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Alaskans hard-wired for salmon slaughter on Kenai killing fields

Craig Medred
Thousands of Alaskans, including Darrell Mathieu, wearing a dry suit, flocked to the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Sandy Middleton works on a salmon next to her cooler literally overflowing with fish on the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Middleton and her fishing partner caught over 30 fish in four hours. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Henry Tashjian rushes ashore with a salmon in his net. He was one of thousands of Alaskans who flocked to the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Dipnetters braved strong waves at the mouth of the Kenai river on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Thousands of Alaskan fishermen, and seagulls, flocked to the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Thousands of Alaskans flocked to the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Thousands of Alaskans flocked to the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
A salmon tries to escape a bucket at the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
"I've never gotten a double before," exclaimed Steve Delehanty, from Homer. Delehanty was one of thousands of Alaskans who flocked to the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
A fisherman pulls a salmon from his dipnet among hundreds of dismembered fish heads on the beach at the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Improperly discarded fish waste is a perennial problem on the Kenai.
Loren Holmes photo
Improperly discarded fish waste is a perennial problem on the Kenai river, where thousands of Alaskans descend every July for dipnetting season. July 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Instead of the live salmon she was hoping for, Melissa Temple pulls a dead salmon carcass from her net at the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Improperly discarded fish waste is a perennial problem on the Kenai.
Loren Holmes photo
A fish jumps behind a seal and a line of dipnetters at the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Thousands of Alaskans flocked to the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Thousands of Alaskans flocked to the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Kari Nabinger and her uncle Ray Nabinger, both from Soldotna, fillet sockeye salmon on the beach at the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo
Palmer resident Tom Osterkamp photographs his daughters Rebecca, in green, and Jessica with their catch of sockeye salmon at the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The day before was a record day for the Kenai, with almost 250,000 fish counted at a sonar station 19 miles upriver from the mouth.
Loren Holmes photo

KENAI RIVER MOUTH -- A west wind brings the morning air fresh with the scent of the sea from off Cook Inlet, but there remains a hint of the stench of blood, death and rotting fish. It is good. These are the smells of the success of others on the killing field.

We have come to join them, to satisfy the blood lust, to fill coolers with the bodies of salmon.

Write like this these days, and you will offend some. In this country, so citified are Americans -- and many an Alaskan is among them -- that they are dismayed at frank descriptions of how nature works.

Especially when humans engage their role in the killing that means life. Most especially when humans are depicted as the animals we are and always have been.

On a Friday morning, this beach is infested with human animals. They are not much different than the grizzly bears at Brooks River Falls in Katmai National Park or along the McNeil River in the fabled state wildlife preserve.

The biggest differences might simply be that there are more of us. And as killers of salmon, we are better -- way better.

A dipnet made up of an aluminum frame and nylon-mesh net is an inefficient tool compared to the gear used by the people on boats heading to sea to mine for silvery salmon with lengthy driftnets. But it is a huge improvement on tooth and claw.

On a sunny morning in mid-July, it is a tool that brings death to salmon all around. There are shouts of joy in a half-dozen languages as the fish fall. There are on this beach today some Africans speaking in a language an ignorant American cannot begin to recognize.

This is new. Spanish, German, French, Samoan, Fillipino and Korean are more the norm here where the ethnic melting pot of America's 49th state boils onto a beach just off a road from the state's largest city to nowhere.

This morning we are fishing in and around the Africans -- a friendly bunch  -- a Filipino couple, and a family who appear to hail originally from the Midwest. There is polite chatter, and some congratulations offered when fish die, but there is time for little more.

The prime objective of everyone is too important, and it is universal: net the salmon. Drag the netted salmon ashore. Kill the salmon. Add it to the pile. Get back into the water and catch another.

On the horizon to the south, southwest the Kenai Mountains claw gray into a blue sky full of big, gray clouds. You can see clearly the gap where the Tustumena Glacier cuts west from the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield to form the headwaters of a huge lake. The scenery stretching away behind the Kenai estuary is awe inspiring.

It is hard to tell if anyone else on the beach even notices. Most people appear more concerned about keeping the pesky sea gulls off the carcasses of fish piling up in the still-wet mud and sand of the beach below the bluffs below the city with its Safeway supermarket and well-known American fast-food chains.

All the gulls want to do is feast on the eyeballs of the dead and dying salmon. This is as much a time of bounty for them as it is for the wet, sandy, fish-slime-stained people who likewise lust for salmon.

It is a good morning for them. Stand still and listen, and you will hear above the gurgle of the river and the shouts of excitement, the thwock, thwock, thwock of various instruments of death smashing into the heads of struggling salmon soon to die.

We use a traditional billy. One of the Africans is making do with a rock picked up off the beach. Some young kids working as the fish smackers for their parents have a hammer.

At home I have a two-pound sledge found on this beach years ago. Someone had been using it as a fishbonker. I used it as a fish bonker, and then I hauled it home. There are better uses for a two-pound sledge than filling a role that can be handled quite nicely by a heavy stick of timber.

The actual stick of timber in use this morning belongs to friend Dave Nicholls. It looks to be a old piece of broom handle, maybe, with some duct tape around the end. It is shorter than I would prefer, but it does the job.

We have several dozen fish in a bloody, sandy pile on the beach within a few hours of starting our day. Scraped clean later with a knife and washed in the incoming saltwater of the tide pushing up the Inlet, they will glisten silver and clean in the morning sun.

The knife that cuts deep into them will send blood spurting before it finds firm, red, tasty flesh. This is what life is all about. We kill to survive. It is our natural place in the scheme of things. 

We kill to survive whether we murder these salmon ourselves or let someone else do it, and buy the carcasses clean in shrink-wrapped plastic at the market, and try not to think about how it came to be there.

Try not to think to about that beautiful, silvery salmon dying so close to the end of that last struggle to make it home to spawn after a perilous life at sea, along the way dodging a litany of predators too long to list. It is sad to think the fish has survived all of that only to die. 

Sitting here now at a computer in an antiseptic office, I admit it is hard not to feel a soft spot in the gut, a twinge of sympathy for a fish that survived so much only to die in the dirt on an Alaska beach. But in the soft, gray light of the morning, there was none of that.

There was only the primordial blood lust hard to temper. There was no issue with killing fish. There was an issue with trying to keep from killing too many. We simply don't need the 35 salmon the state limit would have allowed. We already have Copper River salmon in the freezer.

I set a limit of 10. I ended, when I forced myself to stop, with a dozen, all big fish over 8 pounds. It was not easy to stop killing them, because it is what humans do.

We kill because we are genetically hard-wired to kill, because for tens of thousands of years it has meant the difference between human survival and death.

Because it is better to end the day where I am now, sitting in that office writing with a cold beer at hand, than to end it where the salmon have gone.

Craig Medred's opinions are his own. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com