The soul of Cordova

Running wild

"The reality today is that if the commercial fishery collapses, Cordova is in serious trouble," warns Kristin Smith. She is the head of the Copper River Watershed Project, a community group working to broaden and better manage the area's economy while preserving the natural environment of the watershed and the fishery for commercial, subsistence, and sport uses.

Smith thinks tourism is part of the answer. While there's no mistaking Cordova for anything but a commercial fishing town, it is close to some of the state's most spectacular scenery. There is excellent birding in April and May, with pristine fishing, hiking, and kayaking all summer.

Some landowners in the Copper River Watershed are looking to its natural resources for more immediate returns, however. Chugach Alaska Corporation, which manages 308,000 acres in the watershed on behalf of Native Alaskan shareholders, has proposed a road and logging project that environmentalists claim would threaten salmon-spawning streams and the Copper River fishery.

The issue isn't simple. "We want to create an economy here so our kids won't have to go to Los Angeles to get a job," says John F. C. Johnson, corporate vice president of cultural resources for Chugach Alaska. "For us, the almighty dollar is not the bottom line. Salmon are important. Our children are important. We've been here for 5,000 years, and we know that you don't destroy the nest you sleep in."

Not all of the region's Native Alaskans believe that development is the answer. "There are roughly 17 million acres within the Copper River Watershed, and very little of it is protected from development," says Dune Lankard, an Eyak Indian with the Eyak Preservation Council. "These corporate Indians think that clear-cut logging, oil drilling, strip mining, and selling land are the only ways to make money for native shareholders," he says. Lankard looks to responsibly managed ecotourism and a sustainable, healthy salmon fishery as sources of income that can be developed without sacrificing the environment.

"Salmon are to the native people of Alaska's coastal temperate rain forest like the buffalo were to the Plains Indians," Lankard says. "If we lose the wild salmon, we will lose the spiritual connection to our home."

The way of the salmon

The ocean's tide is turning as Covel heads back to Cordova. Far upriver the forested flanks of the cloud-draped Chugach Mountains are broken by the cracked blue ice of glaciers. Like most true anglers, Covel may have been disappointed in the day's catch, but he still loved the fishing. "I followed my stomach here in 1980," he says with a boyish grin as he guns the boat up the channel. "And then I discovered that there's no more beautiful place to go to work."

The watershed is beautiful. Visitors can drive the 50 miles of mostly gravel road out to see the salmon-counting sonar station and the Million Dollar Bridge at the road's end. Built in 1910 for a railroad carrying copper ore from the Kennecott Mine to the port in Cordova, the bridge partly collapsed at its north end during the 1964 earthquake ― one reason a proposed road to Cordova has never been built. From the bridge's deck, you can see the wide, crenulated face of Miles Glacier 4 miles to the east and the imposing, blue-crevassed flank of Childs Glacier barely 1 mile to the west ― a million-dollar view. The immensity of the landscape and the power of the roiling, silt-gray river leave one wondering how such a fishery could ever disappear.

The eradication of a wild salmon run would have been inconceivable to Lewis and Clark, too, when they first witnessed the run on the even mightier Columbia River in 1805. Biologist Jim Lichatowich estimates that at least 192 separate salmon and steelhead trout populations, or stocks, spawned in the Columbia River system at that time ― roughly 10 million to 16 million fish. Today 67 of those stocks are extinct, 36 are highly endangered, and 50 more are at risk. Only the ghost of a wild salmon run ― estimated at less than half a million wild spawning fish last year ― remains.

The Columbia, of course, is only one of many imperiled rivers in the West. And Cordova is only one of many struggling fishing towns. But if Cordovans can protect their salmon, then maybe other communities will take a new look at their own dying waterways. Wild salmon are more than a sustainable, renewable source of food. They symbolize not only the health and beauty of a free-flowing river, but the wisdom of native cultures and the simple rewards of a rapidly vanishing way of life.