Sixty years is a long time, especially for someone as active as Mike Chihuly, a Ninilchik-based fisherman, fishing guide, hunter, biologist, firefighter and a friend and neighbor to many around the state, who recently decided to share his six decades of stories about life in Alaska in a new book, "Alaska: Fish and Fire."
Chihuly has gained a wealth of knowledge from his lifelong outdoor exploits and is still clearly serious about his passion for piscatorial pursuits, as he makes clear early on: "I currently have five boats in my yard, and yes, despite what my wife says, I need all of them."
His experience grew over time and with age, but back when he first arrived in Anchorage in 1957, Chihuly was as green as many newcomers, and he makes no effort to hide his boyhood mistakes.
One came after a day of fishing with his father, when he tried to dry out some sopping sneakers by propping them up on sticks over a fire while camping stream-side for the night. Things did not go as planned.
"When we got up, there was nothing left of my tennis shoes except some melted rubber around the edges of the coals," he writes.
While humbling, readers can't fault Chihuly's naivety, since he wet his footwear fighting a king salmon — a colored-up, hooked-nosed beast nearly as large as he was, but the author knew how to use the current to his advantage. Chihuly vividly details his doubts about landing that first big fish and the feelings of finally bringing his chinook to shore.
"To my surprise, I tired the thing out and had it up against the bank. I wasn't big enough to drag it up the bank and I was half scared of it anyway," he writes. "Finally, Dad came along and helped me lift it out of the water. It weighed 30 pounds and was a pretty impressive catch for an 8-year-old."
Almost as impressive is that Chihuly began commercially set-net fishing for sockeye salmon a few years later in the undisputed catching capital of the world: Bristol Bay.
He was just 15 years old but, "I was having the time of my life! I worked for a crew of five, all older men. They cussed, and drank, and talked about women and left their girly books in the outhouse. I learned a lot about life just listening to them while playing hearts and pinochle in our little set-net shack, waiting for that opener."
Chihuly enjoyed himself so much, he went back two years later to work his own site with two 17-year-old friends. Again, he unabashedly shares how much went wrong. They ran out of food faster than planned and had to hunt shorebirds with pellet guns. After a few empty nets, one boy split to work for a cannery, and Chihuly's contracted fish-buyer backed out at the last minute. Then, after spending 24 hours awake to walk to another processor, make a deal and then walk back to his fish site, the salmon came in, filling nearly every diamond in Chihuly's net.
"We worked as fast as we could go. Covered in mud, our fingers bled from the sockeye's gill rakers, the mud pulled at our feet with every step, and we took no time to relieve ourselves. We peed our pants and kept on going. After all, there were thousands of fish left to pick and time was of the essence," he writes.
Despite the tireless work, the tide came back in before they could empty their net. Worse still, their fish buyer's truck broke down, so no one was there to pick up the fish they landed. They harvested 3,000 sockeye, but probably lost an equal number to the Bristol Bay tide.
"That opener was a hard lesson in poor judgment, the power of Mother Nature, hard work, and the vagaries of fishing," Chihuly writes.
Fishing tales aren't the entirety of the book, though. Chihuly shares an equal number of stories about bagging moose, bear, goats and game birds. A few chapters focus on living off the land with his family while spending a winter in the remote Agulowak River area near Dillingham.
He offers a bit of history regarding hockey and collegiate life at UAF, too. And the book wouldn't be complete without some of the highs and lows of being a firefighter, including 13 years as a fire chief.
Chihuly's writing style is simple to read, and the subject matter is informative and entertaining enough that lifelong Alaskans and those new to the state could both glean something from spending time in the pages.
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof. His first book, "Life with Forty Dogs," published by Alaska Northwest Publishing, was released in April.