Rain. Not heavy, but constant. Thick, low overcast glued to the ground. Flight-canceling weather for bush pilots. Alaska, they say, is the land that changes your plans. But photographer Eirik Johnson and I finally lifted off a day late and under marginal clearing on the 25-minute flight west from Juneau to the village of Gustavus, population 437, near the mouth of Glacier Bay. There are no roads to Gustavus.
From our Piper Cherokee we gazed 2,000 feet down on tall woodland, mist, sea, and mountain—the coastal temperate rainforest. Thick, luxurious coniferous trees like a deeply piled carpet, lofted here and there into steep ridges and separated by tidewater rippled like hammered pewter. Occasionally we saw a fishing boat arrowed by its wake or a camp near a break in the rocky shoreline. Now and then there was a clearcut, lighter green in second growth. But mostly just the wild, dark-emerald, pointy-timbered wilderness, a huge expanse of ruggedness and productivity. And everywhere, down through the deep coniferous mat, little streams twinkled like veins of tinsel.
This was just a small portion of the Tongass National Forest. At 16.8 million acres, it's America's largest woodland, containing 30 percent of the remaining temperate rainforest on earth. The Tongass covers most of southeast Alaska, and its major inholding is 3.3-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park.
We came here in July to witness an ecological spectacle—a fantastic bloom of marine life that occurs each midsummer in western Icy Strait, just off the mouth of Glacier Bay. The ecological phenomenon of salmon bringing marine nutrients upstream to fertilize the trees has been widely touted. But we came to see the flip side of that cycle, the untold story of what the temperate rainforest gives back through its streams and glaciers to enrich this marine ecosystem and stimulate a proliferation of life. It's an explosion at every trophic level, from single-cell algae through krill and capelin and salmon and sea lions to the huge humpback whales. And millions of seabirds, including tens of thousands of marbled murrelets.
No creature stitches together the two extremes of this ecosystem—marine waters and inland old growth—like the marbled murrelet, with the length and wingspan of a robin, but three times the mass. In flight it looks like a diminutive football with a blur of wings. Unlike the other alcids (murres, auks, and related genera), marbleds do not nest in colonies near the sea; instead they fan out solitarily and nest high on the broad, mossy branches of old-growth conifers, as far as 45 miles or more inland. Even during incubation and chick rearing they return to the sea daily to feed on small schooling fish like capelin, herring, and lanternfish, and then carry the same back to their nestlings.
While the marbled murrelet is listed as threatened in the Lower 48, where the population was recently estimated at 20,400, it flourishes across southeastern Alaska. A 1994 region-wide seabird survey estimated the population at 687,000, although some scientists believe the numbers have declined since then. The densest numbers of feeding marbleds have been recorded on just 144 square miles in western Icy Strait. Since 1993, July numbers there have averaged near 23,000; the July 2010 marbled murrelet survey counted a record 58,699, some of the birds flying here from over much of southeast Alaska. Clearly there is something special about western Icy Strait, and more than the murrelets corroborates this.
Gustavus appeared as a red runway light glowing low in the fog as we descended toward the airstrip. Bob Christensen, my chief local contact, a self-taught freelance ecologist and co-director of a local land stewardship project, collected us in a borrowed pickup.
He lives on a remote island out in the strait and had a seaworthy boat to show us around. We rattled through the forested town on its dirt roads to an edge where woodlands faded into meadow. Here my friend Hank Lentfer, a self-styled conservationist-writer, hunter, musician, and modern-day homesteader, has a cabin. Greg Streveler, a veteran of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the National Park Service (ranger, then biologist) and now an environmental consultant, appeared and completed the orientation crew.
Their faces lit up with welcome at first but then grew serious. The prognosis for our visit was dark. "We haven't had any sunshine," said Lentfer, "nothing to fuel it." I thought of my friends back in Juneau, complaining that they hadn't seen the sun since sometime in May. It is sunshine that powers the photosynthesis at the base of the food web. All the higher trophic levels depend upon it.
Christensen reported that the first red-necked phalaropes had only now returned, some three weeks later than usual. He is an outdoorsman and deer hunter, built like a halfback with a tousle of red hair coiffed by the estuarine wind. He does not seem the type to celebrate the return of a flock of tiny shorebirds. But he had just seen the first few hundred fly in. "I can't believe how good that made me feel," he said with a warm grin.
Most years the July spectacle is quite a show. Matt Kirchhoff, recently retired director of bird conservation at Audubon Alaska and one of the region's frontline murrelet biologists, had told me of doing surveys when the western half of the strait was just peppered with birds. Lentfer talked about a huge run of capelin—covering maybe 80 acres, just off Point Adolphus—stirring the surface like a hailstorm, with whales and murrelets everywhere. Feeding whales rising above the surface, Steller's sea lions sliding off their backs, murrelets scrambling to escape their baleen and flying through the mist of their spouts. A National Park Service biologist had once told me about days among the feeding murrelets when lanternfish scales filled the water from the predation below. (Lanternfish are small fish so full of oil that they can be lit like candles when dried—high energy for hungry murrelets.)
Ocean water throughout southeast Alaska is highly rich, a fact reflected in the region's large salmon runs. Much of the fertility boost in Icy Strait is fueled by the streams cascading down the precipitous slopes of the rainforest and draining out through rich valleys and mudflats. This makes the entire archipelago something of a super estuary, with the streams—which together annually pour nearly the volume of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Alaska—delivering high-value nutrients like carbon and nitrogen to the marine food web. In the case of organic carbon, the backbone of life's most basic molecules, the streams send about three times as much to the Gulf per acre of watershed as the Amazon transports to the south Atlantic. That's because these streams are cold and short, which slows the process by which carbon binds to other molecules or is consumed by living creatures. The Amazon, by contrast, is long and warm, and much of its rainforest carbon gets used before it reaches the ocean.
What makes Icy Strait even more productive, according to Eran Hood, an environmental science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, is its proximity to Glacier Bay. The bay holds the most glaciers in southeast Alaska and flows right into the strait; half of that flow—even more in July—is glacial meltwater, which, according to Hood's working hypothesis, carries a unique cocktail of nutrients that fuel the estuarine and saltwater systems. Glacial melt yields lower concentrations of carbon than the rivers draining forestland, but what it does produce arrives in a form that is far more chemically available as food for microorganisms. The carbon likely comes from several sources: the breakdown of forest organics lying under the ice, ponds that form on glacial surfaces, and nutrients—including industrial soot—deposited from the air. Iron, a limiting micronutrient in marine systems, and phosphorus, which is necessary for the transfer and release of energy in all life, are also part of the mix; both occur in the rock that's ground to dust by glacial friction and carried seaward.
There are two more phenomena driving the biological activity in Icy Strait. One is timing: Freshwater flows from inland tend to slow in midsummer, after the snowmelt and in the heat of July. But that same heat increases glacial melting. So just as nutrient supplies taper off in non-glacial estuaries, Glacier Bay begins pumping out its ice cocktail in higher volume directly into the strait.
The final phenomenon is one we saw for ourselves.
At the town dock, Christensen loaded Johnson, Streveler, and me into Pearl, his 23-foot aluminum skiff with Alaskan lines and a substantial outboard kicker bolted to its stern. Outside her port rail, Pearl carried a kayak, which Christensen would paddle to shore after mooring. Streveler carried a walking stick for his bad knee, though he covered the land and waterscapes as deftly as Christensen in his boat.
We saw a scattering of marbled murrelets, then dozens, and then hundreds of them, as Pearl 's keel cut into Icy Strait. Across the way to the south, there were scores of whale spouts, humpbacks on the prowl for food. "This isn't anything," said Streveler. But I had never seen anything like it.
We motored into a curious sight: a series of seams, or bands of water, that were completely smooth, while the rest of the strait, including the water between the bands, was churned and rippled by the wind. Streveler told Christensen to let us drift. We were in the middle of that last phenomenon.
When the meltwater first enters Glacier Bay, it remains on top, since it's less dense than seawater, and its nutrients begin to feed the primary production of photosynthesis. As the cold water moves down the bay, it begins to sink, carrying with it the life it has engendered. Now the nutrient-rich water is on the bottom, mixing with seawater as it heads south, swirling around a number of islands and through Sitakaday Narrows. It flows deep, out into Icy Strait, where it hits the terminal moraine left behind when the glacier that covered Glacier Bay reached its apogee and began to retreat. The moraine thrusts the water back to the surface, where the microorganisms within it absorb more sunlight and nourish the larger food web, from plankton and krill to the fish, birds, and mammals of Icy Strait. Wind and wave and currents, and the swirl and flow of tides, mix and scatter the rich blend and the creatures addicted to it across western Icy Strait, thus feeding the spectacle now surrounding us.
For three days we poked around the strait. One afternoon, on a small rocky island, we found several dozen Steller's sea lions hauled out. Dark and sleek in the water, they turned bronze as they dried. Several large males, intimidating in size and attitude, argued over dominance, heads high and teeth displayed, roaring menacingly. A dozen or more rowdy, acrobatic "teenagers" swarmed out toward Pearl, apparently testing one another for bravery. Downwind, we could smell the fetid fish stench of their breath.
We stopped at the mouth of a tributary and found the recent tracks of deer, wolf, and brown bear in the sand. A pair of bald eagles, common as kittiwakes around here, flew over. On another beach we found a small brown bear snuffling through the high-tide wrack line for marine edibles.
At one point Christensen noticed a cyclone of kittiwakes east of Lemesurier Island, right in the mixing zone. He motored toward it, and we soon saw spouts and realized from the boil of seawater in the center of a circle of six humpback whales that this was a "ball" of capelin, perhaps an acre in size. The whales, including a mother and calf, were performing a circle dance in leviathan slow motion around the capelin, tail-slapping and head-slapping to contain the fish and perhaps stun them. Meanwhile, several dozen murrelets were in the middle of it all, feeding, while hundreds more moved in from across the strait, attracted as we were by the activity. A salmon rolled through the baitfish. A loon appeared from nowhere. A sea lion swam out of the circle with a silver salmon in its jaws. The kittiwakes chattered excitedly above. All around us were murrelets, hundreds of them, and whales, spouting and breaching in the distance—10 of them, maybe 20. I looked at Christensen in awe. "This is nothing," he said.
One afternoon Johnson and I followed Christensen up to a ridgetop on Lemesurier Island to listen for incoming murrelets at the level where they nest. We hit snow at 1,900 feet. The next morning, after a night of camping, we heard a few nearby. The bird guides describe the murrelet's voice as keer or kleeer, but what I heard and recorded in my notes was pssserrt from the nest or perch and, later, peeloo and pewee-pewee-pewee in flight.
Kirchhoff joined us for our final day. He had just finished voluntary duty surveying the Kittlitz's murrelets in Glacier Bay with Park Service biologists. Before daybreak he and Johnson and I ventured into the hushed gray light beneath a stand of 300- to 600-year-old western hemlocks, three feet across at chest level, rising above a thick carpet of moss. Though a breeze moved the branches 100 feet above us, all we heard was the sough of the sea and the occasional flute note of a hermit thrush. We sat and listened for murrelets en route from their nests to the sea. Eventually we heard a few murmuring the syllables in my notebook, but they were far above us and fainter than the thrush's song.
I watched Kirchhoff with his six-feet-five-inch frame striding across the four-foot deadfalls, intent on his quarry. He and his colleagues, including Park Service biologists, have proposed to National Audubon and BirdLife International an Important Bird Area designation for Glacier Bay and Icy Strait west to Cross Sound. Fifty-eight thousand marbled murrelets would seem to warrant this. In the Lower 48 it takes only the presence of two to justify an IBA.
In the meantime, Sealaska, a native corporation that cuts timber and sells most of it overseas with no American milling, is asking for more Tongass old growth, and the governor of Alaska wants two million acres of the Tongass for state-controlled timber harvest. Much of the very old growth—trees 6 to 12 feet in diameter—has been clear-cut, but some still remains along with many intact watersheds supporting a healthy habitat mosaic. To prevent devastation, Audubon Alaska is advocating for the U.S. Forest Service to halt large-scale old-growth logging to protect what little is left of the ancient forest and keep the ecosystem intact for salmon, wolves, deer, and murrelets (see "Speak Up!").
In the final hours of our journey, we piled our river bags and camera gear on the beach. Christensen brought Pearl from her mooring to the shore to load up for our exodus. Kirchhoff had his 10x40s out, peering across the strait. Something had his attention.
"You have a watch?" he asked without lowering his binoculars. I didn't. He handed me his, and the binoculars. I took a look. Several hundred yards out, down low to the water, I could see a stream of small dark bodies flying by. They were visible to the naked eye. "Are those . . ."
"Murrelets," he said, taking back his glasses. "You tell me when to start and when one minute is up, and I'll count." Result: 100 murrelets per minute. That would be 6,000 per hour. There were likely several more streams farther out.
Come August my friends would report that western Icy Strait was a blur of murrelets for three straight weeks. A rec-ord number of humpback whales were spotted in Glacier Bay and Icy Strait, with many of them lingering through September and October. One late-summer day alone, Leftner said, he counted 60 whales off Point Adolphus. Sea lions were more abundant than anyone had seen in 20 years. The intensity of this ecological spectacle may vary, but marine productivity appears to be on the rise at the place where our last old-growth temperate rainforest meets the sea.
The Tongass National Forest is one of the world's five remaining intact temperate rainforests, and the only U.S. national forest where destructive, large-scale old-growth commercial logging continues. Although the timber industry cut many of the biggest ancient trees over the past half century, these woodlands still harbor brown bears, wolves, black-tailed deer, salmon, and trout. They are also important nesting habitat for threatened marbled murrelets, simultaneously in danger from potential oil spills and fishing nets. It is high time to stop large-scale old-growth clear-cut logging, and we have a chance to do so over the next few years.
Recently the Forest Service announced a fresh revision of the Tongass Forest Plan. A public comment period is likely a ways off, but Audubon believes this amendment process is an opportunity to end old-growth clearcuts—if enough Americans speak up and let their elected officials know they care.
Go to audubonaction.org/tongass to email your federal senators and representative, asking them to support efforts to immediately transition the Tongass to second-growth logging and end industrial-scale old-growth clear-cutting. You'll find talking points that include information about how to conserve the country's last remaining grandfather trees and manage for the local $1 billion fishery.
This story originally ran in the March-April 2014 issue as "The Source."