Balance from Division: the water of Potter Marsh in Anchorage, Alaska

by Elizabeth C. Creely

A note: although this blog normally only concerns itself with people, places and things in California, occasionally the Californian who authors it goes out of state and see places and things elsewhere. And then writes about them. I wrote this essay last September. I’ve updated the verb tenses for the below post.
This essay was first published in Aontacht, book 7, issue 1

Potter Marsh, in Anchorage Alaska,looking west

In September of last year, my husband and I visited my sister Emily, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. On the 22rd of that month, the day of the equinox, she urged us to get out and see things. “Go south,” she said, in her decisive way. “Go to Potter Marsh. It’s a wetland. It’s beautiful.” Emily knows what I like: water. We took her advice and drove to Potter Marsh, or Hkaditali in the native Athabascan language, which means “Place of the Driftwood.” The driftwood they referred to used to be washed up into the marsh. It still would were it not for a railroad track that keeps the two watery sites apart. As we drove to the marsh, my husband and I saw the work of thousands and thousands of years of glaciation and rain: sharply carved, incised mountain ranges that were shaped by water, both liquid and frozen.

We pulled into the parking lot and looked around. From the lot, I could see the long, blue water of Cook Inlet. The water in the marsh wasn’t visible yet. A man who was leaving told us there were bald eagles roosting in the trees on the north end. “You from here?” he asked. We told him we were from San Francisco. “Welcome to Alaska,” he said. “This marsh is great for birding.” He secured his toddler in a safety seat for the ride home. My husband and I walked into the marsh.

Potter Marsh exists as a freshwater marsh now, but it used to be an estuary. It’s part of the Alaska Coastal Wildlife Refuge, which stretches for 16 miles along Cook Inlet, southwest of Anchorage. The slopes of the Chugach mountain range rise above the marsh in the east . The foothills are dotted with houses, and riven with watery streams. Three of these creeks flow into Potter Marsh: Rabbit Creek, Little Rabbit Creek, and Potter Creek. In 1917, the Alaska Railway built an embankment for the railroad track and so impounded the fresh waters of the creeks. This division ended the marsh’s existence as an estuary, a place where salt water and freshwater meet and mingle.

It is an oft-quoted fact that estuaries contain some of the most life-sustaining habitat on this earth, equaled only by rainforests and coral reefs. Some estuarine conditions still persist in Potter Marsh. In nature, it’s tough dividing whole ecosystems, especially when they’re as watery as a wetland. But the partition happened, and now where there was once a mingling of different waters, there is a freshwater marsh on the east and a saltwater mud flat to the west. The heterodox, estuarine nature of the place has changed.

There’s a lot of water in Alaska, especially in September, which is the tail end of the rainy season in Anchorage. “It sort of rains all the time,” my sister told, sounding both exasperated and proud. This seems miraculous to me, a Californian, who is living in a state which is enduring its fourth year of drought. “Forty-three percent of Alaska is wetlands,” a friend of my sister’s told me. My sister’s house (built long before she moved to Alaska) is situated over a now-buried creek which used to be former spawning grounds for salmon. There’s water everywhere you look: in the streambeds, trickling out of cliff walls, falling from the sky: it’s a very pluvial place. The mountains of Alaska loom over broad flat lowlands, which were made by rivers scouring silt and carrying it in their water columns; this silt, which was the mountain’s rocky skin, got dumped on the lowlands the minute the grade changed and the water was forced to slow down.

The ocean is a master builder, too, using its vigorous tidal prism to push finely ground sand and silt ashore. The tidal fluctuations in one arm of Cook Inlet, by the way, are among the highest in the world with a mean range of 30 vertical feet. There’s a tidal bore that surfers have discovered. “It’s kind of dangerous,” another friend told me. “But it hasn’t stopped the surfers.”

From 1917 to 1971, the marsh was a place of little interest, an accident made by man. To construct the railroad embankment, the builders dredged silt from the estuary, creating deep pools which are now freshwater ponds (and still slightly brackish; as I said, it’s hard to partition water). In 1971, the Alaska legislature decided to recognize what salmon, eagles, ducks, and other animals had signaled through their stubborn habitation of the marsh, namely, that the site had maintained some ecological integrity, even in its mutilated and partitioned state. You could argue that the animals created the refuge first, simply by refusing to leave. The legislature took its cue from the animals and legally formalized an informal and semi-historic ecological arrangement.

In Potter Marsh, nature exists on its own terms. This is the meaning of the term “refuge.” Human activity is limited. There is no hunting. No fishing. No domesticated animal can be grazed there; no mud, silt, sand, oil, or any other mineral from the marsh can be extracted. No houses, office parks, or hotels can be built along its ragged edges. What there is to do in the refuge, most days, is watch, listen, and learn. You can stand on the elevated boardwalk that the state built, and peer through the viewing glasses to try to identify all there is to see.

And all that one can see the marsh is enabled by water. Transport, habitat, nursery, nourishment: water builds, water moves, and water shields and protects. From conception to death, the waters of Potter Marsh maintain life and seek balance.

Although the waters were divided, the capacity of the wetlands to support life remains. It isn’t clear from the available studies how much biodiversity was lost after the building of the railroad: a lot, most likely. The salinity gradients changed. So did the water quality. The rapid urbanization of Anchorage and the surrounding areas infused the water with oil, leached minerals, and other nasty mid-century toxins. But the creeks that run into the marsh and fill the freshwater ponds support a cohort of flora and fauna that are dependent on each other. There is a food chain. We wouldn’t have seen two bald eagles sitting in cottonwood trees on the northeast end of the marsh if there were nothing there to hold their interest. One was an adult, with a shining white head. The other was a dun-colored juvenile. Both cried out at least once, with their odd, high-pitched cry. The juvenile, perhaps sensing the eyes scrutinizing him from the viewing deck, flew away. Bald eagles lose a bit of their innate dignity when they take to the air they fly with great, loosey-goosey flopping strokes, so huge is their wing span. But the power of their wings is remarkable.

Bald eagles, of course, eat salmon. And the salmon, that deeply totemic creature of Native American and Celtic cultures, are present in the marsh. The marsh is spawning habitat. Two culverts, put into place by human beings, link the marsh with Cook Inlet, creating access between the two formerly conjoined sites. We might have been unaware that we could actually see the salmon, were it not for a chance encounter with a little boy named Adrian. He told us in an exultant tone that, if we liked, he’d show us a salmon. Together, we peered over the railing. Below us were a few darting fingerling salmon—juveniles—and the ruddy, glistening back of what appeared to be a coho salmon.

“He’s spawned out,” said Adrian’s grandmother, who was standing nearby. I sensed exhaustion coming from the fish, although this might have just been my overly empathetic projection. But maybe not; if anything on this planet has a right to be exhausted, its gotta be a spawned-out salmon. They’ve swum hundreds of miles while their bodies slowly disintegrate, all in the service of reproduction. The grandmother, who was Native American —“Aleut,” she told me— said that the salmon was disoriented. “He’s confused,” she said affectionately. “Usually, they aren’t in this pond. They’re over in that one,” and she waved her hand southward toward another pool. It was really something seeing a salmon dying, in the crystal clear water, a native of that place, coming back to a point of origin that was greatly changed but still existed. The water hugged the salmon’s body and rocked it side to side with the current. We walked on, along the boardwalk. The late afternoon sun shone on the water in the deep ponds, making them glint like silver glass.

A creek rushed underneath us, flowing from the marsh downstream through two steel culverts. We glanced over the railing again, just in time to see the strong body of another salmon flash past us, swishing its powerful tail, pushing its way past the opposing current, moving upstream in the ancient pattern. It could do this because it had the means: a stream that flowed and an instinct to swim, a quality closely associated with the west, and the element of water. That was what I saw in the marsh that day: the persistence of instinct. This marsh was heavily engineered and divided critically from itself, and yet the ancient urge to reproduce and die in the traditional way still led the salmon from the ocean to the marsh. We could tell what here, long ago, by what is here, now.

In the living waters of her womb the salmon swam, insistent and instinctive. We watched it move away from us.

Balance can be achieved between two objects of unequal size, my husband once told me. That’s true, I thought. I just witnessed that. The salmon was small compared to the size of the ocean. The creatures in the marsh were in some sort of equilibrium with each other, and in relationship with two enormous hydrological systems, one riverine, the other oceanic.

Nature is plastic: it makes endless adaptations, seeking balance. This capacity can be pushed too far. What would (what will) change if the freshwater flowing down the mountain dries up? What will happen if the rushing bore tide inundates the marsh? Both things are likely to happen, someday. What deal will be struck then?

And what would we be without water? Would we live without instinct, dry-brained, and witless, a wandering species with no home to return to and no way to live? It’s a horrible thought, and yet, it might happen. I’ve seen large swathes of California go up in flames. Communities in West Marin in California have had their wells run dry. And as of this writing, there is no rain in the forecast for California.

Water needs balance, from us, really: balance between the city and the wetland, between real need and mere desire, between what rains (or does not) down on us from the sky and into our homes and bodies.

Balance can be achieved between two objects of unequal size. A raindrop and a human body; different objects, vastly differing in size. What is that relationship? What can, what will, that balance be?

Potter Marsh, looking east


– Written on Mabon, 2014 and re-posted on the first day of the new Snow moon, January 21st, 2015