I know it’s almost time to leave for Alaska when Robbi buys a lot of butter.
Briefly (because most of you already know), our family spends about five weeks each summer living in a cabin on the shores of Bristol Bay, which is home to the world’s largest sustainably run sockeye salmon fishery. We’re there to catch the fish, as Robbi’s family has been doing every summer since she was 18 months old.
We fish for sockeye salmon. These are sockeye.
This is not a sockeye salmon.
We fish from shore using 50-fathom nets that look ever-so-lovely at sunrise.
They swim through the water with the incoming tide and get stuck in the nets. We move along the net in a small rubber raft and pull them out by hand.
This is tedious-yet-gratifying work. Once the net is empty or the raft is full we come into shore and throw all of the fish into a large plastic tote.
And then we spend a few blessed seconds brooding and admiring our catch. Not long after, a large truck with a mighty crane lifts the fish and weighs them.
We catch tens of thousands of pounds of fish each summer. Most of it, we sell immediately, but a lucky few get to spend some quality time with Robbi.
Their transformation complete, they are flash frozen and kept in a freezer until we are ready to go home, at which point we bring them in our luggage.
Behold the proper color of salmon fillets.
Fishing times are tightly regulated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. We listen on the radio to find out when we can fish and for how long. Some summers we fish once a day. Some summers we sit around for a week waiting for the fish to come. This past year, the salmon were plentiful, and so we fished on almost every tide (twice a day), which meant life was a blurry cycle of fishing, meals, fishing, brief naps, and more fishing.
The bottom line goal of Fish and Game is that a sufficient number of salmon make it up the river to spawn ensuring the ongoing health of the fishery (approximately 1 million fish each year). Our job, as fishermen, is catching the rest of the fish that come into the bay, which is considerably more than a million.
When we are not fishing we often do fishing related things. Such as mending nets.
Or rust-proofing the roof of the shipping container we use as a bear-proof garage.
Or fetching water from the spring.
There are no public utilities on our part of the tundra. And so we drive this blue bucket two miles up the beach from the spring to our compound, where we pump it into another blue bucket that is attached to a pump that is attached to our kitchen sink. We don’t have hot water. We don’t have a flushing toilet.
We do have a very fine outhouse.
We don’t have lights inside our house. They aren’t really necessary because it stays light from 4:00am until midnight the entire time we’re there. But we do have a solar panel that charges a bank of batteries we use to charge our phones.
And we have some battery-powered light strings to create a pleasing glow during the 3-4 hours of mid-night duskiness.
When not fishing and doing tundra chores, we do things we couldn’t or just wouldn’t do at home.
Like taking in the mudflats at low tide.
And driving to the processing plant to get cookies and check the mail.
And dancing on top of rusty trucks that haven’t run since before you were born.
It’s a world apart.
A place where there’s plenty of time to gather for homemade tundra feasts.
A place where you don’t have to wait to learn how to drive.
Where planes land on the beach because there aren’t any runways.
Where a kid can be a kid because there aren’t any arbitrary rules.
Growing up in Kansas, it was never my plan to be a commercial salmon fisherman—or even to go to Alaska.
But one of the added perks of marrying Robbi is getting to add one’s name to the incredible legacy of four decades on the tundra (and counting).
We just got back a few weeks ago, but I’m already looking forward to next year.