fearsome estuarine crocodiles so infamous in Australian swamps today. NOTE: If you’re reading aboard a boat at sea or under a palm on a tropical atoll, the aforementioned Dove can stand in ably.
Central America, The Mosquito Coast. In Paul Theroux’s novel about a brilliant but wayward man who transplants his family to the upstream wilderness of Nicaragua, protagonist Allie Fox builds a self-sufficient paradise—but in the metaphor of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the protagonist loses his mind, and the dream goes up in flames.
California, My Name Is Aram. From William Saroyan, this 1940 novel hashes out the comedy and drama of life in the farm country of the San Joaquin Valley, where the Saroyan family, from Armenia and still embracing customs of the home country, have set new roots.
Baja California, Log from the Sea of Cortez. John Steinbeck’s travelogue from the scientific collecting voyage he joined in 1940, aboard the Western Flyer, describes the rich Sea of Cortez and the shoreline of the Baja Peninsula. In 2004, several Stanford marine biologists re-enacted the voyage on a vessel almost identical to the original. En route, the scientists compared Steinbeck’s descriptions of a bountiful sea with the dwindling fish and invertebrate populations of the present.
Southeast Asia, Catfish and Mandala. In this travel memoir, Andrew Pham tells of his pilgrimage by bicycle from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to the land of his roots, Vietnam. Here, Pham seeks out old friends and familiar places, but haven’t we all been warned never to go home again? Indeed, much of the world that Pham hopes to see again has vanished or transformed.
Finally, the brand-new guidebook Oregon Cycling Sojourner, by Ellee Thalheimer, provides local insight and tips helpful for anyone considering riding a bicycle through Oregon—and camping, dining out, drinking beer and even doing yoga along the way. The glossy paperback details eight routes through all regions of the state, covering 1,826 miles of highway, 12 breweries and 14 mountain passes. Those not wishing to have a tour route described down to the turns in the very road might read the book for pointers, take a few notes, then leave it behind and wend their own way.
Have any more book suggestions? Add any ideas to the comment box below, as this list continues next week.
July 12, 2012
California draws millions of visitors each summer with a wide variety of natural and cultural attractions—like Yosemite National Park, whose astounding cliffs are proof of either God or glaciers; the brutal but beautiful deserts of the south; the astounding Big Sur coast, where cougars and bears roam the upland wilderness as cliffs plunge into the Pacific; the frigid North Coast of Mendocino and Humboldt counties, where the redwoods grow; and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s gateway to the wild lands to the north.
But if you were to come west across the country, aiming for the wonderful Golden State, and overshoot your destination by, oh, five or ten miles, you’d still land in a pretty sweet spot. Because in the ocean waters just off the Central Coast, the Chinook salmon are swarming this summer like they haven’t in years. Commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen alike are elated, with veterans saying it hasn’t been this good in 15 years. Biologists estimate that more than two million adult salmon are now present in coastal waters—more fish than in the past four seasons combined. Fishermen will harvest hundreds of thousands by the season’s end in September, and hundreds of thousands more are expected to swim upstream to spawn in the Sacramento River, laying the eggs of tomorrow’s salmon.
For several years, though, salmon fishing was dismal in California. In fact, the fish seemed on the verge of vanishing. Things hit rock bottom in 2009, when just 39,000 adult fall-run Chinook salmon returned to spawn in the Sacramento—the lowest number ever recorded (in 2002, by comparison, about 800,000 adult fall-run kings returned to spawn). As a result of the crash, which began in about 2007, the fishing season was shortened or entirely closed in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for both commercial and sport fishermen.
The collapse of California’s salmon was likely due to a number of reasons, including complicated natural cycles of ocean productivity and overdrawing of river water from the Sacramento for agricultural use. But the past two years have seen federal restrictions that limit just how much water can be removed from the river system, and just when the pumps may be operated (pumping is now curtailed during the first six months of the year, when millions of baby salmon occupy the river and delta). Salmon enthusiasts credit this new management scheme with the rebound of the fish.
And now, at least for a while, the salmon are back, and party boats are packed with day-tripping recreational fishermen. Many of these pay-to-fish vessels leave from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and if you’re a tourist in town for several days, well, OK, do all the guidebook things you came here for. Then, get to the fun stuff: Pay $100 to a local skipper and hop aboard, spend a day at sea and, with just a little luck, reel in one of the most prized food fishes in the world. Across the Golden Gate Bridge, the Salty Lady party boat and several others run out of Sausalito. You’ll need a state recreational fishing license, which can be purchased on board most vessels.
Salmon fishing involves either dangling baited hooks off of a drifting boat—called mooching—or dragging baits or flashing steel lures behind the boat at slow speeds—called trolling. Salmon are aggressive, and they swim in schools, so it’s common that every fisherman on a boat will hook up at once—and that means mayhem. At the surface 50 feet off the rail, hooked salmon will thrash and leap. Lines will cross. Reels will scream as the fish run for the horizon. Sometimes, sea lions will dash in and seize a fish as anglers curse their misfortune. Finally, the landing nets come out, and exhausted fish are lifted aboard. On the very best days, everyone on board has his or her two-salmon limit in an hour or two. Then, it’s nap time as the loaded boat returns home, under the Golden Gate Bridge, and back to the wharf.
The Chinook salmon, though a thrill to battle on the end of a fishing line, is less a brag-about trophy fish as simply a food item. The flesh of the Chinook, as red as the Golden Gate Bridge, is the fattiest of all the Pacific salmon, and the most esteemed by seafood lovers. A salmon’s diet affects just how good it will taste. Off the California coast, boat skippers use fish-finding technology to locate schools of anchovies and herring, around which the salmon are likely to be found, stuffing their gullets with the four-inch bait fish—but it’s a salmon fat on krill that experienced fishermen assure is the best of all.
Salmon, like people, pack on fat around their bellies—and the belly meat may be the tastiest part of the fish. Salmon are best cut into steaks, then barbecued or broiled. Be sure to put a sheet of tinfoil under the meat to catch those prized omega-3 fatty acids, and drizzle the grease over your brown rice. Boil the heads and tails, and strain the stew through a sieve, to make salmon stock. Let nothing go to waste. This is a prized food resource that may not be here forever. Savor it. Appreciate it. Incredibly, some fishermen, wanting only clean muscle, will trim away and discard the succulent belly meat—so if you see a harbor fish-cleaning table, hang out a while. When an angler comes along to fillet his salmon, kindly ask for the scraps. You just might go away with a sack of grade-A salmon.
More West Coast Salmon Fishing Opportunities
The Sacramento River isn’t the only West Coast watershed in which salmon are rebounding. Numbers of Klamath River Chinook salmon are up this summer, as are the sockeyes in the Columbia River, where the current run is looking to be a record setter. More than 400,000 of the three- to eight-pound fish are expected to enter the river basin this year—a tremendous increase over past years. Consider 1995, when just 9,000 sockeyes spawned in the Columbia River basin. It was then that many people feared the species would need federal protection via the Endangered Species Act—which could have shut down fishing indefinitely. But, instead, management of the hydroelectric dams blamed for the sockeye decline was altered, and the fish made a comeback. If you go, you’ll need a fishing license and a “salmon endorsement” stamp.
And in Alaska, naming the rivers in which to fish for salmon would take me all day. Indeed, this final frontier remains the place where salmon fishermen go to heaven. At least, I hope so. Don’t forget to buy your fishing license (and if you want Chinook salmon, you’ll need a supplemental king salmon stamp). With your paperwork tucked away in your wallet, Alaska becomes your oyster—and it’s jampacked with pearls. All five Pacific salmon species spawn in large numbers in most Alaskan streams. Pink salmon swarm into nearly every waterway wider than three feet, but they’re the least tasty salmon. Chums, or keta, are good. Sockeyes and cohos are outstanding. But the Chinook is the king.
Salmon are in trouble. The Sacramento River’s population is strong at the moment, but the proposal to build a “peripheral canal” to convey water from the Sacramento River to farmlands south of the delta could, if poorly executed, kill the river’s Chinook runs for good. And in Alaska, the Pebble Mine project threatens to devastate the drainage system of Bristol Bay, currently the world’s sockeye salmon capital. Other threats to salmon populations are less understood. Biologists from Simon Fraser University, for example, concluded a study this July in which they found productivity of spawning sockeye salmon to be steadily declining. That is, whereas each adult Fraser River sockeye salmon produced about 20 next-generation adults in the 1960s, an adult fish today produces as few as three, according to the report. This trend has occurred on a wide scale, from Puget Sound north to Alaska—and no one is certain why.
April 12, 2012
They’re clammy. They’re rubbery. They’re often deep-fried in vegetable oil. And though the red abalone of California was once a staple of dirt-cheap seafood shacks, this big slippery sea snail is today one of the most prized seafoods in the world.
Abalone is also the goal of one of the most dangerous recreational games in America. Abalone diving season kicked off in Northern California on April 1, and though no fatalities have yet been reported, well, let’s just knock on wood. Because since 1993, at least 54 people have lost their lives while pursuing abalone, including eight in 2008 and seven in 2007, and rare is the season in which at least one diver doesn’t perish in the cold and rough waters of the North Coast. Yet so fervent is the urge to get in the water and bag one’s daily limit of three abalone that many divers who have driven hours to get to their favorite spot only to find the sea surging and violent just brave the waves anyway. Sometimes they die. Kelp may be the greatest of hazards to the diver, who are prohibited from using SCUBA gear. This spectacular seaweed, so gentle in appearance and symbolic of the California coast, occurs in nasty thickets in many locations. Kelp may grow more than a foot per day, and in the summer sun during calm periods, kelp forests can burgeon seemingly out of control until the fronds layer the surface like a carpet. Underwater, the long, cord-like stipes hang ceiling to seafloor. Among the rocks at their base is where the abalone dwell. Some divers wait until a large storm rips these kelp plants from the seafloor, clearing the water, while most just deal with it—the sensation of long, rubbery cords of kelp sliding over one’s legs is familiar to any abalone diver. Many carry knives strapped to their lower leg to cut through the kelp should they become entangled. Ironically, divers have drowned when their knives become snagged on the kelp.
Other divers die of exhaustion or heart attacks, sometimes collapsing on the rocks after a particularly strenuous dive. Among the least of dangers is the great white shark—though the fear of being eaten is one of the most persistent and haunting. In 2004, a well-known diver in Mendocino County was decapitated by a shark in one swift attack. Though dozens of abalone hunters have died from other causes since, Randy Fry remains a name that Northern California divers speak with a tone of regret and unmistakable dread. Today, many divers, as well as kayakers and surfers, wear “Shark Shields,” a relatively new device that emits an electric field that may deter sharks as large as great whites.
So, what is all the fuss and excitement about? For many people, abalone means nothing more than an excuse to get wet in one of the world’s most beautiful underwater settings. For some divers, it’s a treasure hunt—all about locating the big snails and prying them out of their crevices and holes. For a few divers, eating abalone isn’t even the point—collecting them is. After sacking their limits an driving home, they hand out the snails to their friends. (I recently joked with one such diver that she might just hunt for rocks instead and leave the abalone, which may be decades old, to their peaceful business.)
For others, abalone hunting is an obsessive game of numbers. These dedicated trophy hunters will take nothing but “tens,” that is, abalone at least 10 inches wide. (The minimum legal size is seven inches.) So particular are “ten divers” about this hallowed but arbitrary dimension that they usually measure and record their catches down to the hundredth of an inch, with the difference between a 10.64- or 10.47-inch abalone being a worthy distinction. The shells they polish and display on walls, and there is even a website dedicated to the hunt for huge abalone called Abalone Ten. Large abs, as divers often call their quarry, often occupy dark crevices 20 feet or more beneath the surface, and one may wonder as shivers creep up the spine how many divers have drowned with their heads stuck in an underwater cave.
The snails, meanwhile, keep meekly minding their business. They slide slowly across the seafloor, seeking kelp scraps, their chief food source, by day and returning to cracks and caves by night, and little do they know of the storm that their existence stirs—a storm of economic activity, weekends spent camping, poaching busts and car chases, photo ops, celebrations and family feasts … and funerals.
By the numbers:
Of about 35,000 licensed abalone hunters in California, more than 50 have died in the past 20 years.
Of about 300,000 licensed hunters in California, 27 died in accidents from 1994 to 2009.
934: Commercial fishermen killed in America between 1992 and 2007.
6,000 to 8,000: Estimated total number of mountain climber deaths on Mont Blanc.