We were running on empty; 3 hours of sleep and 3 cups of coffee for breakfast were all that were keeping me from collapsing on the rocky tundra. My arms burned and my hands were cramping, but we finally made it. With a shrug of relief I set down the two buckets filled with white fuel and food and took the duffel off of my back. I leaned against one of the buckets and before I could catch my breath Chuck, our guide for the week, was yelling, “Hurry up, we have at least 4 more trips!” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. We had to carry all of our gear for the 8 day float across the tundra to the river and I was already exhausted. How were we going to be able to carry all of our gear when one trip was a half mile?
Somehow, we made it to the end of the portage. We thought that was the end of the work, but it was only the beginning. We pumped up the rafts and organized our gear and were immediately faced with challenges on the raft. Chuck decided to take us through a narrow back channel with low flows to get to the main river so we did not have to carry gear any farther, but it meant sliding our rafts over many obstacles including beaver dams and bushes. This may sound like a terrible time to some, but it made the entire trip that much sweeter for me. Once we carried our rafts over all of the obstacles and made it to the main channel of the river, I was filled with joy. Immediately, we saw the subtle ripples resulting from salmon and grayling rising to insects skirting across the surface of the water. Our hard work had paid off. This was the first time I had truly set my eyes on the Koktuli River, and I would not have been as amazed if we could have reached the river from a parking lot. Overcoming many of the challenges that we faced also gave me a new perspective on the challenges that salmon face. We had the privilege of taking two flights to get to our put-in on the Koktuli, while the salmon make an enormous journey from the open ocean, swimming hundreds of miles upstream back to their birth place to spawn. Before the float trip, I saw firsthand how salmon brought the people together. Now, I got to see how the salmon contributed to the environment. We ran into salmon carcasses on the river that had been eaten by bears. Those carcasses were now filled with insects that would later feed the salmon fry in the river. The same fry (as well as salmon eggs) sustained very healthy populations of dolly varden, rainbow trout, and grayling. The entire ecosystem revolves around the salmon, and it was truly incredible to come into contact with salmon on their journey.