Photo: Dr. DeNo
Photo: Dr. DeNo

Walk It Down

I caught my first salmon off the seawall in Kotzebue, Alaska in the very early morning of August fourth. I used a snagging hook: a three-pronged weighted beast of tackle that bent my rod backward when I cast. I worried about those standing by and what a rogue hook this size could do, how it might catch something on land instead of in sea. Snagging is illegal in most states—including a significant portion of Alaska—but along the seawall in Kotzebue when the salmon are running, the people were snagging.

I caught a single fish on my first cast because I got lucky. And because I watched the fish struggle against the current along the wall, my hook landing in its side near the tail, its body a series of muscles designed to pull away from me. My line was too loose, at first, and the fish ran out. Someone quickly reached over and tightened the tension so I would not lose my pole. My line buzzed when the fish ran. But this is not a fish story.

 

Before I went to Alaska as part of a month-long art and science collaboration, I romanticized it as the last frontier. I considered the mountains around Anchorage and the peaks of the Alaska Range to be ideal, a pristine wilderness surrounded by snow and lorded over by Denali. I did not have the impression that Alaska was easy because I had been outside enough to know that it could not possibly be. I did, however, have a specific image and idea of place that was too narrow and contained for a state a fifth the size of the lower forty-eight.

Alaska, if laid across the United States, would stretch from coast to coast. In northwestern Alaska villages are so isolated from one another they are only accessible by plane. There are few doctors at the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue. If you are pregnant in northwestern Alaska and have complications, you are flown by life flight to Anchorage. If you are in a car accident, you are flown to Anchorage too.

This size can be disorienting and the unfamiliarity of the landscape striking. In Kotzebue, one of the largest towns in northwestern Alaska, people learn not just to walk on tundra, but to run. Everyone looks forward to winter in the middle of July: “It is almost snow time,” the children say, because snow and ice open the world. When the Kotzebue Sound—the stretch of water along the coast bordered by the Chukchi Sea—freezes, people snowmobile to Cape Krusenstern and surrounding villages. During the summer, boat transportation is required and the sound, though frequently calm, changes quickly and drastically. Small craft can be dangerous and large boats are extremely expensive.

Before I walked in Alaska I did not realize the softness of the ground, or the differences between types of tundra and rolling muskeg or tussocks. Alpine tundra moves up the Brooks Range, but the tundra at the base of the mountains, the tundra that stretches outward and spreads throughout the valleys and along the rivers, is a combination of layers of grasses, lichens, and mosses, tussocks ranging in size from tennis balls to beach balls, marshlands and muddy flats so difficult to walk in that a steep, gravel incline is a relief. It seems like everywhere is water.

 

When I went fishing with Mike, a Park Service archaeologist, we layered in what we could find—knit caps and SmartWool, synthetic jackets and hoodie sweatshirts. The spray off the water was cold, though his trolling motor took us only five miles an hour outside of town.

We dragged a line in the water, the hook too light and bobbing along the surface as we drove. We went fishing for fun, but we didn’t really fish—instead we talked about archaeology, the burying of things in Alaska’s soft ground.

The boat drifted into the shore when we stopped, so we sat on the rocks. The stones were so flat they skipped along the surface with nothing more than a quick flick from hand. Mike and I talked about rocks, the best shape of skippers, flakes left behind from stone tools. Mike wanted to get more people in Kotzebue involved in the history of their landscape. He was earnest— when he talked about Beringia, he touched his beard and grinned wide enough to show all teeth.

“I cut my hand here,” he says, displaying his flattened palm. “I was chipping at a stone tool in a classroom. The kids told me I was bleeding.” The tools were that sharp, their edges as thin as glass—the blood warm and clean as it welled from cuts as fine as a scalpel blade. He tossed another stone and rinsed his hands in the sound.

The town elders called Mike “naavraaq,” Inupiaq for “old things” because he disrupted the soil. “I think of it as a compliment,” he said, “though they call me a noun. I like to think they mean it as what I find, and not me.” Mike wanted to find movement—he searched for signs of migration, the paths of people and game. In town there was a store built atop a burial site. Many did not like archaeologists because they dug up the dead.

We cast a shared line again and again into the shallow water by the camps, pulling back clumps of green moss and grass, sometimes full of stones, sometimes not—but never a fish. We cast until after midnight, until the sun set hot pink and glowing. The aurora borealis would have been visible that night had it been darker, and we convinced ourselves that we saw part of it in the pulsing sunset.

This was a moment of stillness, the peacefulness of Alaska a stopping point, the vibrating sky enough to make both Mike and I part of the flat rocks on shore. He bounced a stone off my arm.

 

One night I saw two girls skinny-dipping in the dark black water. They yelled, “It’s fucking cold,” as they struggled back up the wet concrete of the boat ramp.

On another day, while I was walking around town, I overheard a child ask his mother if he could go swimming. It was raining and she said no, but the weather was no colder than it had been all week.

It was late when the girls jumped in, taking off their clothes after the Lion’s Club dance and leaping feet-first from the edge of the seawall. It was still daylight, in a way, and they glowed in the partial light, their skin visible beneath the water as they stretched by the ramp, their legs kicking slowly.

 

Snagging is illegal because it is possible to catch a lot of fish at one time. Over and over, the snagging hook lands into fish sides and fish bellies—more fish than can fit in a cooler, an oven, or even a freezer, the silver and pink and blood-red piles growing.

I asked everyone if snagging is illegal because it is ethically questionable. Maybe it is the idea of the fish being too distracted to take bait, no matter the technique or choice of lure, that strikes me as unfair. The fish are single-track minded during spawning season and ignore everything else in the water, including any attempt to catch them.

My first night fishing along the seawall, a man a few spots down from where I stood caught one fish after the next all night long. He moved to the boat ramp and stood there, throwing fish into a giant plastic action-packer, layering them atop each other, carelessly stacking their slick bodies. He mirrored the commercial fisherman—those that brought in hundreds of pounds at once, fish bruised and pink as they were lifted from the bottoms of boats with a net and crane. These fish were sent to Washington, maybe Oregon, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, flown that night by freight. The man who snagged so many kept the fish for himself, or he gave them to his neighbors, the gift of bounty a gift to be shared.

When I showed up at the seawall the second night, I did not anticipate I would catch anything, partially because I had fished for four hours the night before. I didn’t go to catch anything, not really, but rather for the repetition of casting, the meditation. I arrived at the seawall after midnight again, and again children lined the railing, as older teenagers and adults cast out.

Pointing to the water one of the boys said, “Look for the ‘V,’ like something’s moving beneath.” It was with that direction that I realized I could see salmon. They came in waves along the wall in groups of ten or more, each fish silver beneath the dark water, as long as my forearm at least and some even bigger still. These fish were three-to-four times the girth of my arm. They were close to the edge of the wall and swam in formation like migrating birds, moving only slightly out of line with the strong current.

That night, I cast into this formation and jerked my line tight.

The key of snagging is not just the movement or jerk of the line, but rather paying attention to the children who cluster the seawall watching the adults. These children watch for fish beneath the clear water, the shape of disruption and slight ripple that means another fish is coming. If the children aren’t gathered along the seawall sides, the fish aren’t traveling close to the shore. It’s as if the children know the pattern and migration, can see it beyond the water.

My salmon was in the ocean stage of its spawning trek. It had not turned the deep greens and pink of river spawning, not yet, and it remained a silvery shiver in the dark water. The slight pink of its underbelly hinted at red tiger stripes that were to come, those deep oxblood rings that would circle its body.

My fish was male; when it was cut open, there was no roe inside. I do not know how much my fish weighed before it was gutted, nor do I have a picture of me with my fish before it lost its head. I do know it bent my pole in half when I snagged it. And while I knew that survival is strong in all of us, I did not expect the strength of this fish.

When the hook hit its side, I walked it down the boat ramp. “She’s got one!” the girls yelled. They told me over and over to take two steps backward and one step forward as I reeled in the fish. It was still alive. One of the boys kicked its head—these fish are too large to curb as one would stun trout upon brook stones. Salmon are clubbed in Kotzebue, but I had no club. I wished I had a knife.

The same boy cut the head from the fish with a small serrated blade. It was not a graceless motion, though it was bloody. He pulled the head from the body and spilled the rest into water. The seagulls—those fat birds sometimes killed for sport, their bodies stuffed into rusting junkyard ships, those sparse yet full birds—dove for the parts, returning the fish to the sea eventually.

When the boy cut its head the children gathered around, the fish’s mouth still moving. I wanted to tell them that snakes are like this too, that when I was a child my father killed a rattlesnake on our front porch because he was afraid it would continue to return there. They may not have understood this comparison because most of them had never seen snakes in the wild. The snake’s head moved like this fish’s head, jaws snapping for minutes after its death while my sister and I watched.

“Can you put it back on?” one of the children asked.

“No,” the boy answered. “It just does that; it’s a nerve. It’s okay.”

They did not want the fish to live again—these are children raised to eat from the sea, to catch fish from their father’s boats, their uncle’s boats, or along the seawall itself. They were instead entranced by the movement, how the fish gasped for air though it had been separated from its gills, though it could no longer breathe, though it was scattered to ocean and thrown to sea and diving birds.

This is not a fish story because I did not take this fish from Kotzebue; I did not take the fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium, willow-herb spicy and rich, or the buried things archeologists want to find either. I left them there in the vastness of water, the inseparability of people and landscape, the moment when the fish reels its head, an arch, and all the children gather to watch.

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