When first planning this trip to Alaska, our hope was to be able to go gillnetting for king salmon on the Yukon River. We planned dates around the likely opportunity for this adventure. As an Alaska resident, my man is entitled a specific number of different species of fish as “subsistence”. I’m not a resident, and am not so entitled, and fishing for salmon for me may either not be allowed, may be catch and release only, or prohibited altogether, depending on numbers. Last year, for example, the kind salmon numbers were lower than usual, and as they come up the Yukon from the sea, Canada is “guaranteed” a certain number of fish, so Alaska has to make sure there are adequate numbers of fish to meet that obligation and provide for healthy spawning for future generations of fish. Last year, the king salmon fishing on the Yukon was brief and severely limited. This year ended up being the same. Hopefully, next year, the numbers will rebound.
For many years, my man has gone to “fish camp”, a place along the Yukon where there are “cabins” and other somewhat primitive resources for subsistence fisher people. I planned to go to “fish camp” on the airboat with my man and a former neighbor of his, a dear elderly man of ailing health. The elderly man has only been “allowed” to go to “fish camp” in recent years because his wife trusted he would be in good hands with my man. This year, sadly, the elderly man’s health has deteriorated to the point where he would not have been able to go to “fish camp” at all.
On top of all of this, the regulations had changed as to the size of gill net that could be used. Again. Apparently, seven-inch nets (I presume that means the openings in the net) were the standard for all of time. In recent years, the fish and game folks changed that regulation to six and a half inch nets and provided a monetary allowance for retrofitting existing nets, which my man took advantage of. Now, the regulation has been changed to six-inch nets and there isn’t an allowance available for retrofitting existing nets. I have never seen a gill net, but they are quite expensive and there really isn’t an option for buying a new, compliant net this year.
With the freezer fast being depleted of salmon, and “fish camp” not being likely, we had to come up with another solution to stock up for another year. There were red salmon, but fishing for them, too, was being carefully monitored and controlled. With a seven hour drive, each way, 80 gallons of gas and likely more than twenty four hours of driving, fishing and driving involved, there was much to consider. The limit was fifteen for subsistence, and this early in the season there would be only “wild” fish, being somewhat smaller in size than the hatchery fish. Economically, this really wasn’t a practical means for restocking the freezer. Eighty gallons of gas at four dollars a gallon, so, three hundred twenty dollars just in gas, for fifteen smaller fish, that’s twenty-one bucks a fish. I can do better at Whole Foods three thousand miles away.
This morning, though, with a quick call in to the fish and game hotline, the limit had been increased for the next twenty-four hours to twenty-five. Now we’re talking twelve dollars and eighty cents per fish. Now we’re talking! Now the math works out a bit better. We mobilized quickly. A fast shower, gathered gear, packed extra clothes, I slapped some sandwiches together, we grabbed some beer and some fruit, put the “sleeper” on the old blue Ford truck, gassed up, grabbed a couple more sandwiches at the gas station and headed south to the Copper River at Chitina.
The road trip southward was punctuated with rain, which, according to the weather resources, was not supposed to be happening. We would be arriving at Chitinia late in the evening and would likely “dip net” all night, rain or not, until the limit was caught, and then, depending on time and the level of fatigue, we’d head home or sleep over, or head home and sleep along the way. Rain was not going to be pleasant while dip netting. And, truthfully, I had not included in my suitcase what I would consider appropriate attire for a rainy adventure. I have piles of “technical clothing” for virtually every outdoor situation, but, I just didn’t have room in my two suitcases for such practicalities. I had shoes. And tank tops. And glittery ass jeans. So I packed layers. Layers and layers of really cute, not very warm, jewel, glitter and sequins bedazzled clothes. There must be some sort of redeeming benefit to jewels, glitter and sequins in outdoor survival situations, I just can’t find any sources on Google. Yet. As a non-resident, again, I would not be able to actually dip net for fish, but I would be assisting in many ways, and true to my nature, though I may act and appear as a girly girl, high maintenance city girl, I am not. So not.
After many hours, we approached Chitina, and though somewhat cloudy and threatening and very windy, it was not raining. We planned to, as my man usually had in the past, hike up O’Brien Creek a ways and find a back eddy to dip from. As we arrived at the confluence of O’Brien Creek and the Copper River we saw, or I saw a magnificent sight, something so memorable and awe inspiring I can barely describe it befitting it’s glory; a purple and lime green espresso stand lashed to a skid, there to capitalize on the fisher people, or their girly girl, high maintenance city girl girlfriends. I was delighted, as I’d made no provision for morning caffeine other than the one Excedrin left in the bottle I carry in my purse at all times for just such emergencies. How I was down to just one, likely expired Excedrin, I don’t know. Measures that must be taken, just in case I am forced to survive a coffee-less morning. Second, we were met by folks who said “everyone” was catching their limit within a few short hours right there at the confluence. We looked at the shore of the Copper River, just beyond the parking lot and the espresso stand, and sure enough, there were multiple people dip-netting there. And they were hauling fish in.
While adventure is wonderful, and I probably had a compromised experience by not going up the creek, our mission was fishin’, and in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort possible. Hopefully before it rained again. So, we walked the short walk to the shore at the edge of the parking lot, claimed our spot along the bank, and my man started dipping the net into the river. The wind was strong and the muddy current was treacherous, the river was swift and wide. One misstep and you’d be swept away and likely drown, or die of hypothermia before you washed ashore again miles downstream. The net goes in, is swept along the shore, and drawn out, fighting the force of the river with every dip. If a salmon is swimming upstream and enters the net, the net has to be hauled in, against the current and now laden with a good-sized fish. This was not easy work. Neither is finding a parking spot at Whole Foods, but this is a whole new level of effort for good salmon.
It wasn’t long before one fish was netted, and with that, a lesson, for me, in how to behead, detail and gut the fish, wash it, bag it and put it on ice. I knew I’d be involved in the process, I guess I was only a little startled, at first, with just how “in depth” my involvement would be. About elbow deep in fish blood and guts, to be exact. But no worries, if you eat ‘em, you’d better be ready to clean ‘em. My man is a great teacher, and quite patient, especially with me, as I always seem to have a bit of a “learning curve”. I am always eager to help and eager to learn, in all things I am involved in. I think it is my eagerness that is the root of my “learning curve”. I listen, I watch and I’ll ask for clarification, and I just want to succeed. Immediately. But I will almost always botch up a time or two before I get it. This was no different. I cut the head off a bit awkwardly on the first couple of fish. My man cut it like butter, I felt like I was sawing a hardwood log with a dull saw. The fish looked like he got his head caught in machinery, not cleanly severed with a sharp filet knife. I managed to cut and twist the tail off and it reminded me of trying to cut through really stale Red Vines with those dull, rounded tip, safety scissors they made us use in kindergarten. Slitting the fish up the gut was where I really went wrong. I held the knife like a dagger, clutched in a white-knuckle clench, and I stabbed away at the fish like Jack the Ripper with the prostitutes of London. Which was wrong. How did he do this with so much ease, finesse and grace? I’m thinking, “man, I gotta do more push ups!” I massacred the first two fish I was left in charge of. And so, I asked to watch on the next, one more demonstration, a little closer observation, a bit more clarification and I learned that the slit up the gut was done shallow and sort of gingerly, like Julia Child cutting phyllo dough or something. I got it, and the rest of the fish were cut perfectly, head, tail and gut. I became a fishing beheading, detailing, gutting machine. He would catch and club, I’d retrieve, slice, slice twist, cut, cut, twist and then slit, hold tight, wash in the river, bag, and then run bags with three to four fish back up to the truck where we had big ice chests waiting. The sooner the fish was “bled out” and put on ice the better the finished product would be. So, as soon as the fish hit the shore and got whacked in the head with a stick, I retrieved it to do my duty. Now, let’s talk about the actual murder weapon; the stick. There isn’t much quality wood on the ground around here, most of it having been scavenged and used already. So, when asked to find a “stick”, what was in order was something with a certain amount of heft, density and weight, what I found was really not much more than a piece of driftwood. After a good whack or two to the head, I’m pretty sure the salmon was only slightly phased on not actually dead. At that point, I’m to cut its head off with a filet knife. I found myself talking to the fish. Really. Kind of apologetically explaining what I had to do. “I know you’re not dead, but I’m going to lay you down on this terribly bloody, slimy piece of plywood, which in itself, if you think about it, is disgusting. Don’t think about it. Then, I’m going to take this filet knife that is about five fish past being sharp enough and I’m going to quickly cut your head off, one side at a time. I have to measure the angle, from just under your fin, along the gill, to the top of your head, which, oddly enough, reminds me of how I use a brow pencil to find the arch for my eyebrows, carefully lining it up with the corner of my nostril to the center of where my pupil is when looking straight ahead. Then I’ll flip you over and do it again. And somehow, you’re still trying to escape my grasp, so I’m going to try to cut your tail off. I have to turn you precisely like this and cut like this, the flip you over again and repeat. Then twist. I’m going to throw your head, attached guts and tail into the river for your family to watch float by, which, I’m pretty sure is why the rate at which we’re catching fish is beginning to decline. I mean, really, if you saw your cousin’s disembodied head, guts and tail go sailing past would you really venture in the general direction from whence they came? Yah, me either. “ Yes, I’m still talking to the fish.
On my first trip back to the truck, bag of fish in hand, I was met by a nice man a few vehicles down. I must have looked like a fru-fru coffee sort of girl, maybe like a girly girl, high maintenance city girl who would want a skinny no whip half-caf dirty latte at some point in the morning. He was the espresso stand vendor and wanted me to know that he’d be open at 4:30 AM. I was elated and had visions of a hot cup of black coffee before hitting the road home, hopefully after a few hours of sleep. That was at about 7:30 PM.
During a brief lull my man pointed out the “gulls” just up stream from us. I’d seen the seagulls, but not the ea-gulls. There were two bald eagles helping the one thousand seagulls take care of the fish scraps that had been left behind by the many fisherfolk before us. I have never seen bald eagles in the wild, until this trip, now I’m up to five. Wow. Every time I see one that’s all I can say. Wow. I grabbed my camera, and as soon as I set one foot in the direction of the “gulls”, they eagles took to the wind and gracefully floated, against the wind, up the canyon. No picture, no proof, but I swear it to be true.
Five hours later, we’d caught our limit of twenty-five, with no rain. It was about 1:00 AM and we were exhausted. My man, more than me, having driven and then dipping for five straight hours, with blisters on his hands and fatigued muscles from such hard, steady labor. He is my hero.
I had visions of bundling up and getting some rest, me in the sleeper, which only fits one, my man on the bench seat of the truck, or vice versa. I was willing to give up the comfort of the sleeper to my hero. But, no, the plan was to hit the road and get back home, or as close as possible, before getting sleep. No espresso stand hot black coffee at 4:30 AM. Damn.
We headed out in near darkness, which was interesting, being further south and experiencing darkness to the point of having to turn the headlights on. Experiencing darkness for the first time in, like, two weeks, like it is totally foreign to me. But it seemed so. We stopped at “The Hub” and I bought three large cups of gas station coffee, two for my man, one for me, so I could stay awake and keep him awake. Fail. I didn’t realize I slept quite that much, but, come to think of it, the drive home did seem much quicker. I felt like I was awake for all the really important stuff, like seeing moose. Twenty-six of them in a ten-mile stretch. I think I’m Andy Rouse with my little digital Sony camera I bought at Times Square one trip to New York, on impulse, when my iPhone battery died at 10:00 in the morning. I’m actually trying to photograph moose on the side of the road with my point and shoot camera from a pickup truck doing sixty. “No, that brown blur is a tree, that one is a late model Subaru, that brown blur is a bald eagle. THAT one is the moose.” So, brilliance, I have my helmet camera with me. But no helmet. But, really, what would you say if you saw some chick, wearing a helmet, with a camera attached to it, slumped over and snoring in the passenger seat of a speeding pickup, clutching the biggest cup of cold gas station coffee a dollar and a half can buy? Right? Best I don’t have a helmet. So, for those brief, lucid moments, I hold the helmet camera up, roll down the window, stick the camera out the window while the truck slows to forty and hope for a better result. “No, really, the rack on that moose was over fifty! The moose is that thing you can almost see move between those two trees, behind that one rock, down that embankment. Close your left eye, you’ll be able to see it better.”
And so it was with the remainder of the trip home. A blur. Like the moose in my pictures. A blur. And then I woke up to two coolers full of salmon (the salmon saga continues tomorrow, which is already today, but in another letter).