Salmon are already seen as the David to nature’s Goliath. With everything to lose, they battle against the current in order spawn upstream, braving white water and a whole taxonomy of predators.
But The Super Salmon is not about the species as a whole. This film is about a single fish – ‘Salmon 241’ – that took a 500km journey up the Susitna River from the sea to its source, to the very tongue of a glacier. ‘I don’t think this guy was a huge salmon, he was just average sized,’ says Mike Woods, a river local and strong contender for the fish’s biggest fan. ‘But he was just the ninja of all salmons!’
Director Ryan Peterson makes the most of Alaska’s scenery. With gasp-inducing flyovers of the Susitna – or ‘the Soo’ – its braided channels, its snow-capped horizons and galavanting wildlife, The Super Salmon has a swashbuckling spirit, helped by fast editing and a jumping classical soundtrack. However, it is not without a serious side. Namely, the fish’s journey is told in tandem with the plans for a hydroelectric development, the Susitna-Watana Dam. If it were to go ahead, the dam would be the largest of its kind to be built in America for the last 40 years, taller than the Hoover Dam, with enough potential to power half of urban Alaska. ‘It’s time to go big or go home,’ say the dam’s developers as the film begins.
On any given year, Salmon 241 would have excited someone like Woods. However, as one of the leading members of the Susitna River Coalition, which fights for the river’s protection, the fish becomes something of a hero to him. With contagious enthusiasm, Woods narrates the fish’s journey to the end of the glacier: ‘so he gets there and just bumps his nose into some ice or something and says “aw, ice!” It’s better than concrete, or he’d say “oh dam”.’ His joke, and the whole point of Salmon 241, hinges on the developer’s claim that the dam would be built upstream of where the salmon typically go. This fish shows that exceptions happen.
The film, however, goes above and beyond Salmon 241. It shows how hydroelectricity presents a dilemma to local communities, who are enthusiastic for green energy but feel the loss to the river’s ecosystem would be too great. Exchanges between locals and the project planners show the problem to be nuanced and complex, with dam developers who are sincere rather than villainous. It explores the future of energy generation at a time when dams are beginning to look like an outmoded source of electricity. Meanwhile, extraordinary time-lapse photography shows the seasonal freeze and melt of the Susitna, its current exploding through the winter ice build-up to flood into a myriad of backchannels. ‘All of the abandoned channels and backwaters are really preferable for rearing salmon,’ says Jeff Davies a stream ecologist. ‘There are tiny fish in all of them,’ agrees Woods. According to him, the river’s freeze and flood cycle – and thus the fish nurseries – would be starved if the dam went ahead. ‘We could argue that we want to save those fish that make it all the way up the river,’ says Molly Woods, fellow activist and wife of Mike, ‘but what I’m more worried about is the impact on the entire 180 miles of river downstream of the dam.’
The Super Salmon is a moving story about local activism and community. Crucially though, it manages to bring humour to environmental issues – a rarity in the genre.