Matthew Dickerson: Autumn in Alaska and the colors of Dolly Varden char
When I visited Alaska in 2003 with my father for a six-day wilderness float trip, bookended on both sides by day-and-a-half-long visits to a wilderness fishing lodge, I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Alaska is neither inexpensive nor particularly easy to visit. And between the breathtaking landscape and outstanding backcountry fishing — including landing two king salmon over 30 pounds on a fly rod — the trip was so thoroughly enjoyable and beautiful that it would have qualified as once-in-a-lifetime.
But 15 years later my brother Ted and his family moved to Alaska. Ted (an architect) had taken a job with the Alaskan Native Tribal Health Consortium that for the first few years required him to fly around the state visiting rural villages to assess their medical facility needs. My sister-in-law Susie ended up taking a job at the University of Alaska and then getting a graduate degree there. And both of my nephews, who at the time were undergraduates at Middlebury College, followed their parents to Anchorage and both ended up in graduate school in Alaska.
When Ted and Susie were packing to move to Anchorage, they were worried about how far away they would be from family and friends. As I mentioned, Alaska is neither an inexpensive nor a particularly easy place to visit. “Whose going to visit us way up there?” they asked each other, with a bit of dismay, and the reality of the move set in. They both looked at each other and at the same time answered, “Matthew will.”
They weren’t wrong. I didn’t give Ted and Susie more than a few months to settle in before I was up there visiting. And then I visited again. My computer science research in ecological simulation shifted to computer modeling of killer whale population dynamics in southeast Alaska, collaborating with scientists at NOAA and UAA. Between family visits and research, I made it to Alaska nearly every summer for the next 13 years. The couple times I missed a summer trip, I compensated with a visit in the autumn.
Late August through October is a special time in Alaska. Alaskans refer to it as “shoulder season.” It is marked in part by the changing colors of the landscape. The wild blueberry bushes, which cover so much of the Alaskan landscape, take the part of Vermont maples by turning vivid red, while the dominant birch trees are burnished gold. The grey of rock, green of spruce, turquoise of glacier lakes, and the myriad shades of lichen round out the autumn palette. As beautiful as these are, though, what really marks the season is the first white coating of the mountain peaks with snowfall, which usually happens in late August or early September. It is called “termination dust” because it marks the end of summer.
Unless you happen to be an angler. Then, as beautiful and vibrantly colored as the autumn landscape is — and it really is stunning — it’s the colors of Alaska’s native species of char in their fall spawning attire that really marks the season, at times taking your very breath away.
Alaska has three native species of the genus Salvelinus, most properly known as char. They include Arctic char (S.alpinus, the northernmost freshwater species in the world) as well as Dolly Varden char (S.malma, also known as Dolly Varden trout, a species believed to have immigrated to North America following the shoreline of the land bridge — along with brown bears — during the last ice age.) Dolly Varden char are named after a character in the 19th century Charles Dickens novel “Barnaby Rudge.” The character is known for her bright, flamboyant attire. This gives a hint how beautiful Dolly Varden are. Their sides are adorned with bright pearls ranging from magenta to pink. Their lips — especially in autumn — can be so bright yellow they look a child has snuck into a parent’s or older sibling’s room and gotten into a stick of fluorescent lipstick. And in autumn when they are approaching spawning season, the underbellies of the males can flame so brightly they rival the brightest most extravagant maple tree you’ve seen.
Vermonters are familiar with the genus Salvelinus. Lake trout, classified as S.namaycush, the third species of char native to Alaska, are also found in Vermont. Vermont’s “brook trout,” classified as S.fontinalis, are also species of char (though not native to Alaska.) For most of my life, I have considered brook trout to be the most beautiful freshwater fish in the continent, if not the world, especially in October. Despite my Vermont bias, however, I have to admit that Dolly Varden rival even the brook trout for color and beauty.
It isn’t just the color of the Dolly Varden that draws me to Alaska in the autumn, however. Dollies are an amazingly diverse species. There are strains of Dollies that spend their whole lives in small alpine streams, rarely growing longer than seven inches, much like a wild brook trout in the Green Mountain National Forest. There are also strains of Dollies that spawn in Russia, spend the summers like salmon feasting on the rich fare of the Arctic ocean, and then move into freshwater rivers in Alaska to feed on salmon eggs in the late summer, growing as large as twenty-five pounds. And there are also strains that live much of their lives in big rivers or lakes, but follow the spawning sockeye salmon into rivers to feed on their eggs and flesh each summer.
It is this last group that brings me to Alaska in autumn. Spending all summer gorging on an abundance of salmon eggs, by autumn they have grown tremendously fat as well as bright. If you can entice one to take a fly, they put up a worthy fight, and then if you can bring them to net they reward you with their beauty as you gently release them and watch them power off back to their feasting.
Thus autumn has become a favorite time of mine to visit, when possible.
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