Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Out In the Great Wide Open

By Paul Gerald

AUGUST 18, 1997:  The first thing you should know about Bristol Bay is that it is not in the part of Alaska you're familiar with. There are very few mountains or whales or eagles, no glaciers, very few trees, none of them large, and no tourists. It's impressively bleak. There's nothing but tundra, lakes, low brush, mosquitoes, bears, a few small villages, and -- in a normal June and July -- as many as 35 million salmon.

The fish return to spawn in rivers with wonderful names like Naknek, Nushagak, Igushik, Kvichak, Ugashik, Togiak, and Egegik. An army of humans arrives to catch, deliver, butcher, freeze, can, pack, and ship the critters to markets all over the world. The towns of King Salmon and Naknek have a combined year-round population of 600, but by July there's 10,000 people there.

Just getting to Alaska is one of the more intense travel experiences. If you're lucky enough to go by boat you'll spend a few days -- or weeks, if you're going out to Bristol Bay -- staring at mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, whales, porpoises, and dense forests.

Likewise, sitting on the right side of an airplane from Seattle to Anchorage has to be one of the great shows on Earth. The show starts when you pass the Fairweather Range, which seldom has fair weather but is always visible from the plane, since the peaks are 15,000 feet high and sit right on the coast. Next up is the St. Elias range, with Mount Logan at 19,000-plus feet. There's a glacier coming out of that range that's 124 miles long, 30 miles wide, and thousands of feet thick. It's bigger than Rhode Island.

When we landed in Anchorage this year, I saw a stuffed polar bear and a rack of five-dollar hot dogs, and I knew I was in Alaska. When we landed in Dillingham, the metropolis of southwest Alaska with just over 1,000 people, I heard a local dude talking about getting 160 cases of beer two months ago and being out, and I knew I was back in what they just call The Country. When we flew out to Ekuk, where my boat is based, the pilot on our puddle-jumping four-seater instructed us, "Federal regulations require that all of you sit down and shut up. Now, if I can just remember how to start this thing ... ."

"We took the k out of cooth."

There's a wonderful saying about what a woman faces if she goes looking for a husband in Alaska, where the male-to-female ratio is about five-to-one: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

I can't tell if Alaska attracts or creates the craziest people in the world, but that is certainly what it has. I suspect both causes. When you consider that Alaska is one-fourth the size of the rest of the country, that it has a year-round population barely half the size of Memphis, and that two-thirds of those people live within 100 miles of Anchorage, you'll begin to get a feel for its remoteness.

The people who go up there to chase fish are rough, vulgar, hard-drinking, hard-working, widely traveled, and to me utterly fascinating. They are always talking about boats, about fixing them up and running them around. They're never idle, always working with their hands, and are fluent in mechanics, navigation, fishing, and storytelling.

They come from all over, but as soon as they arrive they assume their Alaska Personality. One skipper in our company is by all accounts the most charming and gentle man on Earth until he goes north. He then turns into a raging, arm-waving, red-in-the-face monster. This year, for the first time anybody can remember, he had the same crew back to work for him. The reason, as somebody explained to me, is "they're all natives and can't understand him when he cusses them out."

They do cuss up there, especially the men. The phrase "cuss like a sailor" is more appropriate than you could imagine. No doubt it's some sort of commentary on males in their natural state. I once caught myself, when asked during a totally un-stressed moment if I had any rubber bands, answering, "Shit, I got about two goddamn dozen of them fuckers."

A machinist in our cannery, when asked by a woman what it took to get a ride on his Harley, answered "gas, grass, or ass. But I don't smoke weed, my tank is full, and nobody rides for free."

Another typical, sexist joke: Why do they spank babies when they're born? To knock the peckers off the dumb ones. There are much, much worse jokes I could share.

Up in a slough near our plant there's a fish camp full of Norwegians. I heard a radio report saying they had arrived for the season and had elected a man called Lonesome George to be the mayor of the slough. The report went on, "Armella lost her job, since she didn't get up here this year, but she's still gonna be the sheriff."

One boat has a crew of three natives and one kid from "Mawntana." The bill of his baseball cap was all curled up, his lip constantly held a chaw, and he once told me he longed for his compound bow to "get at all them fish." I wondered how he enjoyed the fish-head soup their cook liked to make.

Other crewmembers included a gourmet chef who wasn't the cook on his boat, a woman who lives in her VW bus, a violin maker, a lumberman, a host of mechanics and builders, a few retired police officers, a carpenter, a roofer, and random drifters of every sort.

Life on the Last Frontier

Entertainment is pretty sparse, especially on the Nushagak River where I work. Dillingham is a roadless 12 miles away, and there is no work-related reason for us to go there. Unless you have a dish, there's only one TV station, a rural network that offers selections from ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and ESPN. There is absolutely no telling what they will show at any time. You just have to check every half hour and see if they switched networks. One night last year, when we all tuned in for the big Thursday-night run of Friends and Seinfeld and whatnot, we instead got a Grand Ole Opry tribute to Minnie Pearl. They also left the Indianapolis 500 with seven laps to go.

On the radio there's two choices -- three if you count the 24-hour Bible-thumping station. The AM station is the heavy, the one with Public Radio International and a broadcast area of hundreds of miles. They also have community-service programming like a message show and a bulletin-board show. Many times I have heard "Happy Birthday" sung in Upik for some far-off fisherman. Another time somebody was selling a chihuahua ("He's not sociable, but he's cheap!"), and someone else was offering a truck for the odd price of $21,002.89.

The FM station is far more entertaining. It calls itself "The only real country in The Country," and when we say country we are not talking about Garth Brooks or Reba McEntire. We're talking Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, David Allan Coe, both Hank Williamses, Merle Haggard, and the immortal former fisherman, Hank Snow. When was the last time you turned on the radio and heard either "Hello Darlin' " by Conway Twitty, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" by Johnny Cash, or Tom Jones' version of "The Rose"? All were daily selections on KRUP.

But KRUP is best known as the home of Jackson McCormack, who should go into the Radio Hall of Fame one day. Jackson sounds like a cajun but says he's "a hillbilly from West by-God Virginia." Every night he goes off on "city hawl and how they's gowgin' evuhbody." He rants about all the socialists and "commanists" that run the place (Dillingham, Alaska!?), and at the end of many ads he throws in a smart-assed "and give `em 5 percent extry, the city wants some!"

Just another sample of the place and its language: One ad on KRUP claims that Ute Air can send anything anywhere at anytime, including "big boxes to Bethel, documents to Dillingham, a contract to Kipnuk, cards to Kongiginak, carrots to Kaliginak, and case of candy corn to Kwingillingock."

Then there are the boat battles. There's always the drive-by hosing, the throwing of a seal bomb under a boat to scare people, the potato guns, the paintball guns, and the eggings. But some boats have those big three-person slingshots. We got into it with another boat and wound up flinging eggs, water balloons, apples, and chunks of potatoes and melons at them. They were far more accurate, and we spent a half-hour washing eggs off our boat; but we scored a big blow at the end, tagging their wheelhouse windows with a whole can's worth of corned beef hash.

You can always bust out into the tundra on a four-wheeler, go pick some berries, or look for moose or caribou, but without question, the leading form of entertainment is getting drunk. Mostly this is done in the plants, where barter of beer and whisky and rum and vodka is an art form, but occasionally you get to see a town, such as it is. We got a night in Naknek this year -- Naknek being the third-biggest town around, with three bars and an actual paved road that leads somewhere else. There's even a restaurant there, and after six weeks on a boat you won't even blink when that large pizza with four toppings rings in at $26.

Out in the Great Wide Open

What stays with me more than anything else when I'm not in Alaska is the sun and what it shows you. It's up about 19 hours a day in the summer, from 5 in the morning until just before midnight, and when it sets it does so at about a 45-degree angle. The show is long, multi-colored, and spectacular. Then the sunset colors simply stay in the sky. They actually move across the horizon, maybe 80 degrees in your field of vision, then the sun comes back up. In its whole dip below the horizon, the sun travels about half as far sideways as you can see without moving your head.

What makes it all the more amazing is that in that part of Alaska there is virtually nothing to get in the way of the view. The sky and the sea literally go beyond the borders of our ability to see, like a massive virtual-reality screen that wraps all the way around you. Never before have I so clearly had the overwhelming sense of being on a planet. That's the kind of scale you deal with up there. Alaska is without competition the biggest, most wide-open, most beautiful, least settled, most character-filled, and generally most amazing place I've ever been.

If you have any interest in anything that happens outdoors, save your dollars and go to Alaska. All I can offer in closing is a passage from my journal, something I wrote while our boat was sitting dry and we were lying down for a two-hour nap before going back out after some fish:

"As I lay down and waited for sleep to come, I heard the wind whipping across the bay and the advance guard of a 20-foot tide lapping at the bottom of the boat. Ma Nature! She gives us light to see her beauty, and just enough mind to be tickled by her greatness. I am living in the mouth of a great river, with a view of wild, far-off mountains that the sun sets behind, and all around me and above me is a great, wide emptiness. Everyone should see the light in this sky."

The Season That Never Happened

Bristol Bay fish, and those who chase them, took it on the chin in 1997.

BY THE END OF THE 1997 SEASON in Bristol Bay, there were only hardships, questions, and theories. The world's largest commercial fishery had unexpectedly taken the year off, and by the time everybody gave up, the only people who had made any money were the ones with non-fish-related pay: the office workers, the daily-wagers, and the bartenders.

Almost half of the expected salmon run -- something close to 12 million fish -- had simply disappeared.

Exactly what happened is still up in the air. The whole salmon-prediction process is an inexact science at best. People have been watching and measuring and figuring for decades, for centuries, and they still don't know what the fish are going to do or why.

What is known about the 1997 disaster is that water levels were the lowest since 1953 and that long stretches of nice weather raised the water temperatures to the highest ever recorded -- 68 degrees, where it's normally in the mid-50s. About 29 million fish were predicted for this year, and that many were supposedly counted at a point along their route, but only 17 million ever showed up. It went down as the third-worst season in 110 years of record-keeping.

Six of the largest runs in history have come in the last 10 years, so a "fishing-out" of the salmon would not seem to be the reason. Most people think the run simply did not survive the warm water. Fishermen reported that many fish who hit their nets but weren't gilled would nonetheless be killed by the struggle, something that wouldn't happen in a normal year. "It was like they had no horsepower," one man said. One boat that traveled for two days to the west, back along the salmon's migration path, reported seeing dead fish floating in the water the entire time.

The head of the local Department of Fish and Game office said, "I've been watching Bristol Bay salmon runs for 40 years, and I've never seen anything like this."

As a matter of clarification, the well-publicized dispute between American and Canadian salmon fishermen has nothing to do with Bristol Bay. That fight is over the salmon of British Columbia and southeastern Alaska; Bristol Bay is hundreds of miles to the west, and all of its fish are bound for American waters.

Because of high overhead consisting of permit fees, boat payments, insurance, and food, virtually every one of the roughly 1,000 fishing boats registered in Bristol Bay lost money, and the entire southwest Alaska economy was crushed. Fishing is the basis for the whole thing, and if no one catches fish, no one has money, and no one makes money. By the end of July the state had declared it an economic disaster and applied for federal aid. It will be a long, tough winter for a lot of people up there. -- Paul Gerald

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