Did you know

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.

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Feeeeeeesh!

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.

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See Geoff. See Geoff pack. See Geoff still packing. Take a nap.

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.

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The confluence of a blue creek with the muddy Matanuska.

“Hey Geoff, if you got the chance would you go to the moon?”
“Nope. I don’t think I would.”
“Why not?”
“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.”

DSC04931We 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.

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Here’s the crowd at the river’s mouth, dipnetting from shore.

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.

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Some very well-fed seals at dawn

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On a good day, in a good year, I hear the boats are shoulder to shoulder.

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.

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DSC04957In 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.

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Good company.

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Pee break.

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Camp

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.

fishing, surf, and surf fishing

As promised, Sean took me out to the beach yesterday morning to try surf fishing.

IMG_2690He tried getting a cast beyond the breaking waves and couldn’t quite do it: The waves were monumental and those rods are heavy. We opted to give up on the fishing and just enjoy the surf. He and I each grabbed a boogie board and kicked out into the froth, grinning at each other and waiting out the subpar waves. That perfect one galloped in, glittering in the morning light and humming, ready to roll at just the right moment. I started kicking, and the wave made me weightless.

In the fraction of a second after that, I did something clumsy and the wave cackled and gripped me tight and I was perpendicular to the sand, my feet straight up, still a part of the wave, tumbling with all that water. I felt my face scrape the bottom, my nose taking most of the impact, I thought “this might hurt. I hope my nose isn’t broken” and suddenly I found myself on my feet. My face felt numb and runny, and when I put my hand to it the first time, it came away clean, then the second time there was blood. Sean was smiling at the edge of the water: the same wave had carried him to shore. As I walked up to him, the smile dropped away and he came rushing to get a closer look, make sure I was okay.

I’m fine, but I look about like C did when he and his brother crashed their four-0wheeler into a tree last year. Skin is missing in a stripe from my chin to my forehead, right along the length of my nose. Nothing is broken, I still have all of my teeth, and the worst of it was the sting of being stuck ashore all day yesterday. I had to wait for the sticky phase to pass so that I could play again, and I didn’t want get sun on the antibacterial gel that’s been basting my face like a roast turkey: The last thing I need is a burn.

The good news is that Sean’s cousin J caught a shark last night surf fishing! It can be done!IMG_2693

Nobody else caught anything, though we stuck it out until well after dark, enjoying the bioluminescent critters in the sand and a special delivery peach cobbler.

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Sean’s cousin R took us out in the whaler this morning, seeking flounder in the intracoastal. That dude is a daredevil! I grew up on boats and I’ve seen scary, and this ride made the hair on my neck stand up. We tried several different spots, zipping across the chop to a new location after fifteen or twenty minutes with little or no luck. In our last few minutes, fishing off a sandbar between grass flats, I hooked a flounder! His face is almost as flattened as mine! Flounder need to be fifteen inches, so we couldn’t keep him, but I was proud of myself. J caught another shark today and a little stripey guy, and she and I each caught a sea trout. Sean caught one little striped critter, and R didn’t snag any fish. Conclusion: fishergirls > fisherguys. J is, of course, queen of the fishergirls.IMG_2710

We’re hoping all this talk of a hurricane (named Arthur, of all things) is trumped up. I’m not ready to leave yet: my face has just set its scabs well enough that I can swim again, and I haven’t won a single game of bocce. I’m not ready to go back to the garden and the humidity and summer school and solitude. Everybody get together, take a deep breath, and blow hard at that storm. Maybe, if enough folks try it, we can knock that storm off course and buy me just a few more days.

salt and sunblock

I’m writing from the upstairs balcony of the beach house that Sean’s family has rented for the week. Sean’s Granny turned 90 years old today, and her seven children and their children are here to celebrate. There is a warm breeze blowing across my bare toes and I can hear waves crashing on the beach and younger cousins giggling down below. If it were daytime, I’d be on the lookout for pelicans and sailors on the horizon, but for now I’m just enjoying the dark and letting the salt in the air and the starched ruffle sound of the surf heal my long homesickness for the Atlantic.

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There are thirty of us here, all of them Sean’s aunts, uncles, cousins, and inlaws, with a few outlaws like me for flavor. I’m still working on getting the names and relationships straight, though I’ve met most of them before. The aunts have done a tremendous job at the helm of this operation: with thirty in one house, organization is key. There is a schedule for cooking duty and cleanup crew, and everyone was assigned a sleeping-spot before we arrived. A pullout couch in the basement was designated for Sean and me, but last night we dragged our mattress off of the uncomfortable frame and laid it out on the pool deck. We crashed quickly, exhausted from a long sunburnt day of swimming and reading and bocce on the beach. Our eyelids fell closed on stars that glittered like mica in the sky, while to our drifting-off ears the hush and whisper of waves on the beach fell silent.

The sunrise woke us – I love sleeping out! – and we dozed and woke and watched the sky brighten and dozed off again. Some of the uncles and cousins went surf fishing this morning, and rumor has it that someone caught a small shark. Sean has promised to take me tomorrow. I can’t wait to leap out of bed and get salty first thing

Because today was the big birthday and Sean was on dinner-duty, we spent much of the day in the kitchen making cupcakes. There was a respite in the afternoon, so we played in the water for a while and then constructed what became easily the best sandcastle I’ve had a part in for ten years. Sean built a bridge over a river and made sure to have farms for food security and huts for the peasants, while his cousin Matt built gorgeous crenellations along the exterior wall and I erected a tower for the inner keep.

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Sean’s Granny is an astonishing lady, and it is a pleasure to know her. She’s more alive at 90 than many elders are at 70, and, although I have met her only once or twice before, she has taught me essential lessons about pinochle, which is a foundational life skill. More importantly, I have her to thank for the man who has become my partner.

She and Sean have been talking for nearly an hour now. The birthday feast was laid out on the deck, and I can look down to where they’re still sitting side by side. The dishes, and now the tables and chairs, have been cleared away around them, but they still have their heads bent in, their shoulders a hair’s breadth apart, for all the world as if they haven’t yet realized that the party has burned down to the ember of their conversation. I can’t hear their voices over the waves, but their hands are talking, each gesturing in turn. It’s lovely to see, so I think I’m going to perch up here for a while longer, drinking in this sweet, warm, North Carolina night.

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