(Twelfth of 15 parts)
When I got married, my husband Carl owned an Alaska river rafting company. He would return to our home in Anchorage from long trips and tell me stories about his adventures -- the blueberries along the banks of a particular river, the fishing, or what food he cooked over the campfire in the evenings. One night, while we were dreaming out loud to each other, we made the decision to seek a life lived closer to nature. I wanted a garden with carrots that my babies could pull up from the ground, and Carl wanted to teach his children how to fish for salmon.
In the fall of 1983, we climbed into a float-equipped Cessna-206 airplane; me, Carl, our little baby Carly, the dog, a broom and a mop, and boxes of food. The first snow had just begun to fall as we quietly glided onto the Yentna River, about 45 minutes north of Anchorage by air. We had found a piece of land to buy. We were going to make our living by starting and running a sportfishing lodge.
We had to borrow a skiff to row across and downriver to the small two-room cabin that was our new home. The pungent smell of frosted low-bush cranberries would forever remind me of that first night on the river. Salmon carcasses, half-buried and frozen in mud, were scattered along the riverbank, final remnants of the violence and the beauty of summer on the river.
In that first winter, Carl and I led the simple uncomplicated lives we had dreamed of. During the day, I kept the woodstove going and the baby fed while Carl worked on what would become the main building of the lodge we’d open the next summer. In the evenings, after the dishes were done, within the thick yellow glow of a kerosene lantern, we planned our new lives and our new lodge. We’d call it “Riversong” after a line from a Van Morrison song.
The fishing life
Our lodge was located at the confluence of two rivers -- the clear and cold waters of Lake Creek and the wide silty Yentna River. Large runs of salmon, all five species, returned to Lake Creek every year. In those early days, it was easy to attract fishermen to stay with us, given the lure of abundant 60-plus-pound king salmon that swam in the river right out our front door. The news of the first salmon caught in the springtime always spread up and down the river with breathless urgency, by boat or CB radio. Those of us, just a few families, living along the 18-mile stretch of river between Lake Creek and Skwentna were first witnesses to the miracle of salmon leaping out of the water once again. The news somehow bound us together in collective appreciation for the salmon returning. When the biggest fish were in, king salmon that weighed nearly more than I could lift, the energy on the river was palpable.
And, our little lodge grew, cabin by cabin. Each winter, Carl worked on a new building project and I learned how to cook for our guests. Fishermen came to stay with us from every corner of the world. At night, our little “bar” would be packed with convivial fishermen telling stories of their lives at home, of their faraway families, and the adventures of the day. The lodge hummed with the brightness of happy people. In the fall, all the people would go away. And, so would the bears and the birds, each of us depending on the salmon to return the next season. Salmon eggs, salmon fry, salmon flesh, and salmon carcasses had fed us all. The salmon in the river gave us our livelihood, our lives together. The salmon in the river had fed us, spiritually as well as literally. Sometimes I wore little dangling preserved salmon-eye earrings.
And, every summer, the fish came back. Our daughters learned to fish. They could spin-cast and fly-cast. They held beating bloody salmon hearts in their hands. They drove boats as well as any fishing guide. Catches were hung onto hooks underneath a sign my mother painted and pictures were taken with grinning proud people. I grilled and broiled, fried, and steamed salmon. We had big barbecues on our deck with bluegrass music playing.
Where did the salmon go?
I’m not quite sure when our lives began to change at Riversong. Perhaps it was with the first airboat arrival from down-river, pulsing a deafening winded sound across the garden. Maybe it was gunshots in the night announcing a new neighbor’s inebriated expression of freedom and signaling the end of our own. Maybe it was when guests began to come back to the lodge without fish. No one knew why our fish weren’t returning. In those years, we never considered that the salmon wouldn’t return. I suppose we had thought that our lives, just as they were, would go on forever. There were grumbles and whispers at our dinner table where the fishing guides gathered. The fish had been, perhaps, intercepted in the ocean by commercial fishermen or overfished by sport fishermen. The fish returns were half of what they were when we first moved to Lake Creek. Every season ended with optimism that the next year’s run would be better.
Despite the decline, people kept coming to our river to catch salmon. Airplanes filled to capacity with “day-fishers” from Anchorage kept launching from Lake Hood like miniature squadrons off to war. Airplanes circled overhead our idyllic homestead with such velocity, at times I couldn’t hear anything but the drone and throttle-down of engines. Fishermen came from cruise ships and packaged tours, wanting to catch an Alaska fish on the quick and easy. “Let’s Go Fishing” blasted over the Anchorage airwaves. Arctic terns circled and cried, competing for the gravel bar that had been their nesting ground but was now a busy floatplane parking lot.
After more than twenty years of living at Lake Creek, Carl and I decided to leave our beloved lodge. The changes to the river and the changes to us left too much uncommon ground. We had never meant our little lodge to grow so big. We never meant to catch so many fish. There were now a dozen or so “wilderness lodges” lining the banks of the river. We moved farther west and north of Lake Creek to start a new lodge, higher into the valley and closer to the mountains, but far enough away for me to long for those tall swaying cottonwood trees along the river banks.
We still fish for salmon in the small streams that surround us and on a few lakes nearby. But, I never see arctic terns anymore and I miss that annual river-wide announcement that the king salmon have returned.
Riversong has survived beyond us. I’ve heard through the grapevine a new family lives there. I hope they’ll take good care of the lodge, and the river. I hope they’ll plant a garden and respect the fragility of the balance of it all.
Postscript recipe: First salmon
Gill and gut your first king salmon of the season. Wash it well with clean cold water and pat it completely dry. Fillet both sides with a sharp 10-inch breaker knife. Use a spoon to scrape the remaining meat off of the carcass. (You’ll get nearly a pound more of meat by doing this. It can go into the spaghetti sauce the next day.) Pull out all 32 pin bones from both fillets with a flat-edged Japanese fish tweezers, being careful not to tear the flesh. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Rub both sides with good quality olive oil. Brush the flesh with lime juice, honey, and ginger. Grill the salmon skinside down over hot alder wood, covering the lid so the smoke stays in. Cook for about 8 minutes per inch of flesh, just until the fat begins to release. Be thoughtful to whom you give the first serving – it’s good luck that will last the entire summer.
Kirsten Dixon has been living and cooking in the Alaska backcountry for over 30 years. She divides her time between Winterlake Lodge, the Finger Lake checkpoint along the Iditarod Trail, and Tutka Bay Lodge in Kachemak Bay.
The Salmon Voices Series is supported by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans' strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life. Support for the project is provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.