Tag Archives: fishing

The Changing World of Elfin Cove

Greg Howe seems to think the outboard is fine. I’m certainly not inclined to argue. He’s been here four decades, I’ve been here four days. If he thinks the engine is reliable enough to get us across South Inian Pass I’m going to believe him. But I’ve had an outboard die on me. Twice it’s put me on the rocks, once in British Columbia, another time north of Juneau. They make for great stories, but with an east wind of 25-knots and the open ocean an arm’s length away, I’m not ready to revisit the stomach dropping sensation of a coughing Yamaha.

Greg and Jane Button’s boat the Via has a covered helm with a bench seat for two people and another one directly behind that faces backward.

“Wear your rain pants. You’ll get wet.”

Brittney and I huddle on the seat and watch the Hobbit Hole disappear behind us. With no hesitation Greg takes us into Inian Pass, and for who knows what time, makes the 20-minute trip to Elfin Cove. In its heyday Elfin Cove was a commercial fishing hub. From there the treasures of the northern panhandle was at your feet. Salmon all summer, Kings in the winter, halibut right off the dock. Greg waxes about days with forty fishing boats in the Hobbit Hole’s inner cove. For not the first time I wonder if I was born too late. Trolling Inian Pass and Soapstone Point circa 1955 sounds like Nirvana. It’s a tale of tragedy told and retold up and down the coast. Even in Alaska, the last frontier, the land of opportunity, the land of inexhaustible natural wealth, locals can feel the spoon hitting the bottom of the bowl.

Elfin Cove is a shadow of its former self. The tale of west Icy Strait is not all that different from Northern British Columbia where we spent the last three winters. A place defined by fishing that has been strangled by dismal returns and a changing climate. Homesteads and outposts used to dot these places. Now they are only relics of an age come and gone. Another victim of the good old days. The Hobbit Hole and Elfin Cove stand as guardians of another time. And Elfin remains mostly as a seasonal town populated by sport fishing lodges.

The run across Inian Pass is eye opening. Steep cliffs are barren of vegetation thirty feet above sea level, marking the height merciless winter waves can hit. We hug the shoreline of Chichagof Island. I point across the pass to the mainland and the boundary of Glacier Bay National Park. The Brady Glacier glows in the gray light of winter. The open ocean, the swell visible as a steppe ten feet high awaits any foolish enough to run the outer coast. Hands down it is the wildest scene I’ve ever laid eyes on. How have I lived ignorantly at the step of this country for years and never ventured this far? This place is in my blood already.

We slip into Elfin Cove, a long narrow cut in the Chichagof Island shoreline where the wind funnels down the steep hillsides and adds frothy whitecaps to one-foot waves. Most of the buildings are up on pilings and hover over the water on high tide. A few are built into the mountainside, but it is a place of boardwalks. There are no cars here, there never will be. But beyond the charm of the place is the eerie vacancy. Clues of a previous grandeur are everywhere. A school, a post office, houses pockmarked up and down the inner cove. But there are no people.

That’s not entirely true. There are five people here in winter. The shop is open three hours a week. 1-2, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As we walk along the boardwalks I hop between feelings of awe and the eerie silence of another small community gone to seed. We pass fishing lodge after fishing lodge boarded up with No Trespassing signs hammered to the fence. Like their clients, the owners are South for the winter. They’ll arrive in the spring, fish the dickens out of Cross Sound, and then take their fish and money back South with them. It doesn’t feel right, the consumption of so much taken by so few. Greg’s an old commercial fisherman, a champion of Alaska’s fisheries, a commodity he calls, “the people’s resource.”

“Very few can afford to come up here and fish for a week.” he explains. “And those that do take more than they can eat. It gets thrown out in the spring, they come back, and do it all over again. More people can go to Costco and buy a fillet of Alaskan Halibut once a week. Which one is the better use?”

There’s a look of nostalgia on his face. Memories of people in Port Althorp and Gull Cove and Mud Bay. Of fishing boats working The Laundry and Soapstone and stopping at the Hobbit Hole for dinner. Like much of the old west, the big east has chewed it up and swallowed it. Three times he tells stories of the fishing life, the culture of “Icy Straits.” It’s a tradition I would love to see honored. Commercial fishing shaped southeast Alaska, for better or worse. It’s an occupation that brought many to Gustavus, Hoonah, Elfin Cove, and Pelican. It was our lifeblood, a means that opened the door to many of the current residents of this place.

Back at the Hole I poke through the detritus of the homestead. Countless fishing buoys, crab pots, line, and hooks fill a storage shed. There’s such a contrast between what this place was and what it will become. A place that feeds the bellies of humanity to one that feeds the mind. But indirectly, I believe the goal remains the same. To make people fall in love with this place. To keep them alive, and to convince the world that we cannot survive without them.


The Bartlett River Miracle

September. In years past it’s meant digging out the crawlspace, filling the car, and early mornings in ferry terminals. But not this year. Or the year after this one. Or the next one. Now I’m digging out the fishing rod, filling the freezer, and spending mornings on the Bartlett River Trail.

Glacier Bay is a paddler’s park. There’s only a handful of maintained trails. The most popular of which is the Bartlett River Trail in Bartlett Cove. Just a few hundred yards from the lodge, it endures hundreds of footsteps as nervous visitors armed with bear spray make the mile and a half track to the mouth of the river.

But at seven in the morning in mid-September, we have the whole trail to ourselves. The speedometer on Dr. Zachary Brown’s pickup is busted, insisting that we’ve been going 115 m.p.h since he picked up me and Patrick Hanson. But car maintenance is never at the forefront of a Gustavian’s mind. Today we’re after something much more valuable. The three of us and Zach’s partner Laura Marcus park at the trailhead, grab our gear, and push into the woods. Our boots slosh through the mud, the only sound the creaks of backpack straps, the rattle of squirrels, and the quarrels of gulls.

We climb down a low sloping hill, an artifact of a different age, a glacial roadmap. Grand Pacific was here. Sitakaday, the ice bay is no more. But with loss comes life. We’re surrounded by Hemlock, Spruce, Devil’s Club, Blueberry, Hedgehog Mushrooms, dozens of species of moss and lichen. So much life, in large part thanks to the Sockeye, Pink, and Coho that run up the river every year with metronome-like precision. And I’ve come to take some of that life. We all have.

I spend my life in communion with this masterpiece, but as an observer. A silent watchman in the back of the room. But with the fishing pole clutched in the hand, I’m going to supplant myself in the middle of the performance. I’m no longer an audience member, I’m a player, and my role has the potential for catastrophe.

2017, a year that has infused those with a love of quiet places and open spaces with such terror, has a handful of marvelous anomalies. Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska had a banner year in the most abundant Sockeye fishery on earth. And the Coho of southeast are following suit. There are literally too many returning Coho for all of them to spawn. The commercial fisherman, sea lions, seals, bears, and eagles cannot eat them fast enough. Two vestiges of hope in a world where every environmental paper seems to be a harbinger of doom.

I lead our little quartet out onto the river. We’re a bunch of novices. Patrick carries a brand new rod he’s never casted and Laura landed her first Pink on the Salmon River the other day. Despite growing up in Alaska, neither Zach or myself are bursting with angling expertise. In fact I’d spent the better part of the month casting and retrieving with little to show for it. Thankfully Kyle Bishop took pity on me in a way few in the competitive world of fishing would have. He showed me his favorite fishing holes and advised me on everything from his preferred lures to proper vacuum packing techniques. From his generous shared knowledge and my tally of two Coho, I’m somehow the most “experienced.”

The first few times I’d fished the Bartlett I’d succumbed to an all too common mistake. As soon as I hit the river I’d begun to cast with the logic that all the fish must pass this spot. But Kyle had taught me differently. Don’t give in to temptation. Keep hiking, and when you think you’re there, hike a little more. And so we keep going, another forty minutes along the river bank. The trail shows signs of other commuters. River otter, black bear, coyote, and wolf. But the only occupants this morning are dozens if not hundred of Mergansers that lift off from the river as one, white wings shining in the early light.

We hop a tiny stream and past a wide river bed where hundreds of Pink salmon are spawning, carving long divots in the gravel stream to deposit eggs and sperm so there children can one day do the same. There work finished, they have nothing left to give. The flesh flaking from their bones, they succumb to the unrelenting current and drift back down the river until coming to rest on the bank.

At last I stop at the spot Kyle insists has been on fire all year. We begin the repetitive task of casting again and again. The high pitched whirl of line off the swivel, the gentle plop of the lure on the river, the click-clack-click-clack of the reel. For an hour we experience nothing but near misses. I nearly get one to the steep river bank but just as I reach for the salmon, the line snaps, taking the fish, my lure, and gear with it. We spread out up and down the shore, Zach disappears behind a big stand of Spruce. I’m situated between Patrick and Laura who stand about 200 yards away.

A huge splash comes from the river a dozen yards and front of Laura. I look over to see her reeling furiously, but nothing else comes of it. Assuming she either lost it or it was just one of the many leaping Pinks, I prepare another cast.

“David? Can you come help me?”

I drop my rod and, caution to the wind, grab my fillet knife and begin to run down the river towards her. There is a tension in our voices, a gritty determination with a tablespoon of excitement and, yes, fear. It’s a big fish. A big beautiful fish. And it runs on her, again and again making a break for the far side of the river. It’s undulating body sends up flashes of beautiful silver. But he’s no match for the rod of humanity. And at last he has nothing left to give. I hop down the bank ankle deep in water as she drags her catch over.

“Keep the tension on the line.”

I grab the line just above the Coho’s head and reach into my thigh pocket for my needle nose pliers. They’re small but heavy, and the thin handle gives me confidence I can land the blow that will end the fight once and for all. But before I do, I stare into his eyes.

Fish always look surprised. Those wide, unblinking eyes, mouth slightly open like someone has just jumped at them from a dark corner. I wonder how the hook feels in his mouth. How tired he must be to stop fighting. How I’m about to finish a miraculous story that started four years ago in this very stream. How this fish has been bucking the odds since before it was born when gulls were scooping up the eggs around him. How many nets, mouths, and lures it had dodged until, a dozen miles from home, he bit down on Laura’s. So close. There’s still time.

I swing.

The pliers make a dull hollow sound on his skull like a finished loaf of bread. I swing again. And again, and again. He stops squirming. I slip my fingers into his gills and out his mouth and with a final heave drop him on the river bank at Laura’s feet.

“What a beautiful fish.”

They truly are. Brighter than silver dollars on the sides and bellies, emerald green with black speckles on top. They seem to be fluorescent, the skin changing color as you turn them in the light. I explain how to cut the gills to ensure he bleeds out and doesn’t suffer.

“I want to do it.”

I expect nothing less of her. But before she does, Laura lays her hands on his head, whispers a few words of gratitudes, and with steady hands cuts the gills. I pull her lure out of his mouth and we set him on the grass.

“He may thrash a bit more,” I tell her, “but don’t worry, it’s just his nerves firing. He’s not suffering.”

Down the river the other way, a splash erupts in front of Patrick. Another one. I take off down the trail and the saga plays out again. Fight, let it run until it’s too tired to do anything but float in the current, bring to shore, lift, hit, gills, grass.

Patrick kneels before the fish and runs a hand down the lateral line. He strokes the fish, his head bowed as if in prayer. He cuts the gills, and sets it in the grass. We want every fish to die with dignity and grace, as little pain as possible. Each gift, each miracle treated with the upmost respect. Does it matter how an animal dies? I think so.

The bite is on. Again and again beautiful streaks of silver break the water. This is just the beginning. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions are behind these, some still queuing up in Cross Sound.

“How amazing that in 2017 there can still be this kind of abundance,” Zach marvels. In a few hours we have eighteen Coho on the river. We also have a three mile hike back. We line the fish up and take a picture to remember them buy. But no one wants to pose rod in hand over our kills. No one has designs of turning them into Facebook cover photos. Before we fill our backpacks, we sit down on the bank and eat lunch.

“I feel like we should say grace.” Says Laura. We agree. “Whether it be God, nature, or just plain luck, we thank you for this marvelous gift, that will sustain us through the winter and has brought us closer together as friends.”

The work is just beginning. Over the next two days we’ll dress, clean, fillet, package, smoke, and can every one of them. We’ll use the back bones for soup stock, take the scraps and sculpt them into burgers. But for now we sit and watch the river flow by and watch the Coho continue to swim by, pushing up against the tide so that, four years from now by God, nature, or just plain luck, we can do this again.

Waders are for Wimps

Even off the grid, where hot running water is nothing more than a mystical fantasy, there is luxury. And like everything else around here, it is earned. Balancing precariously on the rocks on the inside of the cove sits an old bathtub. Small towers of rocks on all four corners keep it level, just try not to notice the rusting bottom and slowly chipping paint. But fill her to the brim with seawater and meticulously feed a fire beneath the rusting base for a few hours and viola! Your very own saltwater hot tub.

The orcas vanished on September 17th and we’ve heard nothing from them since. We haven’t been without entertainment though. Just a mile down the beach, on a series of flat white rocks lives our new neighbors. They are loud, kind of smelly, and supposedly, will call the Hanson Island shoreline home for the better part of the winter. The Stellar Sea Lions have been patrolling the shore, sometimes just feet from us for almost a month now, their growls and barks becoming a consistent white noise that we’ve all had to learn to block out. But a strong fall run of salmon have led to several spectacular chases and catches from the neighboring sea lions and harbor seals. The sea lions especially love to attack from below, rocketing out of the water, a salmon clamped tightly in their jaws. Bouncing vertically in the water column they seem to bob like corks as they try to orient their catch so it slides down the gullet headfirst, all in one nauseating gulp.

The salmon scatter any direction they can, seeking shelter in the kelp bed or running into the shallows where the sea lions are hesitant to go. Two days ago we watched a fish, trapped against the shoreline in just a foot of water, while a sea lion circled just off the shallows. Seeing dinner floating meekly in the water I ran off the deck and over the rocks and hovered above the 18 inch salmon. In one move I lunged for it and felt my right hand grasp the base of his tail. With a single flick and a torrent of water, the salmon broke free of my grip and rushed into the kelp bed, willing to take its chances with the pinnipeds. Crestfallen, my pride in pieces I found two more salmon that day, and both times, spectacularly failed to corral them. Frustrated but determined, I found an old blue net in the shed and strategically placed it near the lab. Next time I wouldn’t go unarmed.

Which is how I came to be yesterday, watching the tide slowly fill the cove lounging in the saltwater bath. A sea lion with a large gash on his right flank routinely enters the bay, sometimes surfacing just twenty feet from my tub, eying me with perhaps just a bit of jealousy. A harbor seal, dwarfed by the sea lion we’d named “Patches” follows in his wake like a dog after its owner. I lean back and close my eyes, and hear a splash from the other side of the rocks. Glancing over the small mound I see a sea lion, pacing back and forth his attention directed at the shoreline. Praying for a shot at redemption, I climb gingerly and bare ass naked out of the tub. Paul and Helena were gone, it was just Brittney and I on the island, but nevertheless, my social conscious kicks in and I reach for the only thing I have to cover myself with, a bright pink towel.

Cinching it around my waist I move gingerly down the rocks, feeling their points and spikes stab into my feet. I try and fail to avoid slipping and breaking every bone in my body while still looking for the shadow of the salmon. I reach the water and see it, swimming slowly back and forth, fixed firmly in three feet of water. My heart races, all pain forgotten I run back up the rocks and grab the net and make my way back to the water, pink towel still firmly attached. My return startles the wayward fish and with a flick of its tail, disappears into deeper water. My heart plummets, a fall breeze washes over me and I shiver. Had I gotten out of my warm tub to fail again?

The water laps at my ankles, the net held limply in my hand. I’m about to turn back when the fish returns, moving into the same shallow pool that he just abandoned. Three rocks stand clear of the water on one side and I move as quickly and quietly as I can onto the furthest one, eyes locked on my prey. I reach the third rock and stumble, catching my balance before I fall, but my bumbling, and maybe a flash of pink startles the fish and he again flicks out of the pool. Patiently I wait, wishing I had stopped to put on some actual clothes, goose bumps erupting all over my body. For the second time the fish comes back and begins once again his slow circle around the pool. As slowly as the adrenaline in my body will let me, I dip the net into the pool and wait. The fish circles again, passes the net, and turns his tail to it.

This is it. I drop the net to the ocean floor and watch the salmon turn into the blue netting. I pull the net from the pool and in my rushed movements, the towel falls. For a moment I stand naked and frozen, the fish thrashing in the net now high above the water. How I wish there was a picture. Grabbing and refastening my pink garment I pick my way back up the rocks and reach for the walkie talkie, “honey, I know what we’re having for dinner tonight.”