Sometimes I like to spend some of this “down time” reflecting back over years gone by and, happily, I have some 500 letters I wrote during my first decade in Alaska plus a number of articles I wrote on various aspects of living in the Bush to refresh my memory. The following, an appropriate end-of-August musing turned out to be a multi-award winning essay as well as a nostalgic reminder of the summers I spent (1972-77) as a commercial salmon fisherman on the Yukon, supplying the tourist salmon bakes in Fairbanks.
And, yes, I’d really rather be doing that than this – but I’m very glad I did that when I had the chance. So, allow me to depart from alcohol musings and return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear….
The eddy is a mile long and, at its widest part, five hundred yards across. Nestled along the Yukon’s north bank with its head just below 18 Mile Bluff. A quiet ellipse of countercurrents, placidly warming in the August sun. Entering the eddy at the lower end, I ease the aluminum jon boat up along the shingle beach. Counting the floats that show where my nets have closed the head of the eddy.
Salmon are not entirely stupid. Swimming more than a thousand miles upriver from the ocean to their spawning streams, some have learned to ride the eddies. Restful pauses, coasting with the current rather than against it. Being a salmon fisherman means being at least slightly smarter than the salmon.
Today, most of the floats are bobbing peacefully on the surface. The salmon run is about over for another year and there won’t be a dozen or so of the kings enmeshed in the net, their weight dragging the floats under and out of sight. It’s time for me to pull the six hundred feet of netting, retire my ropes, boat and motors for another year.
Stopping the boat at the river end of the net, I tilt the motor up, propeller out of the way, lean over the side and begin pulling in the dirty, gold, half inch, Dacron anchor line. Eight weeks ago it was new and clean, the long splice where it joined the nets top line neat and trim. Now a portion of the river’s burden of silt has worked its way between the fibers, raveled the ends of the splice, dulled colors to muddy hues.
At the end of the anchor line there is a five gallon gas can filled with concrete. For the season it has held the nets in place, but its sojourn on the bottom has removed its red paint and split its seams. A quick twist with the gutting knife and it returns to the bottom where it can begin its own slow journey to the sea. A part of that strange procession: water logged bottom rollers, sunken oil drums, rounded pebbles, flour gold, and bits and pieces of life now ended.
My hands coil the line and my fingers begin gathering the net. Pulling the nylon strands together until the bottom lead line reaches the surface. Slowly, my right hand draws the collected net through my left, transforming the curtain into a basket and also pulling the boat towards shore. Half way in there is a single fish, female, an iridescent grey torpedo. A straggler, but still in good condition for this late in the run. She glides smoothly into the holding tub and minutes later the bow grounds on the beach rocks.
The blue nylon shoreline has also aged. Battered against the rocks, buried in mud, abraded by the wind-blown silt. Fifty feet up the shingle I take a last look at the spruce pool, eight inches in diameter by ten feet long, both ends secured by piles of rock, that has secured the shore line for the past two months. The line eye spliced around it. A bowline knot would have worked as well but the splice gives me pleasure unrelated to effectiveness. Pride in simple tasks done well.
A moment to free the pole from the rocks and the rope from the pole. Next spring there will be no trace left of this simple mooring. The pole will disappear downriver with the next high water; the rocks scattered by the grinding ice of fall freeze-up and next spring’s breakup.
A sudden staccato roar just above my head nearly propels me into the river. Unnoticed, a Cessna 180 has glided silently around the bluff and Mike, the pilot, has waited until the last moment to restart the engine. He is a fish buyer from Fairbanks and twice a day throughout the salmon run he has appeared to buy my catch. Occasionally he attempts to startle me on the river, as he has managed today, I occasionally hiding in the sloughs and creeks where he is sometimes unable to find me. Two supposedly adult men playing hide and seek where we are unlikely to get caught at it.
I catch fish, he buys and resells them. Between those transactions there is humor and friendship. He brings me things from Fairbanks that I cannot otherwise obtain; fresh milk and meat, good whiskey, a Big Mac and fries. I take his friends fishing and exploring. Looking across the river, I watch as he makes one more low pass, wiggles his wings, and heads back to Fairbanks. We will likely neither see nor talk to each other again until next June when he will again simply turn up and the game will resume. It is a curiously “Northern” friendship.
A minute or two to peer into the willow thicket that begins where the shingle ends. The thin spring green new growth branches already turning to an autumn brown, the leaves yellowing to match frost dotted birches on the hillsides and in the gulches above. A smile at the lone cottonwoods sapling that rises above the willows. A month earlier a harassed mother bear sent her triplet cubs up that sapling when I entered the eddy, the tree bent like a fly rod, lowering the cubs nearly back to the ground as she coughed and muttered, threatening me as I picked my nets fifty yards out. Muttering more when I threw her a thirty pound fish.
It takes only a few minutes for the outboard to push me out to the edge of the eddy. Straddling the currents and counter-currents, the motor silent again, the boat and I rotate our way slowly down the river. Another season is over, and with it the annual mix of sad and glad creep in, a good kind of tired. Perhaps the way my father in Pennsylvania felt when the crops were finally in but the fields, like my eddy, were just as suddenly empty. There is still work to do, as there was for him, still the nets to be mended, washed and hung away in the smokehouse for the winter; still the boat to be pulled, dock to reduce to firewood, and later, the motors to rebuild. But for now, another season is over and shortly the weather will close around me again. Soon the river will be locked away under the ice, and snow will cover the ridges and valleys. I try to remember what it looks like during the winter and can’t. For some reason, even after a decade, I can’t seem to remember the feel of winter when it is summer, or summer when it is winter.
And today. Today I will drift the eighteen miles home. Slowly enjoying the encroaching hills. Noting the approaching winter. A tin cup of coffee and a flask of cognac. Leisurely cigarettes. Remembering the hurry. Trying to allow the unaccustomed luxury of rest to trickle in.
* Yukon Autumn, copyright 1984. One of three Bush Foundation Creative Writing Fellowship winning submissions, 1984.
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