Savoring Wild Salmon
Daniel Duane floats and fishes Alaska's healthy waters, glimpsing paradise regained
By Daniel Duane
IT WAS A QUIET TIME ON THAT BEACH in southeast Alaska, with the kayaks drawn up into the dune grasses and everybody gone for the day. Barefoot in the shallows, swimming in the cool water, sleeping in the sun, I watched gulls in the low golden light of the sea foam and little sanderlings higher up the wet sand, poking in the gold-green algae. I watched bald eagles come and go from their Sitka spruces, and I waited for the ebb tide when the creek mouth might drain and narrow and crowd a thousand pink salmon into an ever-tighter channel, so I could eat one.
I'm not a fisherman. I've hardly fished at all. But eating wild salmon matters to me because it's wild and because I like the taste and because it brings me closer to a world I wish I inhabited. That's why I came to this beach. I wanted to experience with my own senses not just this beautiful food but also the place that spawns it in such abundance. I wanted to smell and taste the waters and paddle the estuaries and see the humpback whales and feel the cold wind off the calving glaciers. I wanted to know how it would feel to find such a food the way it could be found a century ago near my home, eaten by the grizzly bears that once foraged every dumb little creek around San Francisco Bay--a place once famous for seafood, now dependent, like Denver and Omaha, on fish from the airport.
It's a nostalgic impulse but hopeful and curious too. At a time when the human appetite for fish, like my own appetite, has become bottomless, and when gigantic oceangoing vessels skim the seas clean of biomass and sell it all over the earth via same-day jets, fish are vanishing everywhere. So there's a powerful allure in a web of freshwater, saltwater, and surrounding wildlands healthy enough to generate 5 billion pounds of seafood year after year without diminishing anything. That's how much Alaska produces, at an annual value approaching $1 billion, making wild seafood second only to oil in its tax contribution to the state government. I wanted to see that source for myself, not in industrial terms but in natural ones, and to dream about the way my own home must have once looked and the way it might look again, if only the right people could start seeing dollar signs.
THAT SALMON CREEK DOES NOT HAVE A NAME. I looked on a good map. The beach does not have a name either. Many soft white strands run along many small bays on the wild, forested north coast of Kupreanof Island. The beach I landed on is not inside a national park, and you can easily get there by seaplane from Petersburg, Alaska. That's how I got there; I signed up for a guided kayak trip and climbed into an antique Grumman seaplane at the Petersburg dock, down from the big industrial canneries. The pilot winged us around the low mountains of Kupreanof and over a pod of humpbacks, then skimmed to a stop a few hundred yards off the forested beach. A skiff motored out, piloted by a young Alaskan woman working the kayak camp for the summer. She brought us ashore and showed us the tents and kayaks. The following day she took everyone out exploring.
I stayed behind to fish but also to lie around on the sand and let the high-tide hours wash away and bring the salmon back. It's good to wait; life gets too busy. We need wasted days in random places. It's better if you do not have a book to read. Boredom brings us closer to ourselves and to the world outside. Boredom makes us pay attention to the loon's loud, curious call, and it gives us the time to ask ourselves how exactly a northern seacoast can smell sweet. It did smell sweet--maybe an inland forest can do that. I watched a kingfisher's light, swooping flight, and I heard a raven's mixture of clicking and singing and then clicking again.
The beach faced north but not toward any open water. It was like a maritime version of the Northern Rockies, with mountains all around the openness of Frederick Sound. To the east, beyond the tall fireweed bushes with their pink flowers, the giant peaks of Alaska's Coast Range shone white and gray in the summer sun. Their glaciers looked massive and fractured from 50 miles off. The great granite tower of Devils Thumb, famous among mountaineers, thrust above the rest. North of those peaks, and northeast of my beach, forested slopes fell down to Farragut Bay. Those humpbacks were in the water somewhere in between, along with tens or hundreds of thousands of salmon moving in from their years in the deep sea, branching off to their tiny streams.
The night before, waking in my sleeping bag, I'd heard the humpbacks screeching and the salmon leaping and flopping--to relieve the pressure on their egg-bloated stomachs, some say. The night had been very still, with no waves in the water. Every sound had carried. I'd heard the footsteps and splashing of a black bear wandering by our tents, so I'd stood up in my underwear and peered through the Sitka branches, hoping for a glimpse. I never saw the bear, but I spotted the beacon of some far-off lighthouse.
Due north, in the midday sun, I saw the forested islands known as the Two Brothers and the tiny islands called the Five Fingers, where that lighthouse had been so bright. Toward the northwest loomed the mountains of Admiralty Island, where some 1,500 brown bears live in a trackless interior and eagles fill nests along all 700 miles of coastline. I'd like to go there; if there has been a single consistent pleasure in my life, it's the comfort I've found in quiet, empty valleys, watching the sun cross the sky. Beaches aren't so bad either, especially small ones. My beach was only a few hundred yards long, running into rocks and dense brush to the west and ending abruptly at the creek mouth to the east. And the spruce forest backing it was too dense and wet to encourage a walk inland across the soggy muskeg. The beach was just big enough to stroll, in other words, but too short and sheltered for anything ambitious. The sand was very fine too, and the sun came down hot; I walked in circles barefoot, kicked at clamshells, and watched sanderlings among the algae on the rocks. Then I stood again by the edge of the still-flooded creek, and I saw what I wanted to see: hundreds of shadows flitting in the red murk.
HUMPBACKS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH SALMON, except that they have everything to do with salmon. Wildness keeps Alaskan salmon fisheries alive--the vast national forests where streams don't get paved over, or buried in culverts, or soiled with urban runoff, and where bays aren't polluted, and where dams don't block a salmon's journey home. And when you come here to see that wildness, nothing shouts out the fundamental vitality of this place like two humpbacks rolling in the sunshine, a quarter mile ahead of your kayak. I saw their tails lift up high and slip into the sea. I don't know how deep the water was, or how many salmon swam below, feeling some mysterious route to the right creek mouth. But I paddled toward the humpbacks.
The whales surfaced, and their heavily ridged backs rolled black and glossy through the midday glare like logs turning in a river. You don't see much of the animal--maybe 10 or 15 percent. You see enough to wish you could see the rest. When they sank again, I paddled faster, pulling ahead of the group. The camp host wanted everybody together. She yelled at me and made a remark about how people get so excited when they see whales. The more striking thing is that it can wear off on a person who sees them often. For the rest of us, there's a hypnosis that overtakes you in the presence of whales; you want to be as close as possible, right now. You crave contact, and you have no idea why.
I'm not a great kayaker. I paddled as hard as I could. There was no wind, so the water was oily-smooth and the kayak knifed along. The whales vanished below, and I slowed, afraid they were gone. Then they surfaced, and my pulse jumped, and I dug deep with the paddle blades. They vanished again, and I slowed. The surface of the sea is like a membrane between worlds; the whales live in the other one, where the water is space. Sometimes they break that membrane, and we see parts of them. Then all that bulk slips through the film again, and the whales might as well visit another planet.
Another day I rode along in a motorboat fitted with an underwater microphone. The microphone helps with the membrane problem; it allows one of our senses a little access to that other world. The sounds are unmistakable, aching whale songs like we've all heard in recordings, except that when they're live, the aching and the melodic quality are infinitely more powerful. One theory about natural beauty says that we react because our minds and spirits are shaped by the world we inhabit; the mind and the world are mirror images, the one built to love the other. People on whaleboats break into tears listening to whale songs, our guide told us. He said it happens all the time. I could tell it had happened to him. How mysterious: Listening to the calls of another animal, sounds we cannot understand and do not intend to use for hunting, we are overcome by emotions similar to those generated by human songs and even by other forms of human art.
A SALMON HIT MY HOOK. This was in the late afternoon when the tide had begun to fall but the sun was still high; it was summertime in Alaska, the days lasting forever. I stood on the steep sand inside the creek's inland bend. Salmon moved underwater in groups of a dozen or two or three, shooting forward and stopping, then turning, always visible under the surface. I imagined the bald eagles could see them too, from that big nest up in their Sitka spruce. Eagles come back to the same nest year after year. They keep building too, expanding the nest. Seeing a big one can make you laugh. The word nest doesn't capture it. Apartment would be more like it. The creek was 20 or 30 yards wide, ten feet deep, and slowly dropping with the tide. I could see rocks, grasses, and sand on the creek bottom, and the fish seemed stuck in this pool, unable to move farther upstream to spawn. With a little practice, I could've caught them with a spear or a big net. I took off my clothes, waded into the creek, and found a rock I could stand on, then tried catching fish with my hands. It was impossible. I couldn't even touch them. And I got very cold.
I don't own a fishing rod; I used a spare spin-casting rig from the camp. The rod had a shiny lure with a bit of bright pink plastic, and somebody who knew a little told me it was OK. Those fish were done eating; they would never again eat in their lives. They would just consume their own spare fat until they'd gotten far enough up that lazy creek to spawn, then they would die. So the point wasn't to lure them into eating. The point was to get them interested in something flashy and annoying. I dropped the lure in front of a dozen fish and dragged it away from them. A large salmon broke away and gave chase, swimming inches behind the hook.