Directed and Produced by Ryan Peterson
With cheeky music and a hollow, dated (well, 1980s-dated..) voice narrating, we soar over pixelated views of a dramatic landscape which reveals a powerful river as it flows from the high peaks of Alaska’s Mountain Range seaward to the ocean north of Anchorage. It is the 15th largest river in the United States, the Susitna. Here we fast forward to 2010, a podium and the announcement from an almost giddy Sean Parnell, Governor of Alaska, announcing what he calls a celebration of a new future for Alaska: an idea shelved 30 years ago was coming back in full force: The Susitna-Watana Hydro Dam.
“The project could replace half of existing electricity for urban Alaska”
Here is where the cheeky music of minutes ago is now replaced with serious science. And what they found defied scientific record.
Handed a map, a cheerful man named Mike Wood looks quizzical until he’s told what he’s looking at: the travels of a salmon fitted with a radio tracking device in 2013. Laughing out loud in realization, he exclaims “Fish number 241, the Super Salmon, the ninja of all salmons”.
While I used the word cheeky earlier, it’s really fitting in this film, so I’m going to use it again. Cheeky animation adds a unique quality to this short film, a salmon depicted as our Super Salmon is garbed in ninja attire and a belt under the dorsal and pectoral fin complete with a sheathed sword. As Wood describes the monumental journey upriver, following snaking channels of the river flats and making it through the gauntlet of hungry seals that would find our ninja quite tasty, onward he (or she) swims.
After basking in his good humor and ceaseless smile for awhile, we’re finally told who this salmon-extraordinaire is. Mike Wood lives with his wife Molly up the Susitna, and can only reach their rustic log cabin by boat, five miles from the nearest road system.The have a close relationship with the river. He describes the trees he used for construction of his home as salmon-fed, thanks to the seasonal flooding that brings in an exchange of nutrients between the land and river.
“If you examined the DNA of the tree, every single one of them would have salmon fertilizer in it”
Wood marvels at the life in all its richness that surrounds him in this remote locale he calls home. Pulling enormous salmon out of nets into his boat, he speaks with wonder of their extensive travels from the sea to spawn upriver. Mike and Molly seem perfectly suited to their riverside home, deep in the wilderness. But then we’re reminded of that damn dam.
Wood heads up the Susitna River Coalition and along with a group of strong, organized, polite folks making up the 2,300 members of the coalition, he campaigns against the construction of the dam. The opposition is dedicated and town halls are heated.
Shifting back to Wood’s description of Super Salmon, whose travels were momentarily halted when he became captured by a fish-wheel and implanted with a tracking device (“That would cause some serious gastrointestinal distress,” exclaims Wood) before continuing along his merry way, Wood carries on explaining this fish’s improbable journey up the ferocious Devil’s Canyon.
By getting a peek into the human recreation opportunities bestowed by the river, we learn that boat tours famous for taking people up the thundering canyon won’t be able to after the dam is built. Employment and revenue from tourism and fishing along the river would suffer a huge hit, to the tune of two million dollars. Overall, opponents believe the costs saved by the dam wouldn’t be worth the economic and environmental trade-offs.
But the energy companies persisted nonetheless, and we’re introduced to illustrations of the monstrous cement stopper to be placed just above Devil’s Canyon. Molly Wood describes her fear of the impact of the dam, not just for the fish that swim further upriver, but the entire stretch of the river and the ecosystems it supports.
The intended placement of the dam above the torrential onslaught of gushing water wildly quickened by the narrowed walls of the canyon, was thought to be out of the range of the migrating fish. Until the Super Salmon told us otherwise.
I love how energetically our hero Mike Wood describes the river when it breaks free of its ice sheath at the onset of spring, how all the life around it reacts to the change and how when the thick, cracked sheets burst free, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. New young fish follow the sheltered side channels formed by the flooding river, the ice pushing the waters up into the trees, and the parents are giant, aged “spawned out, gnarly chums,” as Wood describes them.
The ice is imperative for its positive impact on the river ecosystem, but, with the dam generating electricity through the winter when the energy demand is greatest, the river below can’t get cold enough to form ice.
But the need for affordable power in Anchorage is dire, and people are leaving the city because they can’t afford it. So how can we use this renewable source, hydropower, responsibly, in a way that won’t devastate ecosystems and natural cycles, not to mention the benefits of tourism? This is a problem that is affecting more rivers than just the Susitna.
Here’s where the film places hope in future generations, to get educated, aware and help come up with a solution. Because we don’t have one yet. Will we have to give up these beautiful, rich, productive waterways to human development? What about what we’ll be taking away from all our future generations? Is it worth it?
We’re left with a hopeful note:
“In 2016 the state suspended the dam project indefinitely.”
Wood and his coalition continue their fight, in hopes of ensuring permanent protection for the Sitsuna. With the passion and drive of people like these, there might be a twinkle of hope for the future.
Click below to watch the film!
Produced and directed by Ryan Peterson AlaskanistStories.com
In partnership with SusitnaRiverCoalition.org
With support from patagonia.com
Photography by Ryan Peterson, Travis Rummel, Matt Stoecker, Joshua Foreman, Killian & Riley Sump, Anson Fogel
Animation by DrewChristie.com
Motion Graphics by BarryThompson.net
Tags: alaska, dam, fish, hydro power, hydroelectric, renewable energy, river, salmon, science, scientific record, super salmon, susitna river