KENAI -- Like prospectors rushing to reap their fortunes from fabled veins of ore, thousands of Alaskans turn a small Southcentral city into a boomtown each summer. But the people who nearly triple the size of the Kenai -- about 160 road miles south of Anchorage -- aren't looking for gold. The bonanza they are after is red. Their paystreak: millions of sockeye salmon that propel themselves toward the mouth of the Kenai River each July. Their pilgrimage, much like the salmon they chase, ends in the turquoise-blue waterway that meanders 82 miles into Cook Inlet from a large, glacier-fed lake.
Welcome to the Kenai River personal use dipnet fishery.
When the river is choked with fish it also becomes thick with people. More than 10,000 fishermen pack themselves onto two strips of mud and sand, less than a mile long. Thousands more fill hundreds of boats that crowd another half-mile-long section river. If counted as a metropolis, the 15,000 people that pack the area on any given weekend would be Alaska's fourth-largest city.
Their days are marked by both frenzied action and seemingly serene moments. Some people jockey for the best spots -- battling each other, the tides and of course, the fish. Others seem content to sit quietly, wrapped in an embrace of sweaters and rain gear. At night, a steady din of hushed conversation, seagull screeches, and smoke waft through the air, creeping upward like the tendrils of flame that can been seen from campfires dotting the beach. Together, the sounds and smells add a uniquely Alaska undertone to the salty breeze that seems to constantly blow off Cook Inlet.
"It's kind of like our version of Woodstock," said Kenai City Manager, Rick Koch.
Most people call it dipnetting. Officially, it is known as the Kenai River personal use fishery. It began in 1996 when the Alaska Board of Fisheries voted to create an opportunity for ordinary Alaskans to get a bigger piece of the seasonal salmon slaughter in Cook Inlet. All it takes to participate is a lot of patience, some simple gear, a fishing license and a free permit.
A half-million sockeyes
It works like this: Get a metal hoop, up to 5 feet in diameter. Put some netting on it to form a basket. Attach everything to a long, sturdy handle. Then, stand in the shallow waters near the banks of the river while holding the net against the tide and current. Wait for a fish to swim into the net -- indicated by a distinctive thump felt along the metal handle -- and walk back to shore. Kill the fish. Clean it, or hand it off to a waiting member of your group for processing. Then, repeat the entire process until you have limited out. (Permits for 25 red salmon -- also called sockeyes -- go to each household that applies, with 10 additional fish per dependent allowed.)
People have become proficient at the task. More than 35,000 permits were issued in 2013. In a good year, people sweep up as many as 540,000 sockeyes during the 21 days the fishery is open.
But it takes an army of diverse groups and interests working together to make it all happen.
The dipnet guy
Dipnetting begins with the purchase of the namesake piece of equipment: the dipnet. Some prefer to buy their nets -- the aforementioned hoop-and-handle rig used to scoop salmon out of the river -- at stores like Costco, Fred Meyer, and other retailers. But a lot of people swear by nets made by local hands. One such place is a welding shop in Sterling, about 20 miles down the highway from the mouth of the Kenai River. There, Mike Kunz and his crew make hundreds of nets, selling each one for $150-$200. What sets Mike's nets apart, his fans say, are custom-welded hoops made from oval-shaped aluminum instead of the round metal found in store-bought nets.
"The oval cuts through the water and causes less drag and vibration so it doesn't spook the fish," Mike's son, Buck Kunz said.
With a film school degree under his belt, Buck jokingly refers to his current profession as a "great fall back job." It's a job he has been doing since he was a teen -- welding and selling nets to hundreds of people who stop by the shop, lured in by roadside signs or active word-of-mouth advertising by loyal customers. They peruse at least eight different sizes and lengths of gear -- all neatly categorized and stacked on the side of the shop or along a nearby hill -- before paying (Mike only accepts cash and checks) and strapping the gear onto the top of the trucks, campers, and cars.
The Kunz family started its business building dipnets. But, even with yearly sales of hundreds of nets, the welding shop spends more of its time -- and makes most of its money -- putting together fishing docks and river platforms for private landowners.
"He wants to retire from net making because he is so busy with other stuff," Buck Kunz said of his father. "But it won't happen. People won't ever let him stop. You'd think that after 10 to 15 years of making hundreds of nets every year that everyone would have one by now, but we still sell out every year. It kind of shows how much the fishery keeps growing and growing," Kunz said, adding that he only goes dipnetting during the weekdays to avoid, "the weekend rodeo."
The church group
As you make your way a half-mile down a dirt road from the parking lot to the north Kenai River beach, you're likely to be greeted by someone with a distinctively non-Alaska diction.
The permanently smiling man wearing an orange safety vest at the beach entrance addresses almost everyone with a hearty, "Howdy, y'all." Someone wearing an Auburn football sweatshirt and sporting a dark tan, may offer you a free bottle of water or a quick snack. People with happy demeanors, smiling faces, and southern drawls are common in Kenai during the dipnet fishery.
They are part of a group of affiliated churches working with local Kenai Baptist ministries. And although they can't dip for salmon (the fishery is restricted to Alaska residents), each paid about $575 plus the cost of airfare to come here for one week and help out, through Alaska Missions and Retreats. They call it "Salmon Fest."
"We know it can be hectic up here when people are trying to get their fish to provide for their family," said Keith Beanland, a 24-year-old volunteer from Texas. The group sets up large awnings on the dipnetting beaches. They serve free breakfast and hot dogs, manage a kids area -- complete with a bounce house. They have nurses on duty, and even staff a warming tent with a blast heater for anyone who might get wet and cold.
"It gets used pretty regularly," Beanland said. "The tides are pretty crazy out there, and when the boats come in the waves catch people off guard sometimes."
There are no overt religious pleas. There are no large signs or crosses displayed in their area. Once in a while, a volunteers might offer a Bible or ask you to join them for a morning prayer. But for the most part, their presence is subtle, like the fin of a single salmon poking out of a much larger, unseen group of fish.
"We just saw a need on the beach, and we are here to help serve the people to help make the process go smoother and easier," Beanland said.
The city of Kenai
The city of Kenai manages the beaches where dipnetting takes place. It collects fees from people who want to park or camp nearby. The money is used to finance the toilets, extra people, beach cleaning, and garbage pickup made necessary by all the fishermen who invade town. But it isn't a moneymaker for the Kenai city government. In 2013, the city collected $420,000 in fees from dipnetters. It spent $425,000.
Kenai City Manager Rick Koch said the total economic impact of all those fishermen who flood his town hasn't been calculated. But certainly, many local businesses -- especially gas stations and groceries -- profit from the fishing frenzy. "One year it was incredibly sunny and hot, and you could not buy sunblock within 25 miles of Kenai," he said. "This year it's rain jackets and mosquito repellant."
According to the city, it costs $75,000 for port-a-potties and trash removal during the three-week-long fishery. Six temporary enforcement officers are hired to police the crowds. Several fee stations must be staffed, and the city pays to clean up fish carcasses that wash ashore after each high tide.
Each night, after fishing closes at 11 p.m. large-wheeled tractors pull harvesting rakes to collect the estimated 1.2 million pounds of salmon heads and guts that washed back onto shore after being thrown into the water, or left illegally to rot on the sand. A city ordinance enacted last year carries a $150 fine for not properly disposing of fish waste. That has cut back on the amount of salmon carcasses left on land, according to city manager Koch.
And each year, the city has to send a rescue team to retrieve someone who was washed into the inlet, or help recover a vehicle swamped during a particularly high tide.
The fishermen (and woman and children)
All the support is designed to make the fishery work. And work it does, especially for those who have experience and a little luck. Some dipnetters spend days waiting for the salmon to surge. Others limit out in a few hours.
Si Yoon Ko is a seasoned veteran of the fishery. A retired Korean Airlines employee, Ko said fishing keeps him young. He wields a net with a 40-foot-long handle -- easily one of the biggest rigs on the beach. He regularly stands in the cold waters for hours on end to catch his share of the passing red salmon. He is always happy and has the strength of a young man. But Ko is 84 years old. On opening weekend he helped net and process more than 40 fish for his group.
"I used to like pole fishing because of the fighting," Ko said. "But now, as I am getting older, I like this. It's not too much work to just wait for the fish to come to you."
But one man's easy task is another's hard work. Floyd McClarrinon, for instance, was camping on the beach with his family of 10, including six grand-kids. He always tries to camp in the same spot, next to the beach entrance, and close to the river. "I am 70 years old I don't want to carry all those fish around," McClarrinon said as he warmed his hands next to a campfire.
But not everyone is looking for an easy way to fill their freezer. Some prefer to take the river less traveled, so-to-speak. Each day, several fishermen can be seen bobbing
"I can't sit still," said Clint Helander, a 23-year-old in his fourth year of so-called "float fishing." "I like to move, especially when it is really combat dip netting. I don't like to be that close to people, so I go for the kind of the adventurous aspect of floating."
But it isn't only people and fish that crowd the river and beach July 10-31 each summer. Thousands of seagulls also descend on the area. They group together like unruly gangs, fighting each other for any scrap of fish flesh left behind or tossed nearby. Unattended fish that haven't been cleaned are also attacked. (The birds usually peck out the eyes first.)
The gulls create a constant cacophony of screeches and squawks — and their lust for salmon is not unlike that of holiday shoppers.
"It's like Black Friday for seagulls because they are like killing each other for food and easy pickings," said 8-year-old Emma Clark from Palmer. Clark was down with her family. She has already participated in the annual dipnet fishery for half her life. Seagulls have left a mark.
"They are annoying," Clark said. "One pooped on my sister Sarah as she was cleaning her first fish."
Somehow, it all comes together. Each year thousands of people congregate on the beaches of the city of Kenai, including "weekend warriors" with only a slight appreciation of what is happening around them.
"We heard at the Board of Fish meeting this year that a number of people said that the Department of Fish and Game needed to do something to ensure that the fish showed up on the weekends," Koch said. "It got to be funny after a while."
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com