Anchorage has a green belt, mudflats, trail system and abundant opportunities for wildlife viewing. So, why, on our last full day in Alaska do we choose to spend most of it on a boardwalk close by a major highway? Because that’s where the birds and spawning salmon are.
When we enter the parking lot for Potter Marsh, we see a hand-lettered sign warning us to lock our cars and leave no valuables to temptation. Other hand-posted notifications cite bird species observed and warn of bears. There is an erasable whiteboard for anyone to post an update. This collaborative system is common to many of the places we’ve visited.
The boardwalk meanders in spider-y fashion thoughout the marsh, which is fed by fast streams the salmon favor. The traffic noise has faded to a quiet peace, and our walk is leisurely. At first things don’t seem too exciting. Then I realize I need to look closely.
Potter Marsh is bustling with activity. Tiny Yellow Legs (we can’t tell if they’re ‘Greater’ or ‘Lesser’) dart back and forth in the shallows. They look like little sandpipers hurrying about. A mixed group of pintails and grebes in the water is more languid. These families are swimming from pond to pond in clusters.
The marsh wasn’t always a wetland. Although it is now part of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, at the turn of the century this site was dry land. The Alaska Railroad changed that in 1917, when an embankment was built to lay waterside track along beginning of the Turnagain Arm. Fresh water was trapped on the east side of the Seward Highway, transforming the upland into a rest-stop for migrating water birds. Between 30,000 to 50,000 visitors stop in each year.
Three creeks feed the marsh. The hydrology is just now being studied. Discovery of high groundwater volume moving through the ecosystem has led to calls for suspending development upstream. Interruption of groundwater flow due to construction is disturbing the balance and depositing sediment, filling up the marsh.
Despite these changes, salmon still spawn upstream in Potter Marsh. We spot one nearly spent in the shallows. The salmon slowly twists near the surface, breaching to gasp for air. This is a dance of death to be, part of the life cycle, horribly fascinating. I feel sorry for the fish – humanizing it on its sandy deathbed – and walk on so as to look no more.
This is our last day and we’re spending it without much of a plan. The truth is, we don’t want to leave. And we don’t want to talk about wanting to stay, either.
The mist and gloom of the day is a perfect depiction of our mood. When the drizzle intensifies, we head for the parking lot. I am unsettled. I am not sure what to do with all I have taken in from this land. I climb in and silently buckle up, as it all seems too big for words.