A few weeks ago I sent my son off to Bristol Bay, where a job waited as a deckhand on a fishing boat. Ethan was excited to have lined up one of the summer jobs most coveted by teenagers in our small coastal town: high pay and hard work chasing salmon in the wild estuaries of Alaska. He is 18, tall and strong, a varsity athlete freshly graduated from high school with college ahead in the fall. But as we walked to the security-free gate in Anchorage where his prop plane to Dillingham waited, he admitted to a few butterflies.
I felt them, too. A summer like this would change him, whatever happened. I had only to think about the summer when I, too, went to sea in Alaska. It had been a season that changed everything, including the direction of my career as a writer.
My invitation to work as a deckhand came at the end of a long, dark winter. I happily shelved the historical fiction that had swallowed me whole, relieved to trade the guilt of long hours at a snowbound desk for the simple urgency of boat chores. (Advice to youthful writers: it's ok to work on a first novel, finish the handmade cabin you live in, and share the good life with your girlfriend or boyfriend, but choose only two of the above at a time.)
You're supposed to go commercial fishing for the money. But I was at least as excited to be bound for a time-honored training ground for writers. The fact that my skipper, Splinter, owned the local bookstore and was not a veteran fisherman I considered a lucky break. For reading material, I brought along Moby-Dick. I figured if Melville could write that "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard" — well, heck, call me Ishmael. Splinter was a keen and less esoteric reader, and that summer he introduced me to some terrific hard-boiled detective mysteries. All season we found reasons to repeat a line tossed off by Ross Macdonald during one particular villain's comeuppance: "His sky was black with chickens coming home to roost." We were also both absorbed by a curious novel, The Riddle of the Sands, about young British yachters scouting a secret German invasion fleet along a shallow and labyrinthine Baltic Sea coastline that evoked the Copper River Delta where we were fishing.
Less remote than Bristol Bay, the Copper River fishery has since become famous among Pacific Northwest gourmets for its fat-rich early-season salmon. But it remains, as it was then, the most dangerous of Alaska's salmon grounds. Sockeyes bound for the Copper run in schools alongside beaches that open to the Gulf of Alaska. Bowpickers unfurl their nets in the surf, green water pounding over the stern. The taverns of mossy Cordova are full of stories of boats spun and upended in the breakers, of wheelhouses pounded into the sand like tombstones, of deceptive bights with names like the Mousetrap, of fishermen tangled and drowning in their own gillnets.
The real-life Copper River flats needed none of the Kaiser's gunboats to engage our full attention. It takes long experience reading currents and tides to find your way across the shifting sands, whose channels are masked at high tide by the sameness of the glacial gray river water. But even the beginning mariner can feel the shallows in the bottoms of his feet, especially when he shows up in a wooden double-ender drawing four and a half feet of water, about three and a half feet deeper than other boats in the harbor.
On the morning of the first opener, we left Cordova very early, having been told we could navigate to the fishing grounds by following a consecutively numbered zigzag of buoyant DayGlo-orange oil drums, anchored to mark the muddy channel across the flats. Not so well anchored, it turned out — two out of every three drums were missing. With Splinter at the wheel, my job was either to stand atop the wheelhouse with binoculars, scanning for any drum at all, or to jump down in the stern and call out when fresh mud boiled up in our wake.
Twenty minutes before the opener, we heard surf and approached the channel we planned to fish with an air of triumph, seeing only a few other boats. Then a faint insect buzz turned to a roar as the entire shallow-bottom fleet skittered past in carefree clouds of spray and rolled out their nets ahead of ours.
And so it went that summer. The sensations of those days are with me still: the ocean swell, the overbright sun, the unintelligible chatter on the radios, the lift of anticipation as the hydraulic reel kicked into gear and the gillnet started to roll over the stern. I was a member of the last tribe of hunter-gatherers, tuned with paleolithic intensity to the moon and the tides and the watery pulse of life. There were moments of great poetic feeling, when it was midnight after delivering to a tender, the pastel light fading as I gazed across water as fathomless as a young man's dreams, though the sounder said it was only inches deep.
On the down side, we caught hardly any fish. With our too-deep hull, we couldn't chase the other boats over the sandbars and into the inner channels to catch schools backing out on the ebb. We backed over our own net, lost our starter, and had to be towed — the usual problems. It was the weakest salmon run in decades, besides.
In July, we followed the fleet across to western Prince William Sound, where the fishing became desultory: drifting past the glaciers of College Fjord, under a hot sun with no wind, the water deep and clear. Except for the occasional iceberg, we might have been fishing in Lake Geneva.
When the starter went out, we spent a week tied up in the former army port of Whittier, a desperate lunar colony that inspired me to start writing quatrains:
Someone built a city here
And named the city Whittier
No landscape could be prettier
No city could be (etc.)...
By late summer, ennui had given way to creeping fear that, at 27, life was passing me by like one of those drifting icebergs. Letters from home brought new despair, with news of friends graduating from law school or going to work at the Washington Post. The very geography mocked the vagueness of my ambition. College Fjord, named by Ivy League swells on a 19th-century Alaska cruise, featured two vast tidewater glaciers at its head — Harvard and Yale Glaciers — with small attendant glaciers running down either side of the inlet, named for Amherst, Radcliffe, and the like. None of those schools gave degrees for floundering.
Our biggest set of the summer, 56 reds, showed up, fittingly, while we were sound asleep. We'd been drifting on the tide with our net out, far from other boats. We woke to find several corks sunken by the weight of fish. We didn't know where they came from or how to find more. It was like waiting around for some brilliant idea to show up in your dreams and tell you how to finish your novel.
That summer marked the end of my historical novel as well as my fishing career. Within weeks, I moved to the city and soon started a serious career writing newspaper journalism and nonfiction books. Once I got out of my own head, I found there was plenty to say about the actual amazing subject of Alaska.
Now I had a new book about to appear (Crown will be publishing Pilgrim's Wilderness on July 16), one of those dramatic Alaska stories too strange to make up. And I had a little guy who had grown up and was headed out on a fishing adventure of his own.
Happily, Ethan wasn't as moony as his dad was at his age. In his duffle with his Xtratufs and rain gear, he carried the required freshman reading for his fall term at Stanford. The line for the day's last flight to Bristol Bay was backed up with cannery workers talking excitedly in Spanish. As Ethan stepped onto the tarmac, we shared a look through the plate glass, and then he walked off toward the PenAir plane.
I love the light of Alaska's high summer. The sky above was bright and blue at 9 p.m. The sun wouldn't set for hours. Two geese were beating their way toward the tide flats, and there was no sign of any chickens coming home to roost.
Note: Tom Kizzia will be presenting his book at Powell's City of Books on Monday, August 5, at 7:30 p.m.
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Tom Kizzia has traveled widely in rural Alaska for the Anchorage Daily News, and his work has appeared in the Washington Post and been featured on CNN. His first book, The Wake of the Unseen Object, was named one of the best all-time nonfiction books about Alaska by the state’s historical society. Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier is his second book.
Books mentioned in this post
Tom Kizzia is the author of Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier