No Tissue Left Behind – Massive Collaborative Ecology and Evolution Project on the Kenai Peninsula

Invasive Northern Pike (Esox lucius) are a nuisance to endemic fish populations and can quickly take over waterways, but removal of Northern Pike presents a unique research opportunity. Rotenone, the chemical used to remove Northern Pike, also kills other fish, giving researchers the chance to reintroduce endemic species and do large scale ecology and evolution experiments in the wild. For example, nine lakes on the Kenai Peninsula that were treated with rotenone are now home to the “greatest ecology and evolution experiment” of all time, as project researchers like to say.

The project is looking at the ecology and evolution of reintroduced Threespine Stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). The reintroduced Threespine Stickleback derive from donor populations of both benthic (bottom dwellers) and limnetic (dwellers of the light penetrating zone) morphs of the species from four lakes on the Kenai Peninsula (Tern, Watson, Spirit, and Wik) and four lakes in the Matanuska Susitna Valley (South Rolly, Finger, Long, and Walby). A mix of both benthic and limnetic ecomorphs were introduced into each recipient lake, allowing researchers to look at how the fish evolve over time and if the two ecomorphs converge, among other ecological and evolutionary questions.

“This is a rare opportunity to test predictions on how evolution proceeds in real time,” said Jesse Weber, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of many professors working on the project. “Most similar experiments look at short lived microorganisms, like bacteria, yeast, or small arthropods. In this case, we have a fish with abundant ecological, genetic, and evolutionary data. We can test how ancestry and local environmental conditions interact and constrain or promote evolution across many different traits.”

Natalie Steinel checks a Threespine Stickleback for fibrosis before removing the head, kidney, and spleen from the fish. Photo by James Evans, University of Alaska Anchorage Advancement.

The rotenone treatments occurred in October 2018, and Threespine Stickleback were reintroduced in May and June of 2019. Two teams of researchers divided and conquered the workload of reintroductions. The first team was responsible for trapping Threespine Stickleback from donor populations and transporting thousands of fish down to the Kenai Peninsula for reintroduction into recipient lakes. The second team was responsible sampled the donor populations prior to donor fish being collected to establish a baseline on the donor populations themselves. The team sampled all aspects of the fish, measuring and weighing the fish before recording the numbers and types of external and internal parasites and the levels of fibrosis. Then the spleens, head, kidneys, liver, stomach, and intestine were removed before the fish had a filet of skin and muscle taken, and a fin clipped for genetic analysis. Finally, the remaining carcass was preserved in formalin. The team returned in 2020 and 2021 to collect the same samples from the recipient lakes to look at how the fish are changing over time.

The parasite load and fibrosis scores will help both Weber’s lab and Daniel Bolnick, a University of Connecticut professor, study the immune system of the fish. “My group is working on changes in the parasite community in each lake, how they get different parasites (diet changes in the different lakes), and how this drives evolution of their immune system,” said Bolnick. “My lab is particularly focused on the evolution of an immune defense involving fibrosis, the buildup of scar tissue from inflammation. Fibrosis also happens in people and contributes to about 40% of deaths in the U.S. (including contributing to heart disease and cancer). So, not only can we learn about fish adaptation, but in doing so we hope to better understand the genetics and function of an immune pathology also found in humans.”

Weber on the other hand is more interested in the genetics and gene expression behind immune response and predicts, “fish from different lakes will quickly converge on the same immune profiles when placed in similar environments…genetics doesn’t have a strong influence on short-term responses, but the long-term extent of immune convergence/divergence will be governed by: a) how much genetic variation any given population possesses for a specific immune trait; and b) which traits are most likely to allow fish to survive and reproduce across different lakes. I hope that there will be a disconnect between how fish respond in the short term (i.e., plastic changes) versus how they evolve in the long-term.”

In addition to the work that Weber and Bolnick are doing, assistant professor Natalie Steinel at the University of Massachusetts Lowell is also investigating the immune system. Steinel is using spleen samples to make histological sections and study the development of immune cells in the fish.

The parasite load, fibrosis scores, and immune cells also can impact other aspects of the fish and will lend more information to the other researchers on the project, including Dr. Kathryn Milligan-Myhre, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, who is investigating the composition of the microbes in the gut, the gut microbiota. Milligan-Myhre is interested in how host genetic background and environment drive the gut microbiota composition. “I predict that the change in the microbiota is driven by the diet,” said Milligan-Myhre, “and as the populations come together that the diet will drive the microbiota more than the host genetic background.”

Outside of Weber, Bolnick, Steinel, and Milligan-Myhre’s work, numerous other researchers are examining other various questions about the reintroductions including Andrew Hendry, Alison Derry, Milan Malinsky, Kiyoko Gotanda, Alison Bell, Blake Matthews, Katie Peichel, Rowan Barrett, and Matt Walsh. Hendry acts as the project lead, Derry studies zooplankton and copepods, Malinsky – evolution and recombination rate and roles in adaptation, Gotanda and Bell – behavioral adaptation and evolution, Matthews – ecosystem dynamics, Peichel and Barrett – genome evolution, and Walsh evolution of Daphnia in response to stickleback introductions.

Daniel Bolnick displays a reproductive male Threespine Stickleback. Reproductive males usually have a characteristic red chin, blue eyes, and often bluish body pigmentation during the summer breeding season. Photo by Andrew Hendry.

“This is a new experience for many of us to work on such a large team. Logistics, communication, and openness are paramount, so this is a great exercise for many of us,” said Bolnick. “Physicists often form huge consortiums of research groups to do a single particle accelerator experiment that takes years of engineering and planning and analysis to do one experiment. Biologists, in contrast, are more often lone wolf researchers – a single lab group working on a unique problem. Or even competitors, racing each other for a solution. We are taking a more physicist mindset to biology, forming a large collaborative network that will draw lessons and inspiration from this experiment for decades to come. This requires careful coordination, so we don’t overly draw on landowner’s goodwill, and openness with each other about what our plans are (to minimize overuse of fish) and sharing data. Often sharing our data adds additional insights because the different things we study are interconnected.”

Weber also agrees with Bolnick about the collaboration involved in a project of this scale. “A project this size would be impossible without a huge group of collaborators, each providing diverse skills, perspectives, and resources such as supplies and funds. We were very lucky to be able to gather an extraordinarily good group of international labs,” said Weber. “Although the first few years of the project landed during difficult times, including heat waves, fires, and pandemics, the long-term hope is that all our lab groups, including undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and other professionals and community members, will be able to convene in Alaska each year to bond and learn about the amazing attributes of the fish and lakes in this region.”

The recipient lakes from this project have also been studied heavily by other researchers outside of the “greatest ecology and evolution experiment,” Patrick Tomco, assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and his M.S. student Jordan Couture, looked at the rotenone degradation rates in the lakes as no previous work had examined how quickly the compound degrades in Alaska. It was previously thought that the colder temperatures might slow degradation. “The majority of the rotenone degraded rapidly over the first 14 days. It was completely gone, less than one part per billion, at 60 days,” said Tomco who mentioned that rotenolone, a less toxic transformation product of rotenone, was detected over 250 days.

While Tomco and Couture examined the degradation of the rotenone, Brandon Briggs, assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and his M.S. student Jake Bozzini took samples of the lakes to determine how rotenone treatments impacted the microbial communities in the water. Bozzini found that the rotenone did not significantly alter the microbial community structure or function in any of the lakes. However, certain microbial genes were detected that may aid in the degradation of rotenone.

The 2019 stickleback sampling team. Back row: Natalie Steinel, Rachael Kramp, Elsa Diffo, Christopher Peterson, Trey Sasser, Jesse Weber, Kelly Ireland, and Kathryn Milligan-Myhre. Front row: Daniel Bolnick, Ana, and Roscoe. Photo by Andrew Myhre.

Overall, the research done on the rotenone treated lakes has been a large collaborative effort spanning across research labs, agencies, universities, and even countries. All of this research would also not be possible without the generous landowners that have provided access to the lakes via their properties, as well as their useful firsthand observations of what’s happening at the lakes day to day. It is sure that many exciting research papers will emerge from the project and many of the researchers are also hopeful that this will bolster support for effective and safe removal of Northern Pike using rotenone.

Kelly Ireland, author, has been a part of the stickleback reintroduction project since 2019. Ireland is a University of Alaska Fairbanks Ph.D. candidate in Brandon Briggs lab at the University of Alaska Anchorage and has been actively involved in field gear preparation, coordination, and sample processing for this project.

This story was written for the Alaska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society’s Fall 2021 newsletter Oncorhynchus 41(4). A copy of how the story appeared is below:

Climbing Helmets are Not Skiing Helmets

PSA: Your climbing helmet is not a ski helmet!

I’ve seen a lot of my friends wearing their climbing helmets skiing. Climbing helmets are intended for the impacts most likely to be seen while climbing/mountaineering, not while skiing. Climbing helmets value protection on the top of your head from rock or ice falling on you. Skiing you can hit your head from any number of directions. Skiing helmets are also meant to withstand multiple impacts (great for us skiers who like to fall a lot in one ski trip), whereas climbing helmets are only meant to withstand single impacts.

Skiing Helmet Versus Climbing Helmet

Ski Helmet Nitty Gritty
Outer layer designed for high impact to protect against impact, sharp objects, and abrasions. It’s also intended to to spread the force of an impact to a larger surface area of the helmet spreading the blow out and lessening its effects. Many helmets use ABS high-impact plastic. The inner layer of ski helmets are made from expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. The foam absorbs blows. These helmets are multiple use impact helmets, meaning that they can be used after multiple hits to the head. Although it is recommended after a large hit that the helmet be replaced with a new one.

Ski Helmet Certifications to Look For:
  • ASTM F2040 – U.S. certification required for nonmotorized recreational snow sports
  • CE EN1077 – European certification
Climbing Helmet Nitty Gritty
There are both hard shell and shelled foam helmets for climbing. The hard shell is designed a little more like a ski helmet in that the outer plastic layer uses ABS plastic like the ski helmets, but it’s thinner. The foam inside is thinner as well and not necessarily EPS. It’s designed as a single impact use helmet.
Shelled foam helmets have a thick layer of polystyrene or polypropylene foam with a thin polycarbonate shell. This helmet type is designed to deform when impacted, meaning the helmet is a single impact use helmet and must be replaced following a hit to the head. Even without damage it is recommended to replace the helmet if you sustain a significant hit to the head where without a helmet you would have sustained injuries.
One of the largest climbing helmet producers, Petzl, recommends climbing helmets not be used for anything other than climbing, mountaineering or related vertical sports. The helmets are designed for the impacts expected during climbing (impact from above), not for other sports such as skiing (impact from all directions).

Climbing Helmet Certifications to Look For:
  • EN 397 – European certification for industrial helmets
  • EN 12492 – European certification for mountaineering helmets
So please for the love of your brain invest in a legitimate ski helmet for skiing or a multi use helmet intended for both ski and climbing use. Replace any helmet (climbing or skiing) where you’ve taken a fall or blow where you feel that without your helmet you would have been seriously injured. If there’s any damage to any of your helmets replace before you get back after it.


Dehydrated Meals Cookbook

Backcountry cookbook of dehydrated meals from the 2018 UAA Outdoor Leadership Expedition in Wrangell St. Elias National Park – Nebesna Rd. to Cordova, Alaska. To print follow this link: Backcountry Cookbook

List of meals in the cookbook:

Cheesy Baco-Spuds
Breakfast of Champions
Breakfast Scramble

Teriyaki Noodles
Creamy Garlic Shells
Shrimp Scampi
Parmesan Fettuccine
Turkey Meatball Spaghetti
Chili Macaroni
Stir Fry
Shepherds Pie
Beefy Noodle Bowl
Chicken Tikki Masala

Pudding Pie Dessert

Pre-trip Jitters for Wrangell St. Elias National Park Expedition

Nervous and excited energy has surrounded me for quite some time. I’m leaving for a three week journey through Wrangell St. Elias National Park in the Alaska wilderness. My group includes 14 of us who are all a part of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Expedition class. We will be backpacking and pack rafting from the end of Nebesna Road to McCarthy through the park in just roughly under two weeks with only one resupply in Chisana along the way. Once in McCarthy we will be resupplying and picking up our large multi person paddle and oar rafts to float the Copper River south to Cordova. We will have traveled nearly 300 miles over land and water to get there from Nebesna.

Route being taken by the 2018 UAA Expedition Class through Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Please note this map is a rough estimate of the route. For a PDF file of the map visit here: Wrangell St. Elias Route

I signed up for the trip back in January. My prior experience is only a number of overnight backpacking trips. The longest distance being 34 miles. I have now only pack rafted a river twice. I wonder nearly every day now if I am capable of completing this trip. Am I fit enough? Will my bad knees cooperate? What if I can’t continue on? These questions play through my mind frequently. As the trip nears I find myself trying to quiet these doubts more and often.

Oddly at the same time I feel confident and prepared to go. I have checked and rechecked my bag more times than I can count. I visit REI, the grocery store, or a hardware store every other day to get things to improve my systems, reduce weight, or make life more convenient for when I’m on the trail. I have prepared breakfast and dinner for my tent group, learning to dehydrate meals, count calories and consider weight. My DIY pack raft has been tested repeatedly for leaks and has been patched with glue. Everything gear wise and food wise is prepared.

Floating down the Kenai River. Photo by Jesse Munday.

Running the Schooner Bend Rapid on the Kenai River to test out my DIY pack raft. Photo by Jesse Munday.

I have also been keeping very active spending almost the entirety of all my weekends outdoors on the trails and frequently going for long evening strolls and hikes. My pack feels heavy on my back for the first mile, but then I settle into a pace and don’t notice it anymore. Maybe I can do this trip after all?

My mind also wanders to the people I won’t be able to talk to for three weeks. My mom, who I call on the phone three times a day, sometimes more, even though we live together at the moment. She is my advisor and problem solver for all things, my rock. My dog, Aspen, even though she doesn’t talk, her companionship will be missed. My brother, step dad, friends and coworkers who are all so supportive, but wonder why I’m going on this crazy trip. I will miss them all. I know they each send me well wishes on this adventure and that is reassuring.

Their encouragement also makes me feel prepared. They constantly tell me I will be fine and have so much fun. I know I will, but anxiety about the trip has been very real. I am so excited to get out there though. To disconnect from social media, life’s daily grind, and modern convenience. It will be a simple three weeks. Simple sounds nice. I feel like my soul will have a chance to recharge and reconnect deeply with the mountains and outdoors. I draw energy from being outside in Alaska.

Western Wrangells and the Copper River. Photo by the National Park Service.

The ominous and inviting mountain peaks, the wildlife that scurries along the ground cover, the foliage that rustles in the wind, it draws me in. I feel so alive in moments when I am surrounded by that all. I get to be surrounded by it for three weeks and I can only imagine how much energy and inspiration I will have gained by the end of the expedition. I long for how relaxed I will feel mentally by being so close with nature.

My mind is kind of a goopy mess of thoughts  with the way I feel about this trip. I’m ready to go though. I hope the group joining me is too. We are embarking into the backcountry wilderness of Alaska and I couldn’t be more thrilled. So ta ta for now, I’ll be back in three weeks.


If you’re interested in tracking our progress while we are gone please visit HERE. This will begin being active when we start the trip and will update nearly every 30 minutes. Don’t worry about us all if it doesn’t though! No news is good news.


Sonar fish counts on the Chignik River

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Myra Scholze steering ADFG’s skiff in Chignik, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Myra Scholze.

Field work is often seen as the glamorous part of science, where researchers get to experience the outdoors and be close to the subjects that they study. The sad reality is though that most scientists spend their time analyzing and processing data on computer screens at office desks. For Myra Scholze, a Fish and Wildlife Technician, for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), this is no unfamiliar territory.

Scholze began working for the ADFG seven years ago in the sport fisheries division in Kodiak. Two years ago, she began doing research for ADFG near Chignik, Alaska on the Alaskan Peninsula. The community of Chignik is primarily a fishing village that relies on the commercial and subsistence fisheries there.

Scholze’s work with ADFG helps manage those fisheries to maintain their sustainability. Her work is to count the salmon that swim up river between May and September.

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Myra Scholze on the Chignik River. Photo courtesy of Myra Scholze.

“Counting the fish is what tells fish and game when to open and close commercial fisheries,” Scholze said. “For each day of the month, in June and July, there’s escapement goals you’re supposed to meet that indicate that you’re going to meet your total number of fish that’s needed to maintain a sustainable run. We count the fish up and meet those goals then the manager at Chignik decides when and what areas to open and for how long.”

Specifically, Scholze is funded through a grant that is comparing and trying to find the correlation between fish counts made on a weir or on a sonar. The two fish counting methods generate a massive amount of data that must be processed.

Weir measurements are made by forcing salmon through a bottleneck in the river, the weir itself, and recording video of the salmon as they pass by. Researchers then go back and count how many individual salmon pass the camera lens.

Sonar doesn’t record video in a traditional sense, but rather records how sound moves through water. Sonar data is collected on both banks of the river and then a researcher must sit and watch back each of the videos and count how many fish blips they see on screen.

“We have two sonars and every ten minutes they create a file that looks kind of like a fish finder on a boat. That’s what you’re counting,” said Scholze. “Every bank creates 144 files per day, we have a sonar on each bank of the river, so we are creating 288 files a day. Over a month you’re creating about 10,000 files and that’s why we have such a back log and why I count files.”

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Myra Scholze adjusts the sonar in Chignik. Photo courtesy of Myra Scholze.

The massive amount of data and the nearly real-time nature (the videos can be sped up slightly when only a few fish are moving by) of watching back the files and counting fish makes for long work hours. Scholze has spent months outside of Chignik in the Kodiak ADFG office, in addition to long evenings at the bunkhouse in Chignik, just counting back fish on videos, so finding a correlation between weir and sonar counts may take years to come. The preliminary conclusions about correlation can’t even be made yet.

“They’ve looked at it [the correlation], but we don’t have enough done from 2016 yet.” Scholze said.

The work may be grueling to some, but to Scholze she loves being able to collect the data that helps inform management decisions for Alaskan fisheries. She intends to continue working for ADFG in Chignik for as long as they have files for her to count. She’s currently in Dutch Harbor, Alaska working for ADFG as a Fish and Wildlife Technician for the crab fishery there. Myra will return to Kodiak in the spring to restart her sonar counts before heading back to the field in Chignik as a Fishery Biologist.

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Myra Scholze collecting samples in Alitak, Alaska for a job she held with ADFG before working for ADFG in Chignik, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Myra Scholze.


Stickleback – The super fish

Darting through Cheney Lake in Anchorage, Alaska are thousands of small fish, about three inches in length, with three spiny projections that jut off the top of their bodies, pricking anything that dares touch them. The color of their scales varying in color depending on the season, sex, or population from which they descend. They gleam shiny silver, blue, or a dull brown, sometimes with a greenish hue. They’re named threespine stickleback, and they’ve become a powerhouse organism for study.  Found in nearly all Alaskan lakes and across most of the northern hemisphere, scientists have taken keen interest in these fish for the practical uses they hold for studying evolution and conducting research.

Threespine stickleback from Cheney Lake in Anchorage, Alaska during their reproductive stage of life. The fish with blue eyes is a reproductive male.

        At the University of Alaska Anchorage, Kat Milligan-Myhre, heads a laboratory of undergraduates, graduates, lab techs, and post docs who are all using threespine stickleback as a model organism for a variety of projects on host gut microbe interactions. The lab is able to study how the microbes within the gut of threespine stickleback, the host, affect a variety of things like development, physiology, behavior, and more. Milligan-Myhre developed a procedure that allows the lab to fertilize eggs of the fish and then make them free of all microbes. They can then add back in select microbes or none at all to study how the microbes are actually affecting the fish.

A 7-day-old transparent juvenile threespine stickleback. Milligan-Myhre has developed a protocol to rear threespine stickleback free of microbes until 14 days after the eggs they’ve hatched from have been fertilized.

        “Stickleback have a number of really cool qualities. One is that they are transparent so we can actually watch fluorescent microbes move around in the gut of a live stickleback,” said Milligan-Myhre, “We can make large amounts of genetically similar eggs from a single cross or a couple of crosses… with fish you can get 100 to up to 200, if you’re lucky, of genetically related fish. That allows us to have a lot of power so we can do some really good statistical analysis on these changes that we’re seeing when we treat these animals.”

Kelly Ireland and Kat Milligan-Myhre set traps for threespine stickleback in Cheney Lake in Anchorage, Alaska in May of 2017. The lab uses minnow traps that have a funnel and hole on either end of the trap that threespine stickleback then swim into and get trapped.

        They are studying a variety of populations from varying lakes across Alaska, but by far their most frequented lake of interest is Cheney Lake. The lake had threespine stickleback introduced to it in 2009 from a parental population found in Rabbit Slough, Alaska, by Frank Von Hippel, a former professor at UAA, who like Milligan-Myhre used them as a model organism. Von Hippel’s lab was interested primarily in the evolution of the fish, however.

Ryan Lucas, Emily Lescak, and Kelly Ireland of Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab pull traps from Y Lake of the Talkeetna Lakes chain in Talkeetna, Alaska. The lab then does in field gut dissections to assess gut microbe composition within the threespine stickleback.

        “What really sets stickleback apart from zebrafish, which are the traditional go to fish model, is that we can take stickleback that have evolved in different environments and we can relate the environments in which they evolved to their physiological and genetic variation,” said Emily Lescak, former doctoral student of Von Hippel’s, currently working as a post-doctoral fellow in Milligan-Myhre’s lab, “Basically we can understand what selection pressures in the environment cause a fish to evolve in certain ways, so we can understand what sort of ecological pressures there are on fish populations.”

Threespine stickleback fish from Rabbit Slough, near Wasilla, Alaska. The Rabbit Slough population is anadromous meaning they’re born in freshwater, then travel to oceanic environments for most of their life, and then return to freshwater to mate.


       Incidentally there’s already evidence that the threespine stickleback Von Hippel introduced into Cheney Lake are already undergoing evolution from their anadromous (meaning the fish, like salmon, are born in freshwater, travel to the ocean, and then come back to the freshwater to mate) ancestral form, to freshwater forms. The threespine stickleback in Cheney Lake were introduced in 2009 after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game applied a Rotenone treatment in October, 2008, to the lake. Rotenone was used to eliminate northern pike that were introduced illegally. The Rotenone treatment wiped out all fish populations in the lake and allowed Fish and Game to restock Cheney Lake with rainbow trout, and Von Hippel to introduce threespine stickleback from a known population, Rabbit Slough. Milligan-Myhre’s lab has been collecting data on Cheney Lake and threespine stickleback from the lake monthly to assess the changes of the threespine stickleback population over time.


        “We can follow evolution in real time. That’s exciting,” said Milligan-Myhre.

        The lab is collaborating with a lab at Stony Brook University in New York to look at genetic differences as the population evolves. Milligan-Myhre’s lab hopes to also take a look at how as the population changes over time into their freshwater form the microbiota and threespine stickleback’s immune response to microbes also change.

Rachael Kramp an undergraduate student of Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab, works with microbes from the guts of threespine stickleback from Cheney Lake in the anaerobic chamber of Milligan-Myhre’s lab at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

        The tools these fish offer are nearly limitless from using them as a model for biomedical research, as they have similar physiology to humans, to studying evolution, these fish also make great models for studying ecotoxicology, as well as, host microbe interactions, just to touch on a few of their benefits. The threespine stickleback came to be a model organism in the 1900s with the work of Nobel Prize laureates, Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch, because of the ease to which they could be manipulated in the lab, now in 2017 the threespine stickleback shows no signs of slowing down as being the model organism of many scientist’s dreams. In 2018, hundreds of researchers will even gather together for the 9th International Conference on Stickleback Behavior and Evolution in Kyoto, Japan. These prickly little fish may not seem like much to the majority of people, but to many scientists they are the crux of their entire careers.


Written by Kelly Ireland. Kelly Ireland is an undergraduate student doing research in Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab.

South Fork Eagle River

Took a short hike out at South Fork Eagle River the other day. The scenery was absolutely unreal.

There’s something fresh about fall.

I don’t know if it’s me or the air.

Maybe it’s because I feel like I’m about to fall –

Or if my hearts in snare.

The air has a crispness

Like the feeling of change.

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Kenai Dipnetting

There are some things that only Alaskans will ever understand and one of those things is dipnetting. Every year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game opens up about a 2 week dipnetting season for reds on the Kenai River. Take a look around the office at work and there seems to be a sudden lack of people once ADFG announces the opening of the season. I’ve lived in Alaska for six years and this year was the first time I’ve gotten to experience dipnetting for myself.

Dipnetting was not at all what I expected to say the least. We drove down late Friday night despite the fact I had called in sick that day with a fever that hadn’t subsided.  We set up camp at the Beluga Lookout RV & Campground, which sits on the bluff of the north shore of the Kenai River, at around 11 p.m. Going to bed around 1 a.m. we got a few hours of sleep and quickly gathered up our stuff and drug it down the trail to the beach. Pulling on the waders I made my way into the water with the hundreds of other crazy Alaskans who were there long before the day of fishing opened at 6 a.m.

It wasn’t long before I saw just how serious people were about catching their fish. Five minutes into being in the water some guy yelled at my friend and I for how we were somehow in his way even though we had been there before him. We watched some far braver souls float down the river in wet suits and dry suits with personal floatation devices, poles in hand, and flippers on their feet as they tried to net fish in the swifter waters further from shore and the masses. I watched far crazier people with just t-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes brave the water for hours with no waders as if they were on a tropical vacation in Hawai’i.

Kenai Dipnetters patiently wait for the Kenai Reds. Each year Alaskan residents get the chance to go dip netting for salmon. Each head of household is allowed 25 fish and each additional family member is allowed 10. Photo by Kelly Ireland.
Kenai Dipnetters patiently wait for the Kenai Reds. Each year Alaskan residents get the chance to go dip netting for salmon. Each head of household is allowed 25 fish and each additional family member is allowed 10. Photo by Kelly Ireland.

We didn’t catch much that day, but neither did anyone else. The commercial fishermen were out that day and it seemed like the consensus on the beach was that it was all the commercial fishermen’s fault for our bad luck at catching. I ended up with three salmon in the cooler and had brought an additional salmon ashore early in the day, but being the beginner I was, I didn’t pull it far enough ashore before it flopped around and then swam away.  My friend blamed it on the fact I was too dumb to put the net over the salmon once it started to get away, but attempted to pick the slimy thing up with my hands.

We fished late into the evening and at about 7 p.m. me and my best friend called it a day and hauled all of the group’s stuff up the hill as the boys continued fishing. We had 15 salmon that first day and more gear than we could have ever needed in our cart and it was quite the task pulling it through the sand and then up the steep hill to the campground. We were probably lugging up the hill close to 100 pounds it felt like. Some random stranger helped us pull it through the sand, many others just gawked, and one pair of guys with a cart of their own passed us up while we ascended the hill. Jokingly I shouted at them they must not have caught as much fish.

50 fish and 5 coolers later. Photo by Kelly Ireland.

Back at camp Lucy and I prepared the fire and then ate more S’mores than I’m comfortable admitting. We discussed whether Kraft, Nabisco and Hershey’s were in business together and came up with S’mores to sell more of their product as we wondered why the heck anyone in the world would want marshmallows other than for a S’more.

Soon the boys were back and they started filleting the salmon while we tended to the fire and set up everyone’s wet clothes around the fire to dry. At around 11:30 p.m. the rest of our group arrived from Anchorage. We all got to bed pretty late that night, but all agreed we were willing to get up early again the next day.

At 5:15 a.m. the next day when I was woken up I promptly regretted the decision I had made last night to get up early and requested that I sleep in instead still feeling quite sick. Falling back asleep I woke up at around 8:30 a.m. and then made my way to the beach after receiving a text from my best friend that I must bring more coolers down since they were slaying. Sure enough when I made it down there, they had already filled one cooler and were bringing in more. I quickly got in waders and made my way out into the water, but the run appeared to be over. I didn’t spend much time in the water that day and once I caught one fish I called it quits to let the boys fish for the rest of the day. Around 5 p.m. the reds started running again and Lucy and I became designated fish cleaners as the boys brought in fish after fish and we could hardly keep up. When it started to slow again around 7 p.m. we all called it quits for the day and drug our 2 coolers full of fish up the hill (Lucy and I had already lugged up one earlier that day). We prepared dinner and packed up and thus concluded our dipnetting trip that evening.

Dipnetting was definitely an experience of a lifetime getting soaked to the bone standing in the water, being sunburnt to a crisp, not showering for 3 days, and getting covered in fish slime and guts. After this first trip I definitely will be more prepared for next time, but now knowing what it’s like here’s the advice I have for other first timers:

  1. You’ll know when you have a salmon in your net. If you aren’t sure, you probably don’t have a fish, don’t waste your energy dragging your net to shore and risk losing your spot.
  2. Protect yourself against the sun. Wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. If you’re like the rest of the crazies out there you’re going to be in the sun almost all day and believe me you will need these things to keep from looking as red as the salmon meat.
  3. Invest in neoprene gloves. Most people were wearing cheap plastic rubber gloves and complained of them leaking, I had neoprene gloves on and while my hands were always wet they were always warm. If you don’t want to spend the money on neoprene gloves wear at least something on your hands. The metal pole of the net gets pretty cold in the water.
  4. Dress in layers. You’ll probably be cold in the morning or when the wind picks up, but it can also be pretty hot during the height of the day when the sun is out.
  5. There are free hot dogs and hot chocolate on the north shore. A church mission group is out there every year handing out hot dogs and hot chocolate. Be sure to say thanks.
  6. Bring ready to eat food. You aren’t going to have time to go back to camp and cook up a gourmet meal so unless you have a designated cook, bring down granola bars and other ready to eat foods.
  7. Don’t go in as deep as your waders are high. Waves do happen at the mouth of the Kenai and boy did I regret going out to almost the top of my waders and then immediately getting soaked when the waves came in.
  8. Make sure your waders don’t leak before you get to the Kenai. Repair and seal any holes. There’s nothing worse than being wet in something that was supposed to keep you dry.
  9. Read up on fishing regulations. Information on dipnetting in the Kenai is available here.
  10. Bring only what you need to the beach. We had a lot of extra stuff the first day that we didn’t use at all and then had to lug up the hill at the end of the day. On the second day we only brought the essentials and that was much nicer.
  11. Don’t forget to drink water. I felt pretty dehydrated during the trip because I wasn’t willing to leave my fishing spot to go grab a drink of water. For other die hards you might want to invest in a camelback that you can wear with you while you’re fishing so you never have to leave the water. Now I just got to find a solution to having to using the bathroom…
  12. Behead, clip and gut fish on the beach. ADFG requires that all fish caught while dipnetting must have the corners of the tail fin clipped before the fish is put out of sight (i.e. into your cooler). With each fish you catch you should clip the fins and the gills (to kill the fish faster and bleed it out, make sure to cut all the way to the white part of the gills). It helps tremendously for later if you behead and gut the fish then too (you’ll be too tired to want to do it at the end of the day). Since we had more people in the group than we had waders or nets we always had 1 or 2 people ashore to do this pre-filet cleaning which allowed people to have their nets in the water for longer.

    ADFG requires you clip the tail fins of salmon caught while dipnetting as shown.
  13. There’s no such thing as too much cooler space. We filled five coolers on our trip, with just 50 fish. If each of us had limited out we would have needed more cooler space than we had.
  14. Be considerate of those around you. Don’t be loud, disrespectful or take up more space than you need, and be sure to clean up your space when your leave. Everyone is just trying to fill their freezers and not have to spend a bunch of money on food. Stagger nets if you have to when people get close. Just remember every Alaskan resident has just as much a claim to having their net in the water as you do and the fish are swimming sporadically anyways so chances are someone having their net in front of you isn’t going to decrease your chances of catching fish.
  15. Must have items for dipnetting:
  • fishing license
  • dipnetting permit card
  • dipnet
  • waders
  • sunscreen
  • hat
  • sunglasses
  • gloves
  • fish bonker (a rock will do if you forget)
  • filet knife
  • filet knife sharpener
  • scissors or gardening shears (for clipping gills and fins)
  • five gallon bucket or two (for bleeding out fish after you cut their gills and for cleaning them off)
  • coolers
  • ice
  • ready to eat food
  • water
  • a set of dry clothes and shoes to put on when you take off your waders

If you have any other suggestions or questions about dipnetting on the Kenai (I’m by no means an expert, it was only my first time after all) feel free to comment.

Adventures are us

By Ashleigh Roe

It’s been just over a day since I have landed on this island. Left to our own devices, Mother and I went for a walk along the beach. One of her associate trailblazers, dog entailed, joined us on the trail. The hunting began right away- the treasure has been easy to find so far. Unfortunately, the dog has also found his prey. Spitting and hissing, a sea otter backs into the rocks.

To our great chagrin, we were forced to evacuate the beach- too many intruders invading our turf. Alas, in one final effort to loot the waterfront we excavated what seems to be a radiator and piling post. A passing gent was kind enough to aid the transportation of our treasure onto the trail. The haul out was long and arduous, taking a toll on our muscular and respiratory systems. Finally, our journey had come to the end. Mother and I loaded the cargo into the back of the caravan with help from Sharon. At last we set forth to the homestead for a short refresher (and wash). From there we attempted to place an order at the local sandwich shop- they are grievously closed for a short season. Instead, we made the lengthy trip to town to dine in the local Greek eatery.

More to come. This is adventurer A.D.Roe signing out.

The loot. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.
The loot. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.

Sea glass on Upper Boyscout Beach. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.
Sea glass on Upper Boy Scout Beach. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.

Photo by Ashleigh Roe.
Upper Boy Scout Beach. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.

Photo by Ashleigh Roe.
Upper Boy Scout Beach in Kodiak, Alaska. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.

Photo by Ashleigh Roe.
Exposed tide pool on Upper Boy Scout Beach. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.

Photo by Ashleigh Roe.
Sand spit up by a clam. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.

Photo by Ashleigh Roe.
Upper Boy Scout Beach. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.

Photo by Ashleigh Roe.
Upper Boy Scout Beach. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.

Upper Boyscout Beach treasures. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.
Upper Boy Scout Beach treasures. Photo by Ashleigh Roe.