Did you know that salmon hearts, sizzled with butter and garlic, taste just like mussels? I learned to clean fish yesterday, and we set aside the hearts for a treat.
I’m in Soldotna right now, recovering from long nights of dipnetting. Geoff and I got a hotel room for tonight, and tonight will mark the second or third time I’ve slept in a real bed since the beginning of July, the first time since leaving Maine. I’m looking forward to sleep, but this might be my last chance to use the internet for a while, so I’d better make the most of it.
I arrived in Fairbanks two weeks ago after visiting friends in Washington. Geoff was still working, so I had some time to relax. Those days were hot and sweaty, and I spent one whole day in the Museum of the North (where they have some awesome Alaskan art, air conditioning, and some truly weird furniture made of taxidermied animal parts) and another whole day alternating between sizzling on a towel with a good book and plunging into the icy Chena River while ducks laughed at me.
Friday came. The plan was to drive down the Richardson Highway and head for the Kenai to go fishing, which is more or less what we did, though there were some snags. In absolutely typical fashion, Geoff was a little late out of the starting gate. My stuff accounts for about a tenth of the mess, and it still looked like this when I crawled into my sleeping bag at midnight.
In the morning we finished packing the truck and loading the boat and stopped for the four Fs: Food (breakfast/brunch), Fuel (for the truck), Freddy’s (Fred Meyer for camp groceries) and Fill (water containers, because running water isn’t an everywhere kind of thing) and finally left Fairbanks around two in the afternoon, bound for a good camp spot south of Delta where we would meet friends bound for Dawson on a motorcycle.
I always forget until I’m in it how vast and magnificent Alaska can be. The Richardson Highway is beautiful. It traces the pipeline from Fairbanks to Valdez, running beside the broad and braided mud of the Tanana and through wide valleys furred with spruce trees, set with jewel-blue lakes. It’s big enough to get comfortably lost on purpose, to build a campfire so far from anyone else that no one sees the smoke. We camped with friends in a quarry that first night. Their dog dragged a whole caribou leg out of the woods while we cooked a midnight dinner.
Geoff and I spent the next night camped in the rain at Quartz lake, then visited Michael, the guy who’s building the canoe, in the morning. He had the hull ready for us to look at, a flexible, lightweight form, ragged at the top. He’s making something wonderful, there. It felt good, pressing my hands to what will be my boat. August seventh is our tentative pickup date. Soon after, we’ll head for the Yukon.
After a stop for showers and laundry (it’s common, here, to see places advertising the two. Since lots of folks are traveling through and many do without running water, these are useful services), we drove out of the rain and slept at Paxson Lake under a clear sky. I walked to the shore in the blue and gold morning and sat on a bench overlooking the water. There is so little summer, here, but everything in summer so so lush and lively. I watched the clouds, the minnows, the waving fireweed. I could almost hear the blueberries bulging, the spruce needles spooling out. I speculated about what percent of Alaska is, at any given time, covered with moose poop. I thought about the coming school year. I felt guilty for sitting still in the middle of so much activity and walked back to camp to get ready to head out, singing Beatles tunes to ward off bears (I’d forgotten my bear spray like a dodo and you never know).
Farther south, we took the Glenn highway through the mountains to Wasilla, stopping so that I could get my first long look at a glacier. Matanuska Glacier impressed me profoundly. It has a presence, something very grand and stately and dangerous and fragile that got a grip on me as I perched on the ice chests in the truck, staring from an overlook. I didn’t expect to be moved so deeply, but what should one expect of a glacier? I dried a tear or two and climbed back into the cab, Wasilla-bound.
“Hey Geoff, if you got the chance would you go to the moon?”
“Nope. I don’t think I would.”
“It’s a wasteland! All cold and dark. And the food would be terrible.”
“Kinda like living in the arctic, huh? So isolated…”
“It’s completely different!”
It’s hard to believe we made that whole trip in a day, but we did. We picked up fishing licenses in Wasilla and learned that a fire was burning right beside the Seward highway, south of Anchorage, and that the road could close at any minute. It was nine at night but we decided to press on south.
We drove through the burning area and watched a helicopter dip water out of the ocean. Flames were visible on the cliffs above the road and smoke nearly obscured the rising moon. Still, we stopped for water at a pullout where a pipe pours clean water directly out of a rock face. “You watch for fireballs falling down the cliff while I fill the jugs, Keely.”
We were both tired and cranky by the time we made it to the campground at nearly two in the morning, but we found a campsite and got the tent up in the end.
After that, it was a waiting game. Gillnetters fish all day at the mouth of the river, essentially blocking it off. It’s not worth the launch fee to go out when no fish are getting through, so we had to wait for the dipnet fishery to be opened for twenty-four hour access. Our moment came and we set our alarms for 1:30 am. By 3:30 we were fishing an incoming tide in the not-quite dark of a drizzly night.
There are two ways to dipnet: some folks stand in the water up to their ribs holding long-handled nets.
Others putt along holding nets out beside their boats. When a fish hits the net, you feel a bang and haul it in. We fished from Geoff’s boat, cruising down the banks of the river all night and into the morning.
We pulled the boat out at eleven the next morning and went back to camp to sleep. That night, we put in again, this time in more serious rain. As the extra hands, I had lots of downtime through that night. I figured out I can sleep in the rain and cold tucked in among the ice chests and actionpackers if I’m in full foulies with handwarmers in my boots and a ball cap to shed the water. It was a rough night, but the morning was beautiful.
In all, we put the boat in four times and came home with not nearly enough fish. The run peaked early this year and the dipnetters never had a good opening. Still, I’m amazed that there’s a place in the world where you can just stick a net like that in the water, wait, and pull out a fish. We don’t do that in Maine – there just aren’t fish anymore. Anyone I know at home would be over the moon to come home with just one of the fish we brought in, even a flounder we’d have casually thrown back.
We’re off to Tustumena Lake for a long weekend, well-deserved. I’ll try to remember to take breaks from relaxing and soaking up the wonderful to take a few pictures.