Salmon Wakes

Today, I am tired.

It is our third week of 16-hour days. 7 days a week. Of ringing phones and constant emergencies, questions, endless paperwork, a crush of pressure to get it all done NOW.

And you know what? Compared to everyone else around here, I have it easy. The cannery workers have been working 16 hour shifts too- on their feet, with a break every 4 hours, in the cold wet stinky plant. The fishermen in the Naknek and Nushagak districts have been on a brutal schedule of 2-4 hours off between open periods. Just enough time to deliver, grab a snack, take a nap and then do it all over again. I sit at a desk in yoga pants and sandals and drink tea all day and take naps in my room on my lunch break.

Still, it’s 120 hours a week, and I’m tired.

The first boats came out of the water this afternoon. As I type this I can hear the growl of the boat hauler coming up the hill with the F/V Krisindy on its front. The boats will be put up on blocks in the boatyard, cleaned and winterized, to sit silently through the long dark months until we and the salmon arrive again with the spring. The fishermen have been calling and stopping by in a steady stream, to let us know they’re done for the season and get their advances. They all look tired too… wind and sunburnt, with pounds lost to the relentless endless push of fishing with no time for sleep or food, hollow-eyed and dirty. This year most everyone is leaving happy, at least… we are now at 10 million fish over forecast and the total catches were good.

Last night I sacrificed a few hours sleep to go down to the dock at low tide and have a drink with friends on the F/V Black Velvet. They were in for repairs and, due to a blown hydraulic hose, had made a mess of themselves and the boat- missing high tide and the chance to make it out of the river in the process. The water was at its lowest and the sun was setting as I climbed down… and down… and down the shaky ladder to where the boats rested on exposed muddy riverbed. We stood on the back deck and looked out at the center channel where a narrow pool of water lay awash in the purple and pinks of the reflected clouds. The water rippled gently on the surface and the fisherman pointed to one narrow wake and said, Look-there are salmon in the pool. I looked at the small wake, moving quickly upriver as the salmon tried in vain to make it up the river in too shallow water – beyond it the tundra and above it the sky and the river leading out to the bay and the boats all around us, the whole world a swirl of bright color reflecting off water and cloud so that, except for the line of bluffs cutting a horizon to the south, there was barely a separation between water and sky. The salmon wakes rippled in the water and everything was so big and alive and beautiful and I felt a swell of gratitude… common these days, even in my most exhausted or stressed moment, to look around and just think, Yes. This is the life that I want and it is the life that I have.

I looked up with that feeling tingling in every cell and next to me was my friend and we locked eyes and I felt in that moment that he felt it too. We smiled at each other and said nothing. Just smiled bigger, and bigger, as the colors swirled all around us and the salmon swam up the river towards home.

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Remember just a few weeks ago when we said bon voyage to the fishermen as they headed out to the fishing grounds? Here we are on July 10th and the season has come and now it goes. Just a day after my last post, the salmon hit the rivers with a mighty force and we’ve all been working like mad 14, 16, 20 hours a day to harvest them. The run was predicted at 26.5 million and we’re at 34 million now and though we are definitely on the ebb side of the season, we’re still fishing and the run is going to surpass predictions by quite a bit. We’ve had many small and big dramas, emergencies, tears, laughter, boredom, rain, mosquitoes, hissy fits, and lots and lots of coffee… and green tea on my part.

I haven’t had time to write much but I wrote this last year around this time of the season, so it will have to speak for this season as well…

The salmon are returning to the rivers from the Bering Sea and we return with them. Soon, the silver flash bang of the salmon run will begin to stretch us all thin – the sunlight, endless, days long under the Northern summer sun, so that each blurs into the next, the mindless insistent pulse of the salmon taking us over too – we run and push and pull and go go go – it is time it is time it is time. There is no time. There is nothing but time – the clock ticks 24 hours without darkness and we sleep where we fall, in boots and sunglasses, snatching precious moments from the flood of scale and fin. They are answering a call louder than comfort and ease and we must answer it too. Cheekbones honed sharp and eyes bright with exhaustion and adrenaline, our bodies made into quivering channels for a life force that is too great for them to hold and maybe not really ours to carry. We are carved down to nothing and yet in the bearing down we are made into everything – as the flow of the river carves canyon from mountain – an emptiness that is full in its purpose. The gill flutter tide force carving us out, making us more and less human, replacing our blood with saltwater.

towards the mouth of the Naknek river at sunset, midnight on the 4th of July
towards the mouth of the Naknek river at sunset, midnight on the 4th of July