Wood-Tikchik State Park, Alaska

When Daniel Schindler was 6 months old, his parents took him on an adventure: They moved into a tent at a research camp in the Canadian backwoods, surrounded by dozens of lakes. His father, limnologist David Schindler, was measuring how those lakes were harmed by phosphate detergent runoff and acid rain; the work he did would help lead to the reduction of those pollutants across North America. The family spent four months at the camp every year, abandoning tents for cabins once they were built. Young Schindler did a lot of fishing and swimming, and around age 14 he got interested in the science.

Now, 44 years after that first adventure started, Schindler has become the kind of scientist who can pilot a 90-horsepower jetboat across a huge lake and into a shallow meandering river, goosing the throttle while standing up to read the riffles ahead of him, zooming from bank to bank, finding the least-risky course through barely submerged rocks and snags as the waves buck the boat into the air and a cold rain pelts him the whole way.

I saw Schindler enjoying this experience in August, when I visited his research camp here on Lake Nerka, in southwestern Alaska, in an area managed as Wood-Tikchik State Park and Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. The camp is a cluster of cabins far off the grid, reachable only by boat or floatplane. The landscape feels prehistoric – more than 6 million acres of wilderness with hundreds of streams and lakes. Lush peaks, never entirely snow-free, rise steeply from the shores. It's the kind of natural setting that encourages you to breathe in more deeply than usual.

Schindler makes his living as a professor of aquatic and fish sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, but he still embraces the rhythm of his childhood; this was the 17th summer he's spent researching this nearly pristine Alaska ecosystem. Reflecting on the path he's taken, he said, "I like being outdoors. I wanted an interesting life."

That commitment and eccentricity were shared by the outdoorsy grad students on Schindler's research team, as well by as his wife, Laura Payne, a bird biologist, and their pink-booted 9-year-old daughter, Luna, who's been their companion in this camp since she was an infant. Fellow UW professor Lorenz Hauser, an Austrian-born population geneticist, was on his 10th summer of research here, speaking English with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent that even he finds amusing. And he'd brought along his girlfriend, Ronel Nel, a South African sea turtle biologist, who eagerly pitched in even though there are no sea turtles in this ecosystem.

Sockeye salmon are the keystone species here. The scientists study how salmon live, and how other creatures depend on them, including predators such as grizzly bears, which occur in densities 10 or 20 times higher than in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, and seagulls, bald eagles, osprey, foxes and otters. They also study the insects and plants and water chemistry – all the factors that determine the ecosystem. "This isn't rocket science," Schindler likes to say. "It's a lot more complicated."

Until I met Schindler, I thought I was up to speed on salmon ecosystems from my decades of work as an environmental journalist in the Lower 48's version of wildness. There are six salmon species, and all of them are in trouble in the Lower 48. I've interviewed people involved in salmon recovery and visited hatcheries and dams. I'll never forget my first glimpse of sockeye back in the 1980s, when I watched a few big ones thrashing up an Idaho stream, completing their 900-mile migration from the ocean back to their spawning sites around Redfish Lake. I have since tracked the dwindling of that run, but like many conservation-minded folks, I still considered the Lower 48's millions of acres of habitat a good place for salmon to make a comeback.

Schindler had shaken up my thinking in February when he visited Montana State University, a few miles from my house, to show slides about his Alaska research. Watching his presentation, I began to see that the restoration efforts I'd reported on were kind of desperate, almost pathetic. The Lower 48 will never regain the kind of wildness that survives in Alaska. Joining his research team for several days, I experienced how Alaska is what the rest of the West used to be. And I was struck by the purity of the human endeavor itself, the scientific quest for knowledge that is such a contrast to the quest for money that dominates the civilized world.