The following essay appeared in the Alaska Dispatch as part of The Salmon Voices Series. The series was supported by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans’ strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life.
Our 6-year-old wasn’t happy about leaving the fishsite this fall. What kid wants to give up daily skiff rides and building driftwood forts and beach fires for alarm clocks and classrooms?
To ease his reluctance, I let him pick out his first real fishing pole when we were back in Kodiak. His little brother, Luke, inherited the rusty push-button rod with Star Wars sound effects that no longer casts but is still good for poking at things.
Grandpa wasn’t sure that Liam was ready to bring in a silver, and it’s true I spent a good part of our first trips to the river untangling his hook from alders and steering Luke and the dogs away from his erratic casting.
But when Liam backed a 12-pounder onto the gravel, and we drove that silver straight to Grandpa’s, and when, every day during journal time for the first month of first grade, Liam drew fishing scenes — I could see the river, the flight and fall of each shining lure, the beauty of those salmon, the praise over dinner — all becoming a part of my son’s story.
For the remainder of the fall, after school and every weekend morning, Liam begged to be taken fishing. And often we went, even though it meant lifting our old lab into the bathtub to wash off the slime and stink of rotting humpies he’d rolled in. And drying out Luke’s boots over and over. Or wading out on a submerged tree, seven months pregnant, way over my boots, to untangle his lucky lure.
We want to love what our loved ones do.
As parents, we want the stories that shape our children’s lives to be made of good things — effort and success, nature and wonder.
I’ve watched our boys’ attachment to our setnet site on the west side of Kodiak grow with every season. To see it is to glimpse my husband’s childhood here — what made Peter the man he is, why he defines himself through this work and place.
We deliver our fish to a cannery that’s been there since 1910. People have been harvesting salmon here for millennia.
Salmon “embody our home places,” writes Tom Jay. “Salmon are the deep note of our dwelling here.”
Kodiak setnetters pick salmon one by one, pulling each fish from nets stretching one hundred and fifty fathoms into the ocean. How many thousands have passed through Peter’s hands?
From a mile across the bay, he recognizes reds or pinks or dogs by the shape and path of their leap. He knows salmon in a way I never will, though they are the calendar around which we arrange our year — moving to the cabin each May and returning home in the fall. Salmon are our mortgage payment, the food in our freezer, peace of mind in good seasons and worry in the lean ones.
While I was growing up, our family spent September afternoons fishing in Barling Bay, near the village of Old Harbor. At six or seven years old, I preferred to set down my fishing pole and tried instead to usher dying salmon back into the river. “There you go little fellow. You’re free. Live, live,” I’d urge each gaping, decrepit fish as it floated off sideways into the current.
Sometimes when I consider what I can do about climate change and ocean acidification and its impact on the future of wild salmon, I feel about as effective as that little girl.
Will depleted, warmer oceans continue to support a species so dependent on open ocean feeding and specific water temperatures?
Has Alaska — one of the last great strongholds for healthy stocks of wild salmon — merely delayed the sort of loss that occurred in Europe, New England, California, and the Pacific Northwest?
“What does it mean to be alive in an era when the Earth is being devoured, and in a country which has set the pattern for that devouring? What are we called to do?” Scott Russell Sanders asks in “Writing from the Center.”
“We can begin that work by learning how to abide in a place. I’m talking about active commitment, not a passive lingering.”
We know that clean, undamaged rivers and streams are vital for healthy salmon returns; history has shown that no amount of hatchery effort can fix runs destroyed by ruined habitat.
While Alaska’s remoteness and small population seem to have spared our salmon the fate of so many other Pacific salmon runs, is our fidelity to wild spaces, and our long knowing of salmon within these places, enough to compel the “active commitment” that will keep Alaskans vigilant?
Of the 50 states, only Alaska commits in its constitution to managing natural resources like salmon for a sustained yield. This foresight at statehood was based on the belief that replenishable resources should be managed not for maximum short-term economic gain, but for perpetual gain.
We can advocate for salmon by asking that our political leaders, stakeholders, and fish managers protect our wild salmon populations and habitats, especially with growing pressures to extract resources from salmon watersheds as oil revenue declines.
How can we encourage future stewardship of wild salmon among Alaskans?
In “A Sand Country Almanac,” Aldo Leopold wrote, “We grieve only for what we know.”
For many young Alaskans, salmon are already a part of the seasonal rhythm of each year through subsistence, community, or commercial fishing. But supporting environmental education programs in our schools, like the rearing of fry in classrooms to study salmon life cycles, can make the link between salmon and sustainability more tangible.
I know salmon as a livelihood, and as part of this fishing community, but also as some of my best childhood memories — wading through bright green beach rye into open, bear-trampled spaces, where my footsteps sent the glint of tail or fin dashing out from the cover of riverbank, mom handing out sandwiches and passing around a thermos lid of Russian tea to warm us up after a long cold skiff ride.
Salmon are the story of both my birth family and the family I’ve made. They are incentive for living a life that is materially simpler and raising children with an ecological conscience.
When we drove out to the American River on a Sunday morning in December, it was a different river from the one we visited so many times in the fall, when Liam was caught up in the fervor of fishing, envying the grownups’ waders, and looking earnestly for a glimmer of silver within crowds of mottled pinks.
Now the road was quiet, the sunlight between mountain shadows slanted and butter pale.
It was just starting to snow, and the river mirrored the metallic silver of low clouds. By midwinter, such rivers are generally far from our thoughts.
“You remember all those humpies that were spawning here in September?” Peter asked Liam. “All those eggs are in the river now, and in the spring the pinks will emerge and migrate out to the ocean, even though they’ll only be a few inches long. They’ll head out like a fleet of tiny submarines.”
Liam nodded, but he was more interested in an old lure he’d spotted snagged on a logjam.
There are plenty of years to bewitch him with science, to teach him little wonders like scientists estimating historic runs by trees in Southeast Alaska that grew faster in years of abundant salmon, or the feats of homing and imprinting that guide salmon back to natal streams.
Walking with our boys beside the river, I think of our biggest commitments — joining a marriage, raising children, choosing to call a place home — and the sanctuary of this river, hiding millions of salmon beneath still water and gravel, and the work of tending to and protecting what we love.