The Gulf of Alaska Cauldron
What seems solid and permanent swirls and disintegrates, spun by invisible forces. Sand and mist blast along the seven-mile beach of Softuk Bar, entrained in an east wind tearing the tops off roaring gray breakers and hurling them into the twilight. A lumbering brown bear, hunched against the flying grit, digs for a beach plant that the wind has buried in wet sand up to the tips of its leaves. The leading arm of a vortex hundreds of miles wide is sweeping the exposed shore of the Gulf of Alaska, east of Prince William Sound, half a day’s walk from the next nearest human being. As the storms of September and October pulse unremittingly and the dark of winter thickens to impenetrability, the last person will desert these hundreds of miles of shoreline and even the blubbery, salmon-fattened bear will disappear. Sand lance, silver slivers of fish, will bury themselves in the beaches like hidden mineral veins. Humpback whales will retreat to Hawaii and stop eating, trading food for warm water. Herring will gather in the sound’s fjords where cold, hidden waters may, in stillness, allow a store of fat to last through the winter. While animals wait, life recharges in the mountains above. The storm is depositing energy there, in deep fields of snow that will power the spring.
This is the starting point, within a three-mile-high semicircle of mountains along the gulf’s northern rim. Remote from human experience or even detailed scientific understanding, mighty forces and abundant organisms combine in a system of life that ultimately sustains animals and distant, unknowing people and restores the air and stirs the ocean. The furious chaos vibrates with creativity and destruction, as virile and unknowable as an ancient, all-powerful god. From ingredients of water, air, light, and rock it produces the aged giants of the deep and the weightless feathers that lift terns balancing on gusts. From a swirling cauldron come delicate patterns of meaning.
Here, at this beginning, we can begin to decipher what we are, although not in any simple way. To know our own human nature we must examine our context, the ecosystem that precedes us, especially that wild part that defies human habitation or control. For example, consider the sea’s alchemy that spawns tiny, crystalline herring eggs on fronds of seaweed, delivered to the lips of a woman on a warm spring afternoon next to calm water, sustaining her in body and spirit. Food, the essence of what one is, and who, and even why. She will know answers just by crushing the salty gems between her teeth—about the sea’s generosity and its demand for humility. Somewhere the stormy night hides an origin for that understanding.
First the storm reaches shore, falls into the mountains’ snare, screams in alpine wind tunnels, and bleeds out. Moisture rising against rock condenses into water and snow. This snowfall accretes to become the continent’s largest glaciers, snow becoming dense, glassy ice and oozing downslope, grinding and shattering solid rock on the way back to the sea. Downslope from the permanent ice in the perpetually damp temperate rainforest grow enormous trees and bottomless spongy wetlands pocked with small, clear pools. In winter, all is buried under yards of heavy, wet snow. In the spring, the rivers will flood with melted snow, ice, and sediment, eventually fertilizing the ocean’s plankton with iron and extending quarter-mile-wide ocean beaches.
The fresh water itself moves the ocean. Freed of their banks, the rivers turn right, pumping the coastal current toward the west. No, the water doesn’t turn right. It flows straight. It’s the earth that’s turning. Like a marble rolling across a spinning disk, water seems to turn. The runoff from the gulf’s coastal mountains follows the shore to the west, sucking behind it warmth from the American West Coast, whose energy in turn melts more snow and ice and powers stronger storms to pile more snow and ice in the mountains. Spirals within spirals: the storms bend, too. Air rushes toward their low-pressure centers, but the spinning earth diverts the wind to the right, on the long, circuitous route of a cyclonic vortex, like water going down a drain. The storm’s leading edge of east wind collides with the Gulf of Alaska’s coast, hurling sand west along endless, bear-tracked beaches and pushing water west, along the shore. In the dark of autumn, the waves grow into hills.
There are mountains and canyons under the sea also, along the ragged-edged continental shelf, the fringe between land and the abyss. At the center of the gulf’s arc, vertical rock confuses the waves and wind, with contradictions offered by fjords, islands, channels, and spires, and within the unfathomably complex inland sea of Prince William Sound, which encloses a world of its own, water-floored corridors walled by brooding spruces leading to secret, fecund gardens of mud and flashing fish, prey for eagles. Winds funnel and focus through these mazes. Currents twist in baroque patterns, changing with each turn of the tide or season. Intricate forces entangle ecological stories into as many digressions and surprise endings as there are eddies and tide pools. But the tempo of every tale comes from the beat of the storms and the timing of the moment in the spring when the sun emerges warmly on stilled waters.
The prodigious biological productivity of the Gulf of Alaska owes everything to that moment when the surface’s crop of phytoplankton is perfectly prepared for growth. The winter storms have stirred up organic nutrients from the seafloor, mainly nitrogen; few other waters in the world are as rich. The rush of fresh water from the mountains, more than the Mississippi River’s annual flow by half, and all in a few months, disgorges atop the heavier salt water. Iron and other mineral nutrients arrive with the fresh water to mix with the nitrates. As the storms die and the fresh water spreads, a surface layer develops to hold blooming plankton near the sun (when the sea is mixed, the plantlike organisms fall into darkness). Now, in May, sunshine is high, gaining every day until it lasts almost all night, brightness reflecting off still-snowy shores. Water is calm and rich in fertilizer. Everything is perfect for an explosion of photosynthesis, and the phytoplankton blooms.
The energy that plankton capture from the sun over a few weeks will feed zooplankton by the billion—tiny creatures like krill and copepods, which look like shrimp, and larval forms of many other animals, such as crabs, barnacles, and other shellfish. The water clouds with them, especially where tidal currents meet, fronts between waters of different temperature or salinity that concentrate matter like invisible walls in the ocean. Forage fish such as sand lance and herring gather to feed on zooplankton in crowded schools. Gulls find the schools from the air and dive on the water, wheeling and dropping straight down, as violently as spears, then hurriedly climbing up the air again to protect a catch. Humpback whales lunge through the schools, bursting diagonally from the surface, occasionally catching a bird, too, before rolling over and sinking back again with a giant slosh. Salmon, lightning fast and bright, blaze through the schools of forage, fattening for a single spawning journey upriver. Rivers along the gulf coast reaching hundreds of miles over the mountains will receive salmon eggs and carcasses. Salmon flesh will feed bears, birds, and scavengers, whose waste will fertilize the trees, moss, and grass. Long before that can happen, during the spring, the phytoplankton bloom subsides, having consumed the winter’s mixture of nutrients, but that energy flows on through the system, from mouth to mouth, up the trophic levels of the food web, and up to the floppy tops of towering hemlock trees fertilized by bear scat.
Described that way, the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem sounds like a huge organism. But it’s something entirely different. Living organisms repeat processes in cycles, over days and seasons, and over life cycles that recapitulate with each generation. But unlike an organism, the Gulf of Alaska sometimes transforms itself, unpredictably, and as drastically as an otter waking up as a fish. An entirely changed system of life arises: new water temperatures, altered currents or storms, a shift in the entire ecological regime. Crab and shrimp disappear for decades and enormous schools of bottom-dwelling pollock show up. Salmon runs jam rivers but sea lion colonies dwindle. Until, without warning, the gulf wakes again as something else.
Scientists can find plenty of clues to diagnose these transformations after they happen—far too many clues. Tiny changes easily become big ones, and tiny changes happen all the time. A fluke of winter weather could bring very cold air during an especially low tide, killing most of the mussels and, if the timing is right, allowing competitors like barnacles to take over the tidal rocks; and the mussels might not recover for years. And big forces can be subtle. Oddities in the paths of the earth and moon through space repeat the pattern of the size of the tides every 18.63 years, and somehow that affects the population of fifty-year-old halibut resting on the dark sea floor. Systems interact constantly, invisibly—the concentrically nested ecosystems, the interwoven currents from the far side of the globe, the swirl of wet winds and the mountain claws that catch them. Internal resonances switching frequencies, plus fishing, pollution, and climate warming: nothing causes the changes, or everything. Science calls the system complex. The unknowable giver of life answers no direct questions.
In Prince William Sound, spring used to reach an orgasmic climax when cloudlike schools of herring gathered to spawn in late April and early May. Females would lay eggs on kelp and rock along miles of shoreline, and males would spew sperm into the ocean to float freely among the eggs, white plumes drifting like curtains, streaming in the water from headlands. Birds, seals, whales, and people gathered for a feeding frenzy. Twenty years ago, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the fish became deformed and diseased and then the huge schools stopped returning. Years later unrelated herring populations in the gulf crashed as well. The cause, like so much else in this spinning, disintegrating universe, cannot be proven.
But enough herring remain so that, on one bright day in May, Diane Selanoff, a Chugach Native, climbs sure-footed in rubber boots from a skiff, over seaweed-covered bedrock near Tatitlek, in the heart of the sound, to pick fresh sprouts of popweed coated with translucent herring roe like tiny bubbles glistening in the sun. Her eyes shine and her smile refuses to be repressed, as happens when an experienced middle-aged woman feels an old joy well up. She says she’d like to lie down and eat it all. This is the food that sustained Diane and her single mother when she was a girl, beach food, when she was growing up poor in the village of Port Graham. She picks a piece for the bag and picks a piece to eat. Slightly salty bombs of pure freshness explode on the teeth. The animals long ago taught the people which foods would heal them, Diane says, and popweed was a good cure, eaten with this delicious seasoning of eggs or laid on the place that hurts when taking a steam. Diane smiles, works, and talks, mostly in English, but with a lot of Alutiiq words. They say in Chugach villages that when the tide is out, the table is set. Chitons, clams, mussels, and cockles, the seaweed and beach plants, the seabird eggs and octopus—it’s all there at your feet, delicious and healthy, much of it ready to eat raw from the ocean. The sound seems to gently offer us everything we could need. In the sun, on the rocks, above water so clear the skiff seems to levitate, I smell the seaweed and herring spawn. Tiny intertidal creatures let out barely audible clicks in the drying air, a sound like scattered raindrops, over which the flow of Diane’s low, steady voice continues.
She says, “The ocean is the source of all life for our people. Not only for our people. For everyone.”