Return to the South Fork of the Eagle River

Return to the South Fork of the Eagle River

Matthew Dickerson

Published in Written River #10


Wild blueberries are strewn across the alpine meadows stretching for thousands of yards in every direction. The ubiquitous fireweed leaves brushstrokes of magenta on the rise in front of me. Further up the slope, blueberries give way to the black spheres of milder crowberries, whose needled shrubs look nothing—at least not to my New England born eyes—like a plant that should bear edible fruit. But the flavor of their berries blends nicely with the tang of bright red low-bush cranberries that also dot this breathtaking landscape.

I am sitting at the edge of a small footbridge over the South Fork of the Eagle River in Alaska’s Chugach State Park. With me is my good friend and fellow teacher David O’Hara along with nine Middlebury College students taking a summer nature-writing class from us. It is one of the most diverse groups of students I have taught in my twenty-six year teaching career. They come from seven different countries and represent a variety of majors including history, architecture, film and media studies, computer science, geology, and environmental studies. A fun and curious group, they are all in Alaska for the first time. Fresh from our three-mile hike, they have scattered along the riverbank in both directions, each choosing a different place to sit and observe, or to meander and soak in the scene.

For a short while, I remain on the bridge breathing in the air of this place and watching them. My eyes are drawn alternately between the water flowing beneath me, the jagged ridges rising to the skyline on three sides, and the students whose safety has been entrusted to me.
Tumbling down from the glaciers further up the valley, the river is full of gray-green flour. I can see no more than a few inches through the milky current as it passes on down the valley. At 2,000’ of elevation, we are just above the tree line. Only a few stray scrubby evergreens and poplars dot the landscape. So as poor as the visibility is below the waters’ surface, when I lift my eyes from the stream I can see for miles, all the way up to the 5,000’ ridgelines where the alpine flowers, grasses, and berries give way to lichen favored by the Dahl’s sheep, and eventually to bare rock.

Back closer to my feet, my eyes rest on smaller dots from a variety of yellow and white flowers. The yarrow and monkshood are almost as ubiquitous as the fireweed. As for the variety of other flowers, however, I would not know their names except that Julia, one of my students, has become enamored with the task of identifying them. Since that task requires close observation, I am happy to encourage her newfound passion. Achillea millefolium, she concludes with pride. Then she moves from a lacy white flower to a yellow one. Here Julia falters briefly. It bears something in common with single delight, alpine buttercup, and alpine avens. But it is not any of these.

My own heart is full without knowing the name of this particular flower. I look at the other students. Michael sits on a rock in the middle of the current. His barefoot venture across invisible rocks must have left those feet numb, but he looks content. A few students sit writing or sketching in their notebooks. Some gaze intently at the water. Others at the vegetation. Some sit. Some stand or walk slowly around. Obeying their professor’s instruction, they don’t stray too far.

Brenden has picked up his fly rod. He is trying to catch one of the Dolly Varden char that live in the river. These salmonids—known by the scientific name Salvelinus malma, and often referred to as trout—are one of the narrative lenses through which my students are studying this environment. What do they eat, and how do they find their food in this opaque water? How are their lives intertwined with the lives of other creatures around them, both above and below the water? What threats do they face in our quickly changing world?

Dollies further down in the valley feast through the summer months on the salmon eggs and in the winter months on rotting salmon flesh— much like the bears and gulls and eagles and nearly everything else in the Pacific Northwest within striking distance of a salmon stream. Even the trees. But up here in this alpine meadow we are well above the reach of even the strongest and most acrobatic salmon. The char are dependent on aquatic macro-invertebrates, or the occasional terrestrial insect blown into the water by the constant breezes in this nearly treeless place. I will later turn over some rocks in the river and find nymphs of small golden stoneflies and mayflies clinging to the stream bottom. Beautiful little creatures. Also potential food for a Dolly Varden.

I know that Dolly Vardens live in this stream. I have been to this spot once before, nearly six years ago, with my brother Ted, who lives nearby in Anchorage. I have wanted to return ever since, and it is a delight now to finally do so, and to share it with others. I have been to many beautiful scenic and wild places in my life. But there are two others in particular that have also remained in my imagination, having evoked an especially powerful response of awe, delight, and humility. Two places that affected me so deeply that simply being there beside my wife left me in tears of joy. I could not move or even speak for many minutes.

One was standing amidst giant redwoods on the northern coast of California. Trees as tall as a football field is long, so big that my wife and I could not come close to touching each other’s fingertips if we reached around the trunk, and old enough that they were alive for the first Christmas. But mere size and age did not capture the sense of holiness and silence of that place. The other spot was Painter’s Point overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on the first day of our family visit to Yellowstone National Park after ten days of driving. Tears streamed down my face at the beauty and wonder that can still be found in the world.

There is a Welsh word, hiraeth. It is said that the word has no direct translation to English. It describes a powerful sense of longing for something good and beautiful. But it is conveys also a sense of grief or sadness over something lost. Or perhaps something that hasn’t yet even existed. Desire may be the closest English word, but for many people desire has other connotations—such as mere lust—that do not capture the notion of hiraeth. The German word sehnsucht might be closer in meaning.

Sitting on that bridge on the South Fork of the Eagle River, surrounded by such beauty, I am left with that overpowering and indescribable sense of wonder and longing. But it is tinged with sadness. I am also aware of what has been lost. Or what is yet to be fulfilled. There are signs of human-made trails on both sides of the stream where my kind has trampled the delicate flora of the place with their heavy hiking boots. I know that my mere presence here, along with the ten fellow travelers I have brought with me who now explore this stream, adds to that damage.

My previous trip here is also why I know there are Dollies in the water. My students have been learning about this fish. They have learned from Kurt Fausch’s wonderful book, For the Love of Rivers: a Scientist’s Journey, that this freshwater species so common throughout Alaska probably traces its evolutionary history back to Japan or far eastern Russia. I have also learned from another Alaskan fisheries biologist, Brenden Scanlon, that there is an anadromous strain of northern Dolly Varden trout that moves back and forth between Russia and Alaska without thought of passports. Some overwinter in Alaska and spawn in Russia. Others overwinter in Russia and spawn in Alaska. All of them get fat in the rich waters of the Arctic. They can grow to twenty pounds before moving back into freshwater.

The Dollies in this stream will rarely get longer than seven inches. And the only way to see one in this nearly opaque water is to entice it with a fly. Some of the students have no desire to fish. But a few will attempt this—and succeed—over the course of the day. They will carefully hold a fish in wet hands at the surface of the stream, admire the beauty of this silvery char with its bright red fins and trout-like spots on its back. A fish that got its name from a character in the Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge, who in the fashion of the 1870s wore a bright colored petticoat. Then they will gently unhook and release the fish, which will disappear back into the milky current.

My thoughts again jump back six years ago when I camped with my brother three miles further up this verdant valley on the ridge separating Eagle Lake on the left from Symphony Lake on the right. When I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the place and moved in the same deep way that the giant redwoods and the thundering falls at Painters Point had once moved me. I sat at the edge of my tent on that day, and in a single square-foot cluster of ground I picked a handful of blueberries, crowberries, and cranberries and let their flavor burst in my mouth. A perfect harmony, giving meaning to the name of the lake on the right. I looked out over its green water at the glacier whose melting waters fed the stream, and the jagged ridges behind. I also knew the meaning of hiraeth or seinsucht.

On that day, my brother Ted stood down by the lakeshore casting flies for grayling. A ptarmigan sat beneath the bushes a dozen yards behind him. It made no effort to flee. These birds can act tame even in remote places. So tame, and seemingly unaware of surrounding danger, that one of my nephews calls them “stupid.” So after admiring it for a moment, my brother started fishing. Still the bird didn’t move. For even a ptarmigan to stay put for so long and not meander off into the brush was unusual. It was not sitting on a nest, or guarding young. It didn’t appear to be eating. So after twenty minutes or so, my brother took a closer look. And then he understood. The bird’s legs were tangled in a mess of fishing line. Some earlier angler had simply dumped his unwanted snarl on the edge of the lake, and this ptarmigan had been ensnared by that carelessness. We don’t know how long it had been there. But other than its understandable distress, it appeared uninjured and healthy.

Ted approached slowly, keeping quiet, trying to appear non-threatening. But I’m sure the bird was terrified. It had no knowledge of his kind intentions. Ted knelt down and took a gentle hold of the bird. As it tried to peck him, he reached in with his fishing knife and cut away the line about its feet. As soon as the bird was free, it ran off into the brush and disappeared.
In the introduction to his book, Fausch quotes Aldo Leopold, who noted that to study ecology is to “live alone in a world of wounds.” The words are true. It is also to live in a world of unspeakable beauty and awe and interconnectedness. When my class packed up to leave, David had all our students spend five minutes picking up some of the trash left around the bridge by previous hikers so that we could pack it out with us. As we filed back down the trail I couldn’t resist frequent glances over my shoulder, wondering if I would ever be back there. And what it would be like if and when I did.

Matthew Dickerson’s most recent books include a work of medieval heroic historical fiction titled The Rood and the Torc: the Song of Kristinge, Son of Finn, a fantasy novel titled The Gifted,  and a pair of narrative non-fiction volumes exploring nature, ecology, trout, and fly-fishing: Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia and Trout in the Desert: on Fly Fishing, Human Habits, and the Cold Waters of the Arid Southwest. He is a professor at Middlebury College and makes his home among the small rivers that flow westward out of Vermont’s Green Mountains. He is thankful to various funds at Middlebury College for support of his research and writing. For more on Matthew Dickerson and writing see and