I woke up with a brisk breeze in the air, the sound of water gently breaking, and the never setting sun peaking in my window. My eyes creaked open to stunning mountains and glass waters to realize I’d woken up in Alaska — a far cry from dry hot Texas. For over a year now, I’d dreamt of the moment I finally saw the waters where the Copper River Salmon, a salmon that has bewitched me lately, originate. What I thought was going to be a trip to see a fish turned into much more when I realized it’s not just the river that makes these salmon so special, but the community that surrounds it.
When I first started writing about Copper River Salmon on ISMS, I was like most of you. I’d heard about it before, knew that I preferred wild salmon over farmed, but didn’t quite understand why these fish from this certain part of Alaska are so prized. At first look the ruby red jeweled tones warn you that there’s something different and after one bite when the delicate salmon melts on your tongue you realize why it’s one of the most sought after salmon in the world.
What Makes Copper River Salmon Different?
fat = flavor and lots of omega-3s
Copper River Salmon have one of the longest trips to make to their spawning grounds, 300 miles to be exact. They travel from the ocean, where they have spent their adult lives, through rugged terrain and unspoiled pristine waters to reach their spawning grounds in the river — a journey that requires extra storage of energy in the form of fat (and as we know, fat equals flavor). It’s this fat that not only creates this exceptional flavor and texture, but also high levels of omega-3 fatty acids that make it extremely healthy to eat.
pure waters and sustainability
It’s not just the fact that Copper River Salmon have to store vast amounts of fat to make one of the longest and most difficult salmon migrations in the world, but the Copper River itself continues to support healthy salmon habitats to maintain quality fish. Every aspect of this vast region is carefully monitored by not only the state agencies, like the Department of Fish and Game, but groups like the Copper River Watershed Project and the community of Cordova, where the Copper River Salmon fleet is located.
Speaking of sustainability, this is where I first met Shane, the master behind the ADF&G sonar counter. He counts the salmon using sonar in the river at the base of Child’s Glacier. He and two other men live at the glacier and take 8-hour shifts for 3 months counting fish. This work is essential in ensuring the sustainability of the salmon and how many fish the fishermen can harvest.
The number one thing I left Cordova with, was an overwhelming since of community in this small town. The entire town seems in one way or another connected to fishing. Yes, essentially everyone is competing against each other to bring in the largest haul but there’s also a shared bond tied in the relationship with the land and sea that makes this town amazing. It’s this community, this large family, that strives to bring us the highest quality of fish. This is not a massive commercial fleet of boats that cast nets out in droves to grab every fish in the sea. What it is, is so far from that and more. Every season beginning in May, one to two-man crews board their small boats and head to sea. The number of fishermen depend on the number of permits given. The current number of permits is close to 500, I believe, and they are sold at a hefty price. They cast nets which vary in sizes and are mandated in the management plans for each species and go to work. The main types of salmon fished here are King (season: May – June), Sockeye (season: May – September), and Coho (season: August – September). When the salmon are brought on board, they are individually handled, bled, and chilled immediately. These unique measures are developed by the fisherman to insure that the consumer receives the highest quality and freshest fish possible — unlike commercial fishing operations.
With my shaky land legs, I jumped aboard Thea Thomas’ gillnetter and got to experience what life was like on the sea. I can’t imagine what days on end are like but can quickly see how one could be immediately drawn to this life.
Cordova is located southeast of Anchorage and is only accessible by plane or boat. It’s this type of seclusion, nestled by the ocean and the Copper River that give this town so much character and uniqueness that make this place incredible. The moment I stepped off the plane, I could feel it. Honestly, I don’t know how I could accurately write how I feel about this place into words but from the fishermen and women to the locals, everyone made me feel apart of this enchanted area of Alaska.
From the water to the land, how could one not fall in love with this area? It’s easy to understand why people work so incredibly hard to be apart of this experience. If there’s one thing I walk away with from this trip and hopefully I have conveyed here, is that this region, these people, the salmon are unique and simply extraordinary. I look back on these photos and deeply miss everything here. Every experience from being on the sea, taken in and being fed amazing food (Michael I’ve been craving your chowder ever since I left), dancing to the sounds of bluegrass, and every moment and conversation will always be cherished in my heart. Goodbye Cordova, please never change.
Disclaimer: Copper River Salmon covered my travel expenses for this trip but I was not compensated for my time. All opinions are my own.