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.
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.