The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind
Amy Gulick, Braided River, 192 pages, 2019. $29.95
It’s the depth of winter in Alaska, when the thoughts of many Alaskans turn to salmon. Salmon? Yes, salmon. As author and photographer Amy Gulick discovers in her exploration of Alaska’s favorite fish, whether it’s for sport, commercial, or subsistence reasons, Alaskans depend on the timely arrival of salmon in summer, and being prepared is paramount. That means thinking ahead.
“The Salmon Way” is a breezy but enjoyable jaunt across the state in search of the people who build their lives around the fish. Gulick, a veteran outdoors and travel writer who lives in Washington State, offers a peek into the cultural role salmon play in Alaska, and how the lives of humans and fish are intertwined.
In her introduction, Gulick writes of her travels across the state, “Regardless of where I went or whom I met in Alaska salmon country, I learned that the common bond among people of wildly different backgrounds is their deep connection to these remarkable fish,” adding, “I learned that while Alaskans may have differing relationships with salmon, and not everyone agrees on how best to conserve the fish, everyone wants the relationship to continue. Forever.”
This is demonstrated by what follows. Gulick first goes out on a commercial fishing boat from Sitka, operated by Eric Jordan, who has spent his entire life in pursuit of the fish, and cannot imagine a different life. A captain for 40 years, he’s still like a kid at Christmas when he starts hauling them in. But he also has a deep respect for the fish. And with grown sons who have followed him into the industry, he has a stake in seeing that the fishery outlasts him.
Gulick next heads to Bristol Bay, the largest and healthiest salmon fishery in the world, where governmental management is intense and, thus far, successful. Gulick meets with some of the officials whose oversight helps keep it that way. She also visits commercial set netters at work in the region.
On the Kuskokwim River she encounters Alaska Natives for whom salmon are the foundation of subsistence. Harvesting the runs is hard labor, but it’s more than just food security. It’s a bond to the land itself, as well as with the fish swimming up local rivers.
Gulick goes on a guided fishing trip in Katmai with Heidi Wild, an Air Force veteran who leads fellow veterans into the country as part of a program to help them overcome emotional and physical disabilities resultant from the nation’s wars. Here we discover the importance of wildlands for helping people recenter themselves.
The mystery of the salmon life cycle is an underlying theme. The manner in which the fish hatch in rivers, swim down into the ocean, live out their lives there, then return to the same streams they came from to spawn and die has confounded scientists and casual observers for as long as it’s been known about. How salmon know where to go is still not understood. But Gulick is told that according to traditional beliefs among Alaska Natives, honoring the fish on their return is critical to assuring that they will continue to do so into the future.
The differing approaches to the fishery, whether for subsistence, personal use, or economic gain weave in and out of these pages. But regardless of the reasons for people to pursue salmon, Gulick finds that sharing the bounty with others is a common end goal. This sharing is the essence of what Gulick considers to be “the salmon way,” an approach to life that’s cooperative rather than competitive, and that she feels is distinct to Alaska.
In some ways this is true, particularly in communities where subsistence and traditional values remain, but it’s a bit doe-eyed and bypasses some of the major conflicts that have emerged, such as the long running dispute over who qualifies for subsistence (she does touch on this, but only superficially), or the more recent complaints from Copper River personal use dipnetters about the volume of fish being taken by charters and commercial operations. The mood of the book is more celebratory than in depth, which makes for pleasant reading, but it deprives readers of a comprehensive understanding of something Gulick wants to convey: the role of salmon in human cultures.
The people she spends time with are all intensely aware of broader outside threats to the fishery, however, and want to protect it. There are numerous discussions about preserving watersheds, the impact of climate change, the importance of not over harvesting, and other issues. Curiously though, despite spending a fair bit of time in and around Bristol Bay, Gulick never really touches on the Pebble Mine controversy, currently seen by many fishermen as the most serious threat to their livelihoods. In a couple of pictures, anti-Pebble logos are seen, but the concerns raised by the proposal are left out of the text.
On the photography side, however, Gulick proves herself not just a fine craftswoman, but a varied one as well. The pictures range from aerial landscape shots to extreme closeups of things like the jaws and eyes of salmon, freshly hatched alevin, and roe.
Stepping back a bit, a couple of photos show sockeye running so thick through a stream they could almost be walked on. A bleached spine creates a fascinating pattern in another photo. Tools like fish wheels, rods and reels, nets and the like are also shown. And there are the obligatory bear pictures.
Most of the photographs, however, document people at work. Here, Gulick offers a comprehensive examination of the many ways salmon are obtained, and of the significant amount of labor that goes into processing them.
While it misses some key details, “The Salmon Way” is a good book for those dreaming of fish in January. Gulick sticks to the positives and introduces readers to some interesting people who know what all of us know: soon enough the fish will be running again. And so, too, will Alaskans.