We Alaskans

The number of fish isn't the only measure of a fisherman's success

KOTZEBUE — A few weeks ago I was stacking nets far from the shoreline, preparing to head "down states" as we say, to California to attend a reunion of folks who used to live on the Kobuk River. Unfortunately, the gathering was held during the commercial salmon season, which I hold dear. But those people are dear to me, too.

All those folks — that big extended family of mine: the Joneses, Wiks, Schiros and others — have been gone from the Northwest Arctic for decades, and so I took along local food to remind them of their long-ago lives spent here in cabins and sod igloos. Leaving Kotzebue, my checked baggage was stuffed with caribou and musk ox meat, blueberries, cranberries, smoked salmon, dried whitefish, beluga and bowhead muktuk. I brought fresh salmon, too, of course.

Prior to leaving, commercial fishing had been fun, but daily catches were going poorly, leaving me with that hollow feeling of mistakes made. A lack of success was additional baggage I transported south. My inability to cache those feelings at home with my stinky raingear felt like a further failing.

What's success?

Lately, some things have seemed less clear to me than ever before, and defining success is one of those things. As a kid, getting a fat caribou meant success. Pack it home, and you were providing food that went straight into your family's mouths. Snowshoeing in with fat plucked geese hanging off my shoulders brought happy exclamations of approval and a quick readying of the soup pot. Catching fat trout, fat lynx, hunting black bear — all those things translated directly to success. Back then (in Inupiaq culture, anyway) fat and furs meant wealth. Similarly, fat under the skin of an animal was that animal's bank account. Out in a big cold hungry land, it all made sense.

But after four decades fishing here in Kotzebue Sound, I have a fisherman's mentality, too. We fishermen focus fiercely on that white-people measure of success: numbers. Number of fish caught, number of hours in the water, number of dollars earned. Actually, in this regional fishery, the most important number is how many fish are caught. Comparing our daily catch to others' holds almost too much status. For the six weeks of summer salmon season, that number rules. A load of 400 salmon is a great thing, unless, wait — did everyone else already deliver two loads?

Back in the day, we had some very poor years in the mid-1970s. Overfishing and problems on the high seas contributed, I think, and during some 48-hour periods, my family would catch as few as 20 or 30 fish a day. (This year we fished eight-hour periods, hoping to catch 500 or 1,000 a day.) My parents would trade off with our friends Keith Jones and Bob Uhl — to combine their tiny catches — and someone would boat the small load 10 miles across to Kotzebue to sell. Weather was stormy and wet, our boats slow and wooden, damaged by pounding waves. Back at camp, our wall tents were damp and dank, flapping in the wind, the canvas dripping. Salmon prices were nearly twice what they are now, and sources of real cash back then were limited. Everyone had to work hard to catch and sell what we could — even if it was only those 20 or 30 fish each day.

Bob and Keith

I've thought about Keith and Bob a lot this summer. Those two men were close friends. Keith lived upriver in Ambler with his wife, Anore, and two daughters, Arunya and Willow. Bob lived at Sisualik with his wife Carrie. Everyone knew Uhl's camp along the spit; everyone knew Bob and Carrie. They were icons of our region.

Keith and Bob didn't visit each other all winter. That wouldn't have made sense. All this modern extraneous travel wasn't part of the old days. It would have been far too costly, plain crazy. Only during fishing season did the Joneses journey west to the coast, their boat loaded with sled dogs and camping gear, and then the families would camp together for two months; that made perfect sense. There Bob and Keith conversed constantly. Most days Carrie would reach the end of her patience and shout, "Arii, Bob! Stop talking!"

Keith and Bob stored their nets on the pebble beach at Nuvurak, where my family camped. They stacked their nets slowly, perfect piles — Keith tall, and always stacking corks; Bob's powerful shoulders stooped even back then, him stacking leads — never hurrying, chatting the whole time. They never headed out early to claim a contested spot. I think both men had a thing against competition; they didn't like it much. They talked steadily — grinning, good-natured, unhurried and curious — about religion, philosophy, water currents, weather patterns, marine mammals, fish, gentian flowers, and who knows what else. They were wise enough to know they had a world to learn from each other. Wise enough to take the time to do that.

This month at the reunion, folks held a memorial for Keith Jones. He passed away this winter. One person after another spoke of the large life Keith had lived — growing up on an Oregon farm minus a father who left, riding rodeo and ranging out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and from there drafted into the Army as a young man, stationed in Alaska, climbing Denali with his wife and my dad. He always influenced people around him, and he convinced people such as Don Williams and others into roaming farther and farther north, until they settled along the Kobuk River near Ambler, making lives now etched into our region.

My memories of the first half of my life are all tangled up with Keith (they lived with us, and later, often camped nearby) — him taking my brother and me jigging fish through the ice when we were toddlers; portaging in spring in kayaks across the tundra to hunt muskrat and ducks; rafting down the Kobuk on house-logs cut for Charlie Jones in Kotzebue; and later a line of other memories out in sun, wind and weather.

The second half of my life is tangled up with memories of Bob — most of those times spent at his and Carrie's kitchen tables at their summer tent and winter cabin — influenced by his words, all that wisdom compiled from a lifetime spent so in love with this land.

In addition to the memorial, there's another reason I've thought about those two friends lately. It kind of snuck up on me. These last two summers, my fishing partner has been a woman from back east, Diana Saverin, a writer recently graduated from Yale. Young, inquisitive, philosophical, she arrived in Northwest Alaska on some sort of yet-unclear search. Last year was sunny on the water, us picking fish, digging out anchors and surviving thousands of pounds jellyfish trying to swamp us — working hard and having fun, but with time also spent discussing poetry and weather patterns, caribou and camping, tanning hides and favorite books.

Bumping against questions and answers

After that, we basically didn't see each other all winter. In mid-July when fishing started, Diana had a hurt tendon; we couldn't get very competitive when it came to fishing. And we didn't much want to. We set our net each day, excited to catch fish but equally excited to compare observations from our separate springs — hers spent on the coast, mine up the Kobuk — both alone in camp, writing, reading, eating ducks and geese, making cranberry pies, listening to All Things Considered on KOTZ radio — with sunny nights spent walking miles alone on tundra, bumping gently against answers, and more questions too, I guess.

Checking nets out in the relentless sun this summer, we laughed a lot, teased each other about titles for our alleged future books, compared thoughts on how generosity and scarcity has shaped attitudes here. Diana recited poems, and played a mediation on her phone — one portraying the power of viewing your life experiences through the lens of YES. One day as we were pulling on our gloves, I insisted we pause and spend three minutes focused on NOT WANTING. Immediately, the sounds of gulls calling and waves plunking against my wooden boat filled our heads, crystal clear.

Somewhere in those sunny days and hours of summer passing, accepting poor catches along with some good ones, motoring a bit slower than usual, conversing so gratefully with my worldly friend, I caught myself suddenly chuckling at what I pictured: Keith and Bob, long ago, just done unloading their nets and idling away from the string of white tents at Nuvurak, the mudflats stretching away to the west, and the wake of their boat fanning out behind them as they faded into the big lagoon behind Sisualik, still talking to each other, grinning over some joke, the few fish they had caught not the only measure of their day.

Seth Kantner is the author of the best-selling novel "Ordinary Wolves" and most recently the nonfiction book "Swallowed by the Great Land." He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.