An Abiding Love for a Changing Wild River
For thousands of years, Alaska’s Alagnak Wild River, which flows from lakes located within Katmai National Park & Preserve, has been a source of nourishment for bears and humans alike. The river is impossible to reach by road and is constantly morphing; “Alagnak” actually translates to “making mistakes” because the river is always changing paths, as if it were making mistakes and getting lost. Still, neither its remoteness nor its ever-changing presence has dissuaded people and wildlife from visiting its banks for at least 9,000 years.
Fish in the River
The river’s plentiful and diverse fish populations include rainbow trout, char, northern pike, and more. However, the river is best known providing a spot for its abundant salmon population to begin and end their life cycle. The salmon – king salmon, sockeye salmon, silver salmon, pink salmon, and chum salmon – are born in the freshwater and stay for up to two years before making their way downstream.
After growing for about three years, the salmon return to their birthplace where they spawn and die, leaving behind food for everyone from insects to bald eagles, caribou, and bears. Ultimately, the health of the salmon directly affects the health of the entire river ecosystem.
People Find the River
Humans have long occupied the banks of the Alagnak River. In fact, archaeologists have found evidence of prehistoric people along the river banks and lake outlets – remnants of small camps used by hunters and gatherers that are nearly 9,000 years old. However, the majority of the villages along the Alagnak are more recent, developed less than 2,200 years ago. This area also continued to be a homeland for Native people until the late nineteenth century, when many moved to pursue commercial opportunities.
River Peoples in Recent Years
Native people in communities across the Alagnak region came from a mix of ethnic groups and spoke two languages: Alutiiq and Central Yup’ik. The small, kinship-based communities subsisted on hunting, fishing, and trapping and bonded through the hardships of weather, isolation, and lack of modern conveniences.
The North Alaska Salmon Company built two canneries near the river in 1900, where the Alagnak River empties into the Kvichak River. These canneries created a new commercial fishing job market, attracting subsistence hunters and gatherers from as far away as the Yukon River. Native peoples and even Euroamericans in local villages led a life of trapping in the fall and winter, cannery work in the spring, and commercial fishing in the summer. Unfortunately, both soon closed as the shifting channels rendered the canneries inoperable.
Recent Past Along the River
Villages and cabins existed in several locations along the river, the last historic settlement abandoned in the 1960s. By the 1960s, most of the families left the area for other communities and opportunities. Some Native residents from nearby villages still use the Alagnak for subsistence hunting and fishing today. In addition, lodges on the river now offer sport fishing, which began as early as 1937 here, and other leisure activities for visitors.
The Wandering Wild River
In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act officially named the Alagnak a wild river, helping to preserve the upper 56 miles of its flowing waters. This life-giving river has been central to the way of life for humans and wildlife alike for thousands of years. Through preservation efforts by the National Park Service and the stewardship of visitors and locals, the river will continue to foster new life for thousands of years to come.