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Matt Dickerson: A big park and a small world

At over four million acres, Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is more than two thirds as big as the entire state of Vermont. Yet the park receives only 23,000 visitors per year, which is less than 1/40th the number that will show up at Vermont state parks in a year.
The park’s headquarters sit off a gravel airstrip in the little village of Port Alsworth, whose year-round population is under 200, and whose 2018 graduating class at Tanalian High had seven students: the largest in school history.
One of those 2018 visitors to Lake Clark National Park was Orwell resident and Castleton State University student Monica Connor, who got a summer job helping manage the vegetable and flower gardens at the Farm Lodge in Port Alsworth.
My wife Deborah and I arrived at the Lake Clark Air hangar at Merrill Field in Anchorage shortly before 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning for our flight to Port Alsworth, where we were booked for a nine-day stay at the Farm Lodge. We got our luggage (and ourselves) weighed in, and shortly before 8 a.m. were boarding the small twin-prop aircraft for the 45-minute flight. Deborah was the first passenger aboard, and with encouragement from me she claimed the best seat in the plane: the co-pilot’s seat. I and the only other passenger followed her and took the other two seats. The rest of the plane was loaded with plywood and building supplies.
The stunningly beautiful flight took us at low altitude across Cook Inlet, where we saw a small pod of beluga whales feeding on salmon at the mouth of the Susitna River, and on through Lake Clark Pass in the shadows of 10,000-foot volcanic peaks, over and around numerous glaciers—many hanging out of valleys higher than the plane—and past waterfall after waterfall. Shortly after we landed, we headed down to the farm to give Monica a big hug from her family.
Despite the size of the park, and of the state of Alaska, sometimes it seems like a small world after all. However, running into another Vermonter in a little village in a vast landscape wasn’t a complete coincidence. I had helped Monica land the job. We were looking forward to seeing her and hearing from her.
I was on my forth visit to Port Alsworth in four years, and had gotten to know the folks at the Farm Lodge fairly well. As with Monica, it was a working trip for me. I was there to learn and write about the park and some of its ecology and history, and about the changes and challenges facing Alaska from climate change and the ravages of resource extraction—especially the proposed Pebble Mine, a massage open-pit copper mine that, if ultimately permitted, would sit right on the edge of the park, with a toxic heavy-metal tailings pond at the headwaters of the world’s most important salmon water behind the longest and second highest dam in the United States. Photo by Matt Dickerson
Most of my nine days would be spent in and around Port Alsworth, writing, visiting with folks from the National Park Service include a pilot, ranger, and biologist, and going to a presentation with the park historian. I was also scheduled to make a couple presentations in town.
After passing on to Monica the hug from her family, and getting a private tour of the greenhouse and gardens, Deborah and I headed out for a six-mile hike up to Tanalian Falls to glimpse one of the headwaters of the famed Bristol Bay. The Tanalian River is short considering the size of the state. At roughly three miles long, it is only one quarter the length of Lake Kontrashibuna, which it drains down into Lake Clark. Yet it is a surprisingly diverse and rich ecosystem—or, rather, multiple ecosystems.
The 30-foot waterfall forms a barrier impassable to migrating salmon. Below the falls, the river is similar to many in Alaska in that sockeye salmon migrating a hundred miles up from Bristol Bay bring in a tremendous amount of nutrients from the ocean where they provide energy not only for aquatic life but also for bears, otters, eagles and other birds, and even trees. In early August, the sockeye are just beginning to arrive in the lake. By the middle of the month, they will be stacking up at the river mouth to make their way up to spawn between Lake Clark and the falls. The lower river is full of grayling that grow up to 20 inches. Lake trout—sometimes exceeding ten pounds—hang off the river mouth to feast on drifting salmon eggs and fry.
Above the falls at the outlet of Kontrashibuna Lake there are no salmon. It’s an entirely different ecosystem. The glacial-fed lake is long enough that by the time the water comes out the outlet most of the silt has settled leaving the water a gorgeous turquoise. The water has an abundance of aquatic insects and sculpin, and therefore also a hearty population of lake trout and arctic char, which thanks to the cold water remain near the surface all the way through August.
On the way to the falls, we passed another pair of hikers: a 92-year-old woman named Marguerite and her son Michael, the youngest of three helping Marguerite visit every national park in the country. Half an hour later, they caught up to us at the falls. We chatted for a while and heard their story about their quest, which was near to completion with only three parks left to visit. We also carried their message back to the lodge: they were moving too slowly to make it for dinner.
If our reunion with Monica and our conversation with Marguerite—who at 92 was able to accomplish the same hike we did—made the world feel small, the weather the next few days made Alaska seem big. Heavy rain, fog, low clouds, and some wind grounded most of the excursions for the next two days, including our one planned excursion to see bears feeding on salmon in Katmai National Park.
So now I sit working on some of the writing that brought me to the park. The sun has just popped out for the first time in three days. If all goes well, we’ll get down to Katmai on Thursday, and Monica will join us, and my next column will tell the story. But it’s a big and wild place, so who knows?

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