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Another Summer on the Tundra

by | Aug 12, 2019 | Alaska, Family | 3 comments

I know it’s almost time to leave for Alaska when Robbi buys a lot of butter.

Because just can’t buy butter on the tundra.

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.

Little House on the Tundra
Our little house on the tundra.

We fish for sockeye salmon. These are sockeye.

Sockeye, I say!

This is not a sockeye salmon.

This, my friends, is a king salmon.

We fish from shore using 50-fathom nets that look ever-so-lovely at sunrise.

But what doesn’t, really?

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.

Keen observers will notice that this is the source photo for the cover of our new picture book, Sunrise Summer, about our daughter’s first summer on the fishing crew.

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.

I am deceptively masculine in this photo.

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 do not get to keep the fish for long.

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.

Nets tend to develop many large and irritating holes.

Or rust-proofing the roof of the shipping container we use as a bear-proof garage.

I am slightly less unhandsome than I appear in this photo.

Or fetching water from the spring.

See? I said slightly.

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.

I dug the hole for this outhouse. Just saying.

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.

Robbi’s mad genius brother-in-law Daryl set up this sweet grid.

And we have some battery-powered light strings to create a pleasing glow during the 3-4 hours of mid-night duskiness.

Thank you, Target.

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.

The water goes out so far at low tide, you can almost walk across the river.

And driving to the processing plant to get cookies and check the mail.

While visiting Coffee Point Seafoods, we take the occasional shower and do the even more occasional load of laundry.

And dancing on top of rusty trucks that haven’t run since before you were born.

The tundra is a graveyard of old and rusting trucks, four wheelers, and boats. There’s nowhere to throw them away.

It’s a world apart.

Strong like Putin.

A place where there’s plenty of time to gather for homemade tundra feasts.

The 2019 crew, including my mom (far right) with whom we simply could never have survived the summer. She did EVERYTHING from cooking and cleaning to Jasper management. The true tundra hero.

A place where you don’t have to wait to learn how to drive.

Alden drives way better than I do.

Where planes land on the beach because there aren’t any runways.

We hire a bush pilot to take us to and from the closest airport, in the little town of King Salmon, about a 20-minute ride across the tundra.

Where a kid can be a kid because there aren’t any arbitrary rules.

The fiercest of us all.

Growing up in Kansas, it was never my plan to be a commercial salmon fisherman—or even to go to Alaska.

Thank you Peggy, for creating these amazing hand-made signs!

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.





  1. Tim Canny

    Thanks for sharing this. It looks and sounds like a blast. A lot of work but a blast nonetheless. Let us all know when you decide to do a fishing/writing/illustrating retreat there.

  2. Marci O'Grady

    Hello! My name is Marci O’Grady. I am the librarian at Lakewood Elementary in Overland Park, Kansas. You both are going to be our visiting authors this school year. I am reading about your lives/jobs/family life and I am so intrigued. I can’t wait to meet you both. Looking forward to your visit in November. See you soon.

  3. Matthew

    Hello, Marci!

    Robbi and I are looking so much forward to our visit. Especially so since I grew up in Overland Park. Thanks for reaching out. If you or your students want to learn more about our creative lives (and lives in general), here is a piece about us from last Thursday’s Washington Post:


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