Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hiking to a Wild River -- Comfortably

The sign says "To The River." So I head that way. 

And I'm excited. Because I'm hiking to Alaska's wild Russian River, where salmon and bears compete for life. Literally.

The fish need to move upstream to spawn; the bears need to eat them to make it though the pounding winters.

It's also where anglers stand shoulder to shoulder, thigh deep in the river's icy waters, trying to land a sockeye before the bears do.

And I'm going to hike into the wilderness, this Alaskan wilderness,  to watch the competition.

So I  follow the arrow on the "To the River" sign and the first thing I see is a wooden fence, at the edge of a hill (I guess too many people have rolled down that hill). I walk a bit to my right. And look! Steps! Not the kind hikers fashion out of sticks and stones. But sturdy industrial ones, made of steel. They descend a pretty steep decline. 

Hmmm. Man-made steps. Fencing. More steps. Then I'm at the river. But I'm not walking on vegetation or mud or even gravel. I'm on a rubbery mat that gently cushions each of my steps. 

I'm not making this up. There's a cushy mat softening each of my steps at a popular wilderness fishing site. And there's nothing to step over or trip on. No stones, roots. No dirt! 

And there's a railing between me and the river. And openings  every now and then lead to a cushioned platform, where anglers stow their gear while fishing the rapids.

And I see just a few people -- not a throng -- standing in the water casting flies for trout and Dolly Varden. One kid (pictured) caught two sockeyes, one (the red one) too far past the eating stage. But the kid grabbed him anyway. 

As I watch, he walks away, dragging his catch behind him, on the rubbery mat. Next to the fence.

 And I think, 'What's with this cushy stuff?" Where is Alaska's wilderness?

I hike back home up a natural path I find cut nto the hilside, one that is steep (makes me breathe hard) and rocky and criss-crossed with vegetation and   sticks. I feel better. More outdoorsy.

Back in my motor home, I'm so troubled by the excessive human intervention into Alaska's wilderness, that I Google a reason. I Google anything that might help me understand why the federal government would let someone wreck the wilderness.

What I find shames me.

Nobody wrecked this wilderness.  Back in 2005, Alaska's Department of Natural Resources got a federal grant for $378,000 to make a part of the trail --- about a mile -- useable by people who are unsteady on their feet, or use  crutches or a wheelchair to get around.  Now they, too, can go watch the salmon swim upstream to spawn. Now they, too, can cast their lines in the water.

Had I started my hike a little farther south, I would have seen the ramp (no steps) at the site of the ferry landing.

And, definitely, not sneered at the effort.

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