RUSSIAN RIVER – The crowds that have made this gin-clear stream Alaska’s most famous “combat fishery” were missing Wednesday.
A mature black bear that emerged behind the lone angler occupying the well-known “Cottonwood Hole” below the Grayling Parking lot in the Chugach National Forest appeared surprised.
On a normal day near the end of mid-June, the gravel bar on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge side of this fabled tributary to the Kenai River would witness anglers lined up elbow to elbow no matter whether the sockeye salmon were running thick or thin.
By 7 a.m. on Wednesday, they were running thin – the classic, big, early-early morning push of migrating fish long gone on the run up the river to the Russian River falls and spawning grounds in tributary streams to the lakes beyond.
But there were a couple fish still holding in the Cottonwood Hole. The angler ignored the bear and kept working to try to hook one. Fishing for sockeyes – or what Alaskans often call “reds” because of the hue they take on when their spawning colors emerge – is relatively easy when they are traveling in big schools.
Lone fish are, however, hard to catch. Like other salmon, the fish do not feed once they enter freshwater, and irritating a lone fish into striking a fly can sometimes seem almost impossible, whereas a fly drifted through a tightly packed school of the fish is likely to spark one of them to lash out at it.
Needless to say the fishing was far from great, but the peace was overwhelming.
Upside of downside
Hiking upriver into the Russian River canyon on the search for fish, there was an angler or two found here and there, but mainly there was the fern-filled, green emptiness of the river corridor, the gurgling of the fast water, and the gulls coursing between the forested slopes as they winged their way upstream and down looking for a salmon carcass to scavenge.
Welcome to the summer of COVID-19.
As the global economy in general and the visitor economy in the 49th state in particular stumble toward a recession threatening to become a depression, Alaskans and the rare tourist are enjoying a unique opportunity for near-wilderness fishing along the state’s limited road system.
Fishing effort has dropped to levels not witnessed in decades. The downside is that the Sport Fishing Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which is hugely dependent on fishing license sales to fund its budget, is looking at a revenue shortfall in the neighborhood of $5 million.
Because of that, program cuts appear inevitable. And the potential effects on the private-sector visitor industry – the state’s largest employer – are frightening.
Many of the owners of the small businesses that are the backbone of the industry in-state say they can probably make it through one disastrous summer, but if the COVID-19 related slum in air travel continues into next year – as many expect it will – they say they will have to close their doors.
The U.S. Travel Association describes the present situation as “dire” with U.S. travel spending expected to be down 45 percent from 2019 by the end of this year. A partial recovery is expected next year, but the forecast says travel is unlikely to be back to anything hear normal until at least 2023.
“New analysis reveals that while the economy is in the midst of a recession, the travel industry is in a depression: overall travel industry unemployment is 51 percent – twice the unemployment of the worst year of the Great Depression,” the association reported.
The change was visibly obvious here.
Downriver from the Cottonwood Hole, in a stretch of shallow water normally cruised by significant numbers of anglers looking for moving schools of fish to which to toss a fly this time of year, there was nobody.
There were more people at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai, but the crowd was a third to a quarter or less of what one would expect in a normal year. The line of motor vehicles that normally forms at the entrance to the Russian River campground where anglers wait on spaces to open in the campground’s parking lots was non-existent.
No one in the almost wholly Alaskan crowd was complaining. For many if not most, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have the state’s most popular clearwater salmon stream largely to themselves.
Selfish? A little.
A big benefit to a grim moment in global history? A definite yes.
The long term consequences of this? Unknown.
Alaska still has a lot to offer tourists. The salmon fishing is the best in the world. The wilderness touring is unmatched. The outdoor-adventure opportunities are underused.
But nearly all travelers enter the state through serious chokepoints: airports via airlines and ports via cruise ships.
The cruise industry is at the time in even worse shape than the aforementioned airline industry. The five-year leader in tourism growth, the cruise lines were taking a beating in the stock market this week.
“Some investors are running out of patience. Credit analysts at S&P cut their bond rating on Carnival to BB-, down three notches from its previous BBB rating and putting the cruise line into junk bond status,” NASDAQ.com reported. “Rival credit rating agency Moody’s had already given junk ratings to Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian.
“The news will only make it harder for cruise ship companies to find new financing if they need it in the future. If delays in setting sail get even longer, that could prove costly for the three companies – and for the investors who put their capital to work for the cruise ship operators prior to now. Shareholders of Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean will have to keep a close eye on how COVID-19 case counts progress in order to assess whether the rising risks are too large to bear.”
Alaska cruises appear especially vulnerable to market changes because they attract a large number of senior citizens wishing to see the northland “B4UDIE” as the state once advertised. People over 60 are the people most vulnerable to death from COVID-19.
“Just months ago, the visitor industry was anticipating a banner year for Alaska. Projections showed an anticipated peak season of 52,000 jobs, with a total economic impact of over $4.5 billion,” the Cruise International Association Alaska reported. “As our communities were preparing to welcome visitors, COVID-19 put a screeching halt to life as we know it.
“With 408 cruise voyages canceled to date, we understand the impacts are severe, especially for the many Alaskans, local businesses and communities that depend upon visitor industry spending. This is an unprecedented time and we know this is extremely difficult on our industry partners, who are all vital to this industry,” the association said.
It offered no timeline for when cruises are expected to resume, saying only that cruises would resume “when it is safe.”
At this point, unfortunately, knows exactly how to define safe.
Until then, Alaskans are likely to have the 49th state largely to themselves.