Traveling To Naknek

By Joe Echo-Hawk

Landing in Anchorage, I’m struck with the feeling of imminent frontier.  Civilization on the edge of something wild and untamed.  Anchorage is poised with a backbone of mountains surrounded by water.  The views out the window of the plane show the waters of Cook Inlet, mudflats, and mountains.  It doesn’t matter if you’re landing at midnight; the sun may have technically set but it’s still light out.  It’s just unclear if I’m looking at a sunset or a sunrise because it never gets dark this time of year.

The June passengers are mostly people seeking adventure or fortune.  As we disembark the plane, I see college students on their way to work a summer job. Salty old fishermen are milling around.  Salty young fishermen are milling around.  I recognize the telltale signs of sport fishermen; outdoorsy looking folks with too nice of gear to do this thing for a living but also just somehow more presentable and respectable looking than us commercial fishing folk.  Fishing crews are traveling in small packs.  Languages of the Eastern European and Pacific rim varieties punctuate the air as this is where many of the people working in the processing facilities come from.  And then there’s always the harder to place individuals, the loners.  Managers of the large fish processors?  Marine biologists?  You know what I’m talking about. The brainy types. But, they also interact with the wilderness and the delinquents of the commercial fishing industry so they’re wary that someone might try and talk to them before they’ve made it to their place of work.

The Anchorage airport never sleeps.  The heavy lumbering freighters that defy gravity come and go to all parts of the world.  Red-eye flights from everywhere supply a steady flow of activity and noise throughout the night.  After a few decades of long layovers in the middle of the night, I have perfected my sleeping spot.  It’s top secret, so unless you’re on my crew, the only tips I can give you are to bring earplugs and extra sweatshirts in your carry-on.  My alarm wakes me up with enough time to gather my wits and a McDonald’s breakfast before boarding the plane to King Salmon. 

My first time doing this, boarding the plane to King Salmon that is, I didn’t realize that I was done with civilization as I was accustomed to.  Now I know.  Now I sit on the plane and eat my McDonald’s breakfast and pick out the people who know what they’re getting into and the people that don’t.  You can always tell.  Even if they’re quiet and they’re wearing all the right gear.  The newcomers look innocently optimistic and like they’re on a grand adventure.  Like they’ve made it.  And maybe they have.  The people who know what they’re heading into seem to communicate with a “here we go again” attitude.  They might be excited to talk to old friends or people they haven’t seen since last summer. They might be laughing.  After last season, they might still be crying.  The main difference with people who know what they’re getting into is that they know there’s nothing else like it back home.  People back home don’t really get what it feels like to live through the summer experience that is about to unfold.

The plane lands in King Salmon on a surprisingly long runway surrounded by flat, grassy, marshy tundra with countless little ponds, puddles and lakes.  The long runway of the mostly defunct military base makes you think you’re still in a normal place.  But then the plane stops in front of a sagging, weathered shack of a terminal with a hand painted “Welcome to King Salmon” sign hung over a door.  Whoever painted the sign seemed to care about the artistry of it and like they wanted to go out of their way to welcome the newcomers.  There's pride in it.  But, what about the rest of this place?  We file off the plane on stairs that are pulled up next to the Alaska Airlines jet and the sense of incongruity forms.  It's my imagination, but as we exit the 90 million dollar jet, I can hear the flight attendants and pilots whispering, “Are you sure?  It’s not too late.”  Followed by a “Good luck.”

If it’s warm and/or sunny, the mosquitos greet by the swarm.  If that doesn't happen, it’s because it’s windy and/or cold and/or raining.  Passengers shuffle into the terminal under the welcome sign.  It’s one large room with a luggage belt and ticket counters.  As the jet deplanes, there's standing room only.  Random dogs meander.  Mosquitoes have found their feasting ground since the terminal has burst through the doors outside to the smoking area.  It smells like body odor and cigarette smoke but that part is more pronounced at the end of the season when it’s fueled with the smell of post-season alcohol and a summer of hopes and dreams spent in small living quarters.

If you’re in the back of the room then forget about seeing your bag come off the luggage belt.  The conveyor belt starts to move and suitcases, duffel bags, coolers and boxes come pouring into the already packed room.  Towers of luggage start to form and everyone is either hollering that they’re coming through or they need a little help to get a bag passed back to where they are.  Through some sort of chaotic choreography, the bags and the people and the dogs and the mosquitoes start to exit out the front door.  Everyone except those forlorn stragglers who had their luggage left behind in Anchorage.

What you don’t realize right away when you exit the terminal is that you’re in downtown King Salmon.  There are some tired looking buildings that communicate the idea of food and drink.  One building has a recognizable logo of Wells Fargo, and then there’s some rather abstract buildings that just match the town theme of worn out.  My cell phone doesn't work.  The newcomers can't Google anything so there’s a lot of questions being asked.  There’s a phone hanging on the wall in the building next door that can be used to call a taxi, but no one really knows that anymore.  How to work a landline phone, that is.

The only thing more worn out than the buildings are the vehicles.  Most of the vehicles should have been parked in a junkyard decades ago if this were a normally civilized place.  Since everything is barged up at great expense, it’s cheaper to send up parts to keep everything running for “one more season.” 

If you don’t have a friend coming with a ride, then there’s a taxi service.  They have a monopoly on the market.  And I don't blame them for being the only ones.  The things these cabbies must deal with.  The fleet of 80’s to 90’s era Astro vans are the workhorse of the King Salmon to Naknek route.  These vans were dilapidated when I started doing this 20 years ago.  Upon claiming my ride in one of the taxis, the next trick is to figure out everyone’s luggage and seating arrangement.  The back is full, every seat is full and every lap has bags on it in lieu of a seatbelt.  The van sags.  It feels like the doors barely latch, but no one knows if this has anything to do with how full the van is.  Bring plenty of cash as that's all they accept and the rates would make a New York cabbie blush.  It’s about 20 miles from one end of the road to the other.

This is where you really get to know people.  Life stories emerge.  Summer dreams come to life.  The woes of last season are commiserated.  This is where you find out who is having a kid, who got divorced, who the alcoholic is, and who catches the most fish.  The answer is everyone.

The Alaska Peninsula Highway is the lone paved road in the region.  The two lane highway connects King Salmon and Naknek.  Along the way, offshoots of gravel and dirt roads connect to the highway at irregular intervals.  The middle stretch between the two towns is mostly flat tundra.  I had heard of tundra before I came to Alaska but I had no idea what it was.  If that’s a mystery to you like it was for me, I’ll take a moment to explain it.  It’s wide open fields.  That’s it.  It has shrubby little vegetation and grasses mixed with more shrubby little vegetation.  There might be some rocks, and swampy areas, and low rolling hills, but in general it’s fields that look different somehow than what you see in Kansas or California or even Montana so it received a different name.  Everyone comments on the state of cotton showing in the tundra.  Cotton is the informal but precise term for something that blossoms on the tundra, and everyone knows that when the cotton starts to show in full force, the fish are near.

Along the way the taxi deposits its riders at their destinations.  The taxis are shared like a public transit bus system but since it takes me to my final destination and not a stop on the side of the road, and there is no competition, I pay $30 for the pleasure of a true 3rd world experience.  I hope every year that I’m one of the first stops, but, my boat yard is geographically near the end of the line.  I see where my companions call home while they’re in town getting their boats ready.  Most of them sleep on their boat which is currently on land suspended in the air by a precarious looking system of stands and blocks of wood wedged in key locations.  Someone with a greater understanding of physics or magic developed a system by which these top heavy drift boats can stay upright in strong winds with people and equipment coming on and off of them without tipping over.  Usually.

Some of my companions live in little huts squirreled away on some obscure road that may or may not have a street sign.  Alder trees grow in the tundra in clumps and create a bushy wall of privacy that conceals what seems to be an endless network of well-hidden homes.  In any other area these homes are a shed or a hut or something you would park a lawnmower in.

The closer we come to Naknek, the more metal shipping containers I see.  My first year I was disappointed by this.  I kept waiting for the true Alaska.  This is not the scenic Alaska I had envisioned.  Where are the mountains jutting up out of the sea?  Where are the log cabins?  Where are the long docks and marinas out into the water with the picturesque fishing vessels anchored and waiting?  Now that I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, the view is still a letdown.  But, I get it.  I love it, actually.  It’s about survival.  It’s about function.  It’s about this tundra at the edge of the sea being home to the world's largest wild salmon run and spawning grounds.  It’s about adapting to what nature has offered and allowed.  It’s about the fact that it’s located in the actual middle of nowhere and you just make do.  Once a year, tens of millions of salmon migrate to this place along with thousands of fishermen and seasonal workers.  And then, everyone disappears and there’s a few hundred people who call it home through the winter.

At last, I arrive at my summer getaway by the sea.   The taxi sloshes its way through muddy potholes in the boatyard.  I look at the literal pile of boats waiting for me.  My style of fishing is set-netting.  The boats we use are overgrown bath tubs.   Many of the boats don’t have steering consoles and the outboard motors have been removed so the boats stack on top of each other like bowls in a cupboard.  We don’t sleep on the boats since they’re not set up for that.  I mean, eventually we get tired enough we’ll sleep on the boats or anywhere we have a few minutes to catch a nap.  But right now, in town, I sleep in a bunk room that is temporarily available for fishermen.  If that’s not available, or even if it is, it’s common to see fishermen sleeping in their net lockers where they store their gear.  Since I don’t know where I’m sleeping exactly, I have the taxi drop me off at my net locker.  Now begins the summer adventure.

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