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First Place, Nonfiction, Open to the public : Homeward

Kristin Vantrease

I

You start off small, spherical, orange, translucent. Immediately, you are surrounded by your family, stuck directly to them, hundreds of your brothers and your sisters. The water around you, clear and fresh, flows steadily, not excessively. Your dying mother has swept out a redd for you, a home in gravelly stream — a temporary home until you emerge from your rubbery encasing.

**

My life also revolves around the seasons; every summer my family migrates to Bristol Bay with the salmon. I’m young. Still a small fry. Too young to be at sea, I stay on land with my mom and cousins at our fishcamp – a place called Graveyard Point, named for the Indian burial sites there.

Our shack is between the beach and the tundra. Carried from the rocky beach, the scent of rotting salmon rides the wind to my doorstep: it smothers me, bowls me over. To this day, I can still pull that scent out of my memory as if it were a penny in my pocket.

Tundra blows in from the north. The wind is spicy and perfumed with the oils from the Hudson Bay Tea leaves. To lie in the tundra is to be transported to the wilderness. It speaks of seduction. That is what my grandfather must have smelled when he cracked open the pages of Jack London’s books – it must have been that scent that drew him to Alaska. I steep the Tea leaves in hot water and honey, and then sip: Alaska trickles down my throat, warming me as it slides down. I brew up mugs of the wilderness and make others drink it, too.

Pilot Bread and peanut butter: that’s the taste Graveyard left on my tongue. Dirt and mud: those are the stains that Graveyard left on my clothes. Splinters in my feet: those are the marks that Graveyard left on my body from the boardwalks that connect the cabins and abandoned canneries across the tundra. Graveyard means peeing in a Hills Bros coffee can in the middle of the night, wandering the tundra and collecting blueberries in a Ziploc bag with my black lab, stomping on the pale and bloated salmon washing up on the beach.

At Graveyard, we harvest the rain in barrels and take steam baths, sweating the dirt and salmon out of our skin. My mom washes her curly brown hair in a bucket. The bears wander around our cabins at night while the dogs bark. Inside, I stare at the butter yellow walls and crunch on dry Top Ramen noodles, the golden chicken flavoring sprinkled on top. At midnight in Alaska, the sun is still shining, glowing through the cracks in the black garbage bags that we put on the windows. The light will always seep in.

When the days get shorter, the salmon leave, and so do we, abandoning our shacks and mending racks for the winter.

**

As a fry you leave the redd for the first time. You are the tiniest fish, translucent as stained glass and just as fragile. Keep to the rocks. There, a bird. There, a larger fish. The journey to the lake is perilous.

In the lake now, your body is flecked with color – dark vertical bands across your tiny scales. Lake Iliamna nourishes you in its clear frigid waters for several years. Then it’s time to leave. Now a Smolt, you group up with other salmon and head to the ocean.

**

I leave, too, to go on church youth group trips to Mexico. We sit, huddled on the floor of the San Diego airport watching immaculately dressed people walking around, wondering Where do these people come from? We pile into our 15 passenger van, and clamber back out, parked next to a lemon tree. We surround it, fingers pointing, mouths agape in disbelief: fruit grows on trees? Later, my friend Katie asks me, “Do the palm trees grow in straight lines, or do they plan the highways around them?”

I press my face against the van window, observing California dissolve into Mexico. I love everything about life in a different country – the cadence of a language I don’t quite understand, the air that feels indescribably different, the erratic patterns of the telephone wires, the constellations rotating on an invisible axis above me.

After high school, I travel downstream to Portland for college. I find myself retreating of the big city to the woods; between classes I bike to an extinct volcano – Mt. Tabor – where blackberry bushes twist in snarled knots and the berry juice leaves ink blots on my hands.

Staring at a map on the wall in one of my classes – a wall-sized map of the world – suddenly I am swimming in the blue, lost in the colors of different countries. My professor is talking, but I’m not listening. I’m actually in Tanzania. This whole time there’s been a bigger ocean and I need to explore it.

**

You spend two to six years swimming the ocean, growing, maturing. You dodge sea lions, seals, salmon sharks, and squeeze through fishermen’s nets. Many of your family don’t survive. You have near misses; on your silvery body are the distinct raking teeth marks from a sea lion. Your scales mutate and adjust though they are small and deformed now. You are mended patchwork-quilt-style, still carrying the memory of your brush with death.

**

I leave. I leave Alaska, and Portland and America entirely for New Zealand. The air from a different hemisphere is invigorating. Finally I am making my tracks across that map. Things I learn along the way: if you book your hostel for Sydney, Australia, online, trusting only online reviews, you will end up here, at NOMADS Westend Backpackers, in one of the 28 beds in a dorm room called “The Church.” You will walk in and naively wonder why some of the bunks have sheets cascading down the sides of the bed from the top to the bottom. Then, you fall asleep with your headphones in to block out the noise of couples having drunken sex all around you. You will wake up headphones dangling out of reach, and hear the sound of sticky bodies slapping against each other. You quickly leave.

If you are on a train in India riding from Kolkata to Varanasi, you will get woken up in the middle of the night twice. Once because Johnny’s friends are singing Happy Birthday in boisterous Indian accents; then again, because suddenly Johnny is in your face, in the dark, asking if you would like some of his birthday cake. Meanwhile, your train rolls through farmlands, through cities and slums, and tracks straight through India.

You will learn that if you let Sam give you and your friend a ride while hitchhiking in New Zealand, you will end up staying at his house in Murchison. You will go to the bar with him and his rugby teammates, one of whom had his front teeth punched out by a 16 year old girl for cutting in line at McDonald’s. Spittle will fly through the air when he talks, some of it landing on your leg. That night, in excess, you will learn about possum hunting.

You will learn that if you hear rustling all around your tent at night while camping in Punakaiki, it is not psychopaths coming to assault you, because when you step out of the tent and shine your headlamp around, holding a pocketknife in one hand and a cooking pot in the other, you will see 30 glowing red possum eyes staring back at you. In the morning, your oatmeal is missing—stolen by possums.

You will learn how unexpected it is to hear a Nepali speak English with a Texas twang. You will eat purple carrots in Agra and learn that they taste just like the orange ones in America. You will learn that if you go for a walk in Bellingen, Australia, you will stumble into a forest of flying foxes, which are bats. You hear them gently chirping to themselves as they cover the tree branches, as thick as leaves, wrapping their bodies up with crinkly leather wings. Then, lying on the lawn of your hostel at dusk, you see them all take to the sky, pitching and reeling like paper kites below the stars. There, then gone.

You will learn that if you catch a bus at four in the morning, the only vacant seat is next to a 20-something man whose breath, redolent of rancid coffee and cigarettes, causes you physical discomfort. He will be an incessant talker. And when you say you are tired, he will offer his shoulder as your pillow. He will talk even though you have curled up in your seat with your entire body facing away from him. You will learn that travelling is fun, for a while, but realization dawns like a winter sunrise. Slowly. Eventually you realize it’s time to go home.

**

After exploring the ocean, that liquid wilderness you are now a mature, adult salmon. You begin your journey home. And you will swim exactly home. Back to the precise stream that you were born. Your navigation is extraordinarily accurate. How you manage to locate the trickle of a stream you were conceived in is baffling. Other salmon have the unfortunate task of swimming up waterfalls and negotiating whitewater to return home. You, too, will swim against the current for miles and miles. Do you ever get lost on the journey home?

**

I return to Portland because I believe it is my home. I take classes, live with friends from college, find a job, yet I feel unsettled. On my father’s fishing boat in the summer, home is wherever the harbor is; I discover, while in Portland, the mountains are my harbor – I tie my soul around the cleat and snug the rope down tight. So this time, the ache is for something more than stability; this is a yearning to live with mountains smothering my horizon. Give me alpenglow and darkness shimmering with the moisture from my breath. Coat my eyelashes in frost. Surround me by trees covered with snow, and I will wrap my heart around them. I thought I knew what I wanted; I thought I wanted Portland, but after travelling home to Alaska for Christmas, cross country skiing through moonlight, my suspicions are confirmed: I must move back.

I pack up my room in Portland, cramming the pieces of my life into my Honda, wave goodbye to my friends, to the rain. I open the window on the highway in Canada, and the breeze ushers that tundra wind back inside. As Annie Dillard said in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until that moment when I was lifted and struck,” and I was indeed struck. Issuing from my metal body came the clear tone that rings when something is true. Finally. Everything feels right here: the midnight sun, the termination dust creeping down the mountains signaling the end of summer. I flinch against the coming cold, but being cold is being home.

II

I feel like I am just living for the next change that comes, blinding and overwhelming as a blizzard. But the whiteout soon fades and leaves me waiting for what comes next. How many times can I do this? Can I be a tree without roots? I will surely fall. I should be more like the salmon as they steadily move homeward, confident in their direction.

I fly out into the tundra-scape of the Lake Clark wilderness in a Supercub with my father and look out of the window. Below, I see the infinite snaking of rivers. I could learn a lesson from these rivers – they are in no hurry to get anywhere, but still, they will make it to the ocean. The rivers weave together to form a tapestry that blankets the land, some as small as threads, others as wide as a silvery liquid highway.

We land on a tundra runway. The large Bushwheels of the Supercub roll effortlessly over the rocks and tundra lumps. I look out from our high point on the runway to see the valley sprawling out before me. The biggest trees, a small tangle of alders, stand no taller than I do. Behind the valley the upheaval begins; flat tundra slowly convulses into hills and then roils up, higher, into more pronounced blue peaks: the mountains enfold me. This is the view from my backdoor for a few sacred days. I’m content to be surrounded.

We are here for the caribou. They see us. I take aim and try to shoot like my father taught me: I breathe in deep and slowly exhale, gripping the barrel of my gun with my whole hand, not just with my trigger finger. When the gun fires, it surprises me. One shot. This is the first large animal that I have killed. I stroke her thick coat of cream and chocolate fur, her velvety antlers. Warm blood pools onto the tundra, the thick, deep color of ripe cranberries.

That night, the sunset stains the sky orange. It stains our clothes and runs into our hair as we sit by the tent, tending to fresh caribou meat that sizzles over the Coleman stove. It stains my memory the color of fresh persimmons: sometimes stains can be beautiful.

Over the course of the next few days we traverse the tundra, search for blueberries, hunt for spruce hens, and finally, load the plane up with the meat, strap the antlers to the wings, and return home. I eat that caribou all winter. As the snow falls outside, I will have caribou stew in my crockpot. Caribou sausage. Caribou chili. The wild sustains me.

**

Let’s say you get lucky. Let’s say you have one more close encounter before leaving the saltwater. While on your way home, you swim blindly into a net. The webbing slips effortlessly over your nose and then catches your gills. The diamond shape of the web holds you tight, and despite your thrashing efforts to loose yourself, you cannot escape. Trapped. You are suspended in the water with hundreds of other salmon, all in a similar plight.

Almost immediately, the net pulls you through the water. You break through the surface, and rain drops slide off your scales. Suspended now in mid-air instead of water, gloved hands reach into your ribbed, red, gills and free you. That same hand that freed you reaches down, picks you up, and then, while throwing you into the fish hold, misses the hold. You are overboard. Shaken, but still swimming.

**

For three generations, my family has depended on wild salmon to support us. Fishing out of the Naknek district in Bristol Bay. Within our district, the Kvichak River is a notoriously difficult region to fish in Bristol Bay. Beneath the murky waters, a labyrinth of mudflats lies waiting to trap boats as soon as the tide ebbs. My grandfather left the dustbowl of Oklahoma to fish for sockeye salmon in a wooden sailboat. Wooden corks, canvas sails. My grandmother fished right alongside him, choosing to pick fish barehanded instead of using the cotton liners preferred by many other fishermen.

The wooden sailboats gained outboard motors and were eventually abandoned altogether for aluminum and fiberglass boats. My father remembers eating dinner on a piece of plywood placed over the boat’s engine. They slept around the engine, too, on crude wooden planks that served as bunks. Now I work with my father and brother on a 32 foot aluminum boat powered by diesel and a John Deere engine. Daily, we intercept salmon by the thousands of pounds on their journey back to the spawning grounds.

He nudges the boat into improbable situations: the narrow mouth of a stream, a cutbank, a sandbar. Every season this region changes, affected by the deep currents flowing through. The clay banks are now terraced from years of erosion as the river carves deeper and deeper into the land. Rivers are fervent architects; changing the land they move through, changing those who depend on them.

**

Now, this is the end for you. From the instant your scales touched freshwater, the change began. The pigment from your flesh leeches into your scales, until each one is fully vermilion. Your scales are so red they could be made from the petals of a poppy. Your tail and head change too, darkening to pine green. You contrast suddenly and unexpectedly with the water. Red and green in the blue: you are a perfect painting, picturesque and iconic. Blending in is not a priority now. You don’t need to hide anymore; you need to be found.

Not only have your scales turned color, but your back, once a gentle slope, is now sharply arched. Curved also, are your mouth and teeth. Your upper lip hooks around your lower like a shepherd’s staff. Your teeth protrude, irregular and snaggled.

In this transformed state, you journey back home. The path is ever-upstream, but it is your last and you beat against the current with your tail. By the day your body gets weaker. Your once orange flesh is now pale and pinkish grey. And still you move forward. You will lay your eggs in the same stream you were born in, and those, too, will be orange, colored from the very pigment leaving your flesh. You can’t stop until you arrive at home.

**

We are deep in salmon: three generations deep, and on board the boat, knee-deep. Being a part of this process of labor and harvest grounds and centers me in Alaska. It reminds me that life, for much of the world, used to revolve more heavily around the seasons. Life is meant to be cyclical, full of flux. Some seasons good, some seasons bad – fishermen know this better than anyone. I live with one foot in the river, and one foot on land knowing the importance of both. And, at the end of the day on the boat, as I lie in my bunk, all I see when I close my eyes are the lithe, silver bodies of sockeye salmon.

The end


By Kristin Vantrease
Anchorage