Alaska Stories

So Go Ahead, Wait On the Scent of Salt, Call This Our Life

The season is over. The boats are up on blocks, the dock is empty, the cannery is silent. My bedroom borders on the boatyard, and through the open window I hear the sound of rain outside, dripping and plinking on the back decks of boats scrubbed clean of fish slime and saltwater. They are silent shadows seen vaguely through my window blinds and their presence outside is comforting, carrying as they do the satisfying proof of another season survived.

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I’m heading from Naknek back to Petersburg to be a deckhand on a tender boat. I am a little stunned, as I always am at the end of the season, to wake up and realize how very changed I am from the person that stepped off the plane in May. I got to Naknek this year with no idea what I was going to do afterwards, and a lot of anxiety about my lack of direction. At one of the pre-season BBQ’s a fisherman friend, in the midst of a conversation about how very much I love this world, said to me, “Well then you should try fishing.” A simple suggestion but it was one of those moments when everything seemed to stop around me and I thought, “Damn! He’s right!” and then the whole season it was as if the universe, seeing that I’d maybe gotten a glimpse of the next step, was yelling in my ear “YES, YES, THAT WAY!”

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I wrote this early in the season; it came to the paper without thought:

Tonight I walked down to the dock just before the end of our shift to deliver something to a tender. I was grumpy, and the wind pushed against me, blowing hard off the river, threatening to rip the hood from my hair and driving cold air up my sleeves. I pushed against it down towards the pump barge, where the Balaena was tied, waiting for the tide so it can head down to Egegik for next week’s fishing opener. I came around the corner of the freezer plant and looked up to see a bright blue sky over the river and three seagulls, silhoutted in the still bright sunshine, even at 8 p.m., hovering in mid-air, the force of their wings against the wind just strong enough to keep them from blowing backwards.

Earlier, I sat on the dock at the end of my lunchbreak and watched the tide come back in, roiling and rushing in from the bay. The sky was cloudy but for long stripes of blue and the sun poured down through those openings and cast bright ribbons of light on the river, the opposite of shadows, and underneath that light the brown river water glowed and sparkled and next to it the dark shadowed water undulated and looking down from the dock the river looked like nothing less than an animal moving, shadow and sunlight rippling over it’s skin, more alive than just about anything I’ve ever seen. Every day here is a gift, the changing river and the changing sky, all there outside our office window and just outside my bedroom walls.

I’ve been coming here on and off for 14 years. Getting close to half my life. At first I was a reluctant traveler… here only for the money, scornful of the place, all mud and mosquitoes. I came back year after year, drawn to something I couldn’t name. Always eager at the end to return to my ‘real’ life, to the city, to civilization, to the world. Until the last few years when something started to come alive for me here… I became enchanted with the colors, the smells, the air, the sky, as I noticed that every molecule of everything and everyone here seemed more alive than anything at home in the city. Something shifted until this place became home. Until it wasn’t any longer somewhere I couldn’t wait to leave, but somewhere I couldn’t wait to get back to. Until it started to dawn on me, that this was my life. That it could be my entire life. That I could stay, if not physically HERE, in Naknek, than within those places and that feeling of home. Because home isn’t a place. It’s a feeling. And now I find that the loudest, strongest voice within me is calling to do whatever it takes to stay true to that piece of aliveness that Alaska woke up within me. Whatever it takes.

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*the title is from a poem by Phillip Levine


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