Seth Kantner: A fisherman ponders the king of fish

Around AlaskaAugust 10, 2013 

For weeks I've been commercial fishing. Come into our entryway and you smell fish. My waders stink, and dried opaque scales cling to my gear and show up randomly on the table and floor.

My boat is worse.

Right now it's hard to think about anything besides salmon and fishing. Days are tangled up in webbing, weather forecasts, fish openers and orders and ice machine issues. Somehow I have to unwind this bouncing mind and these bouncing muscles long enough to sit and write -- when all I want to do is head out and haul in another boatload of big, silver, shiny fish.

Earlier, back in winter an email arrived, asking if I would speak to some sort of salmon retreat, to be held in Girdwood in May. Grudgingly (stupidly), I agreed, all the while knowing the timing was not good, with breakup and me being cut off from travel upriver at that time of year, the trails all melting.

Come mid-May, sure enough the weather was stormy and that commitment to travel south drew nearer as days passed and the river ice refused to flow. Meanwhile, I had homework. I was supposed to read "King of Fish," a book about a thousand-year history of salmon and human interaction. And write a speech for the retreat. What I really wanted to do was not think about any of that, just strap on my snowshoes to roam the tundra for fresh geese to put in the dutch oven.

There were additional problems. I had no clue what the retreat was about or who would be attending. Fishers or fish buyers, Fish and Game or Greenies?

One thing I was convinced of -- nobody involved with salmon needed to hear anything from me. Over the years I've come to realize how little I know about salmon. Now about all I could think of to say was how much I like catching them.

I've spent my life catching fish. For some reason I love setting net, out in the weather, waiting and watching and hopefully hauling in salmon. No inspiring speech there; more like repeating yourself relentlessly in a bar at closing time.

Hunched by our barrel stove, reading "King of Fish" while wet snow slopped against the windows and slid down in slushy rivulets, I got a 250-page history lesson not so much in salmon but in humans. How humans for hundreds of years have caught the hell out of millions and millions of tasty salmon and meanwhile consistently destroyed their spawning habitat until run after run was ruined. The author, David Montgomery, spent years researching the entwined past of our two species while I'd been busy season after season filling my boat with the fish. His book is powerful and informative, but sadly what the story boils down to is: Across Europe, then the East Coast of North America and then the West Coast -- heading steadily toward Alaska -- people have caught, eaten and loved salmon, all the while busily wrecking their home rivers.

Later, landed in Anchorage, I walked across flat black tarmac between towering jets. The sky was blue, the air hot and sunny and loud. In the strange lonesome light of the parking garage I sat in my rental car, confused by all the buttons and trying to remember how to drive in the city. I was also worried about the fact that I hadn't finished my speech.

Finally, I steered into the spiraling exit. It was cement and narrow and downhill. Colored paint from previous fender scrapes marred the scared walls. I kept my foot on the brake, nervous and tense, no way to turn around. The gray concrete corkscrew reminded me of those dams I'd been reading about, along the Columbia and other rivers in the states, and I wondered what it was like for a salmon self-raised on the wild seas of the Pacific to have to face a fish ladder -- no turning back and the only way home.

Girdwood was green and peaceful, leaves on thousands of trees, summer bugs buzzing softly, all making the barren brown tundra and white ice of Kotzebue Sound seem far away. My life -- and salmon fishing -- seemed even more distant. Dazed, I parked the car cautiously. I glanced at my notes, wondering why I was here, then rolled my luggage in the doors to the Alyeska Resort and didn't come back outside for 25 hours (my longest stint in a building ever, outside of being hospitalized).

Right off it was more sensory overload than even I had suspected. I was fresh from the tundra, and the organizers had invited 40 people, men and women, young and old, with an amazing and varied array of experience. Fishers and former fishers, folks with ties to the Legislature, wildlife management, state fish boards, present-day salmon science, statehood compromises over our constitution, etc. The group included a former lieutenant governor, a constitutional conventionist, former and current members of the Legislature and others.

Standing, gripping my name tag -- in case I needed to look at it -- I thought I saw through their scheme; they'd invited me as a balance to all these smart people. Over the course of dinner and a speech by "King of Fish" author David Montgomery, followed by a reception with wine, I tried to figure out the reason for this gathering. No one said so in words, but it seemed we all were here to just think about what this fish, salmon, means to Alaskans. To question, are salmon really important to us?

This in the face of modern realities, such as jobs, property rights and looming development all across the state. And how willing are we as Alaskans to commit to salmon having a place in our future?

The next morning a vivacious young woman named Erin Harrington took the podium and started guiding us in this strange search, first by asking each of us to introduce ourselves by way of a story that included fish. She wore a skirt and heels, but as it turned out was a longliner from Kodiak and somehow also a compelling facilitator and eloquent public speaker -- very much not your regular deckhand, nor the coarse fishing captains I grew up with.

Equally surprising was that each person in the convention center had a heartfelt and meaningful fish story, many of which had steered and affected them in their lives. It wasn't how I would ever have envisioned being connected to this array of strangers, but accomplish that it did.

Still, the big question hung in the air: Where would we start, if we were to, and how?

And was a future with salmon in it even something the majority of Alaskans valued? The Salmon Project's previous huge public opinion survey said YES. Across geographic, ethnic and financial boundaries, Alaskans had spoken up, spoken out on their strong and enduring ties to this fish.

While people were served lunch, I did my speech -- a tale of a lifetime of countless fish -- so many dried fish, frozen fish, stink fish, fish for dog food, fish eggs, under-ice fish nets. Always more fish. I admitted to never really thinking about all the years and all the fish in a heap before. It made me realize what fish have meant in my life. I concluded with what puzzles me -- the dichotomy between my devotion to protecting natural resources and my addiction to hauling thousands of these beautiful glistening creatures out of the ocean.

It is a mystery. Maybe there's an answer in there somewhere. I know I'm glad I read "King of Fish" and glad to be a part of any effort to keep these amazing salmon coming home to a good home. I think sometimes we believe that because we're Alaska and Alaskans we're guaranteed to always have salmon.

Reading Montgomery's book made me wonder if we are different at all.

Now, home, immersed in fish, I'm back to what I love. But always with these questions. What have I ever done for salmon? These fish navigate a web of death and life, survive the savage sea to return to their birthplace, to reproduce and die. Standing in the shallow water by my net I don't think I'm that much different than a sharp-beaked bird, bear, or seal -- laying in wait to harvest these salmon as if I own them.

But I don't. I'm just pulling silver strangers out of the ocean and hoping that somehow they keep on coming.


Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

 

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