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A changing view: the seasonal migration of a fishing family

  • Author: Sara Loewen
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 23, 2015

When river otters moved under our cabin on Amook Island last winter, they tunneled oily dens through piles of insulation ripped from above. There were so many when Peter first crawled underneath in May they seemed to scurry out from every other piece of lumber. We had to burn the scrap wood and bleach the smell from the kayak they'd designated a latrine. Our dogs refused to go near the crawlspace all summer.

The otters were reluctant to leave, even after Peter put a stereo under the cabin and blasted Metallica at full volume. For the rest of the salmon season, whenever those otters swam past our beach they eyed the cabin as if they were just biding their time until they could reclaim the pink fiberglass palace they'd made under there.

It's hard to be uprooted. Even after 10 years of setnet fishing in Uyak Bay, it's still chaotic moving every spring from the town of Kodiak to the cabin on Amook Island.

Last summer we watched a rabbit trying to swim across Uyak. Lots of things swim for miles to cross the bay—herds of deer, mountain goats, families of bears. But it's the image of that sopping bunny, which kept circling back toward the shore before setting out again, that captures the frenzy of relocating.

In the days leading up to our first salmon opener in June, we close up our house and ship a summer's worth of supplies to the west side of Kodiak. Peter flies out early to unload shrinkwrapped, 500-pound pallets, and take the skiffs out of storage in Larsen Bay, the village closest to our fishsite. He unboards the cabins and connects waterlines, and starts hauling out fishing gear and anchors.

When I follow a week or two later, it's easy to fill up a six-seater mail plane with two boys and a baby, two dogs whining in their kennels, totes of groceries and garden starts, one goldfish sloshing in my lap.

Peter's parents have spent the last 43 seasons salmon fishing here. In a doorway of the old cabin at their site, I can trace Peter's penciled growth through all the summers of his childhood.

Going back to the cabin each May is a way of marking time.

For 35 years, Jan and Pete senior shared a 24'x24' cabin and an outhouse with the crew. Now they have a house, with indoor plumbing. Solar panels have quieted the droning of generators running for hours.

Before we were married, Peter would skiff into Larsen Bay late at night to call from the cannery payphones. Now there's a cellphone tower in the village and Internet at most fishsites, with Amazon's free shipping available for hardware and outboard parts.

When we built our cabin, we were the same age as our crewmen. Now they're still 20-something, eager to upload photos or videos to prove they're salmon fishing in Alaska and accidentally using up all the bandwidth in the process. Which leads to unpleasant confrontations that ruin lunch, and I question why we've chosen a livelihood that mixes strangers and family, all of them sharing every meal and almost every waking hour.

By the end of a season, everyone is relieved to leave, the same way you appreciate your health after the flu, or mobility after an injury. Town promises different faces, takeout, central heat and water pressure.

Peter says it's the changing tides and weather patterns and catch that make salmon fishing interesting. But those same elements snap anchor lines and drag sets, and clog nets with seaweed and jellyfish instead of salmon. Storms keep skiffs on the beach when nets are full of fish. It's easiest to love this livelihood when the fishing is good, but pulling hundreds or thousands of salmon from the nets, seven days a week for 10 to 18 hours a day, is hard on a body.

Come September, Peter is tired of the constant maintenance of motors and skiffs. Some seasons, salmon fishing feels like that old joke about farming—what you do between breakdowns. Some years, it's all work and too few fish to pay for it.

Heavy fishing is what we're always hoping for, and when it happens, Peter is euphoric and I realize I've inadvertently been wishing myself more solo parenting. This is the point in the summer when I'd really like to meet a friend at the park and vent about the imbalance of fishing demands on family time, and by the end of our conversation I'd be over it. But when Peter's alarm goes off at 5 a.m., I ask myself if I'd really rather be the one pulling on wet rain gear in the dark to pick the nets, and I get over it.

I remind myself of those things the fishsite nurtures in our kids—curiosity, flexibility and a kinship with the natural world. It helps to see each season with a mother's eyes—all these days not sharing the kids with schedules, classrooms, homework and friends. No phones ringing and nowhere we have to be. We can read six chapters of Harry Potter in one sitting, and finish half the series in a summer. Living remote makes it easy to let all else fall away.

There's a family down the bay from us with sons who've grown up fishing here. I've always thought of the brothers as a kind of preview of what's to come—with their rope bridges and Swiss Family Robinson tree houses, and summers of archery and ax tossing and cliff jumping. One year their gear shed became a dodge ball court after hundreds of Nerf balls washed up around Uyak when a container ship lost its load in a storm. The boys seem so perfectly suited for setnetting that I was surprised to hear that one brother was anxious to leave the fishsite last August. He was missing his girlfriend. That's coming too, those years our kids would rather spend time with other people instead of with us.

But not yet. Not now. On any given morning, our boys putter down the beach, filling buckets with eels and tide pool creatures. They chop pushki with knives their Papa dulled for them. They beg to ride along when Peter picks the nets and return from delivering salmon to the tender with pockets full of candy. They build fires. They pee outside wherever they want. Their cousins arrive and Papa hands out jelly beans during coffee breaks. They don't bathe for days. "This is the life!" our six-year-old declared—a line borrowed from his grandpa—on his first day back last summer.

Setnetting has given my mother-in-law 40 summers with her twins and her daughter Carrie, who brings the grandkids every July. When she isn't cooking, Jan plays rounds of Scrabble with Peter's sister, Jackie, who still picks a bouquet of wildflowers for her mom's birthday in August like she has since she was five.

Pete's parents, our partners in this business, are in their 70s. It's not possible to picture the fishsite kitchen without Jan in it, or to listen to the VHF without hearing Pete Senior's voice on it. The steady rhythm of days out here sometimes fools me into thinking that seasons in Uyak will continue like they always have.

We have a second-hand trampoline where our boys spend countless hours bouncing against a changing view—humpback and fin whales, sea otters, eagles, sea lions and seals, and on rare days, the shimmering white peaks of mainland Alaska across Shelikof Strait. From here, the contour of mountains across the bay is as familiar as running a hand over your old dog's back. Most evenings before bedtime I watch the boys leap into the darkening sky, though already I'm seeing the scene as a photograph, the only way to hold them still in that moment, in their focused delight at how their bodies move through the air, as if it's the easiest thing in the world to be soaring and rooted in a place like this.

This story appeared in the May 2015 issue of 61º North Magazine. Contact 61º editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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