This summer my Cabela’s waders leaked all season, my old pair, and even my brand-new pair. This wasn’t a year to have leaky boots--we had a record return of salmon to Kotzebue Sound, the highest catch in the half-century or so of our fishery. The salmon were silvery and healthy-looking, and huge, with plenty of giants in the 12 to 16 pound range and larger.
We fishermen got tired, and tough, worn down fishing six long days a week, and at the same time hyped up on hauling in thousands of fish. There’s a strange energy in the midst of that much life force—and maybe death, too--and the intensity salmon carry in this world.
There wasn’t much time to sleep, or dry our gear, or keep up with anything outside of the boat. Sometime in there--on a Saturday, the day we don’t fish because of plane schedules—I finally got a chance to glance over my unanswered emails. I was tired, and needing to repair the transom on my old plywood boat, needing to patch those waders--except no glue or duct tape would stick to that new plastic rubber--and mostly, somehow, I needed to give my swollen hands a day off.
Amongst my junk emails was a letter from a friend, Melanie Brown, an Inupiaq woman with roots from the Kobuk River and Unalakleet, who now lives in Juneau and fishes in Bristol Bay. She wrote that she was coming to Kotzebue, wanted to meet up, and discuss something called Stand for Salmon.
I didn’t know what that was, Stand for Salmon. I realized I hadn’t heard any news in a while, or read newspapers, or kept up on anything besides catching more and more fish.
Melanie agreed to meet on the Copper River Seafoods dock. My fishing partner, Clarence Griepentrog, and I came in to make a delivery and I was tossing fish when I glanced up to see a woman adjusting the straps on a stiff new pair of cheap waders. When I looked again she was cinching on a belt with an orange-handled sheath knife. I looked around my slimy boat, wondering where I’d misplaced my belt, wishing I had a little handy knife like hers. I leapt up on the dock, gave my friend a quick hug—the two of us small, and now round as seals in our fishing gear and dark Grunden raincoats.
Out at the net, Melanie was serious, and strong, picking fish, pointing out a lone red salmon, explaining how they don’t get color bands the way chums do, telling me my terribly holey net was drift webbing and a lighter weight twine than set netters often used. I nodded, interested. I’d been wondering about that weak webbing. I’d forgotten she was a Bristol Bay permit-holder. She asked what I knew about Stand for Salmon.
“Uh, nothing,” I said nervously. “Never heard of it.” I was a little intimidated, embarrassed at my lack of knowledge on issues obviously relating to my lifelong career, fishing. I looked down at my feet and tried to joke. “I only know about standing in salmon.”
Clarence shook loose a fish, bled it. I pointed out a hit in front of us, a fresh salmon splashing. We quickly pulled it in--what we call a ball-slapper--a fish so alive and wild, twisting and slapping, it glows with a rainbow sheen of color, radiant with life.
Clarence explained why we call them ball-slappers. Melanie marveled at what big beautiful chums Kotzebue Sound has, and she explained that Stand for Salmon was a ballot initiative to establish standards to protect salmon streams across Alaska--to ensure that development and mega-projects like the proposed Pebble Mine and Ambler Road don’t destroy salmon runs--mostly by urging the State of Alaska to define what is safe, and not safe, for salmon.
I listened—or tried to. I was watching my net, worrying about the west wind kicking up. Clarence told Melanie what was on his mind: a second-hand Firecat snowmobile he’d found on Craig’s List in Wasilla. A few days previous I’d had funds transferred to purchase it for him, and then paid Northern Air Cargo nearly a thousand bucks to fly it north.
“I’ll be doing a hundred and twenty this winter, everywhere,” he bragged. He was happy the season was almost over, and told her how much he loved snow and winter. Clarence is 20, six foot-two, from Ambler, and his grandfather is the legendary hunter, Clarence Wood. ‘Little Clarence’ is comfortable out on the water--and on his iPhone. I was having a fulltime job trying to protect his end-of-the-season pay. That money was burning holes in all his pockets.
We ran the net again. Melanie was curious about his life in the village, and grateful to be out fishing in a new place. Cautiously, I asked questions about this effort she was putting her time into.
When we got ashore, she handed me some brochures explaining it. The sky was trying to rain, my boots were wet again and we were about to head back out to the net. I stuffed the papers down the neck of my damp sweatshirt, behind my EPIRB locater device. Clarence hurried ashore, grabbed a jug of gas. When he handed it to me we both grimaced--it was that new eco-jug, without a vent, designed not to spill a drop but instead it usually spilled gas everywhere. Sea gulls sailed overhead, begging gills and eyeballs. Across the lagoon a freight plane thundered off the airstrip, heavy with a load of fish. I grinned at Melanie. “Clarence’s Firecat might be in! Now he can water-skip 200 miles home to Ambler without snow.”
Melanie pulled out two stickers, designed to stick inside a car window. She offered one to him. He looked unsure. “Stick it to the inside of your snowgo windshield,” I teased. “Show people how much you love fishing.” He brightened. “Okay!” He took the sticker.
In the following days, I flipped on the radio, and glanced more carefully at my computer. I noticed what I’d been too busy to notice: there were a ton of advertisements, everywhere—against the salmon initiative. I was surprised, and confused. Who were all these Alaskans against salmon?
I listened closer. The ads were paid for by Conoco Phillips, Donlin Mine, BP and other big corporations. Still, it seemed surreal, like if Alaska held a Stand for Caribou vote and suddenly companies we valued, like Bounty Paper Towels and Pilot Bread, were clamoring to advertise against protecting caribou. What the heck?
One day I heard an ad from a Native corporation, with a woman explaining how to pronounce a word in her language for ‘something foolish’. In this case presumably someone foolish, like Melanie Brown, fighting to protect salmon habitat. I even heard one sponsored by Northern Air Cargo, urging people to vote against Measure 1. Both ads were dispiriting, and upsetting. Haven’t Native people forever valued salmon? And here in Kotzebue we think of NAC as family. Daily their jets roar into the sky, hauling our salmon south, hauling north our new outboard motors, new boats, Amazon orders—and our second-hand Arctic Cats.
It all brought back memories about my own discomfort between my lifetime of harvesting salmon, eating salmon, benefiting from salmon, while not really doing much useful for that species. And memories of the time I did try--a similar ballot initiative in 2008, Measure 4.
Measure 4 was an attempt to return environmental safeguards for the Alaskan coast that Governor Frank Murkowski had removed for the mining and oil companies. I was fishing that summer, too, same as I have for the last 45 seasons, and that summer the same thing happened: the giant oil companies and corporations released a blitz of ads against the ballot. Still, we fishermen were ahead in the polls--until a few days before the vote, when Governor Sarah Palin announced: “Let me take my governor’s hat off for just a minute here and tell you, personally, Prop 4, I vote no on that.”
I was disgusted—with politics, the big corporations and their big money, and especially Palin’s trick. It’s unlawful for our governor to use her office to weigh in on state ballot initiatives, and I always saw her trick as no different than if I said, “Wait here a minute, I’m taking off my honesty hat, I need to rob this liquor store real quick.”
After this season ended I looked up Measure 1, and read it. It’s not the evil thing those attack ads are saying. It’s exactly what Melanie Brown said it was—a long-overdue update of our laws to protect our very important resource in Alaska: salmon.
And yes, doing so could cost those mega-corporations money, to be more responsible, to try to make sure their industry doesn’t decimate salmon rivers in Alaska. And yes, standing for salmon could even make some open pit mines impossible—those that are too dangerous to the rivers that sustain us.
Those companies’ complaints, on a micro-scale, remind me of us fishermen. Last summer the Coast Guard made us get lights and whistles on our life preservers, and this summer EPIRB’s—electronic locating devices—in case we swamp or get knocked overboard. We fishermen complained loudly. We always complain about new regulations, especially when someone is forcing us to buy expensive stuff.
My former fishing partner, Andrew Greene, used to carry a 5-gallon bucket in his boat, for a bail can, and he insisted it counted as the required fire extinguisher. As more requirements came along over the years, he swore he didn’t need any of that junk. I teased him that bucket could count as his flare, too—just wave it over his head--and his horn, his white light, a toilet. It definitely counted as his life preserver; I used to glance around his over-loaded boat, knowing he’s a lot bigger than me and if we sank he’d take the bucket. I figured I’d probably end up clinging to one of his empty Gatorade bottles.
Last year I spotted him wearing an orange PFD, and this July I noticed he wasn’t fishing one day when the Coast Guard was patrolling. “Couldn’t find my f--- Epirb,” he said sheepishly.
Anyway, the point is fishermen have had to come into compliance, whether we liked it or not. We have to follow rules, to protect ourselves, and our fish, too. These large corporations—foreign companies, many of them—don’t care about salmon, and they sure are making that obvious. They’re worried about money. They have boatloads of dollars but don’t want to spend what it takes to make their mines safe for our salmon streams.
Down in the lower states salmon rivers are ruined, salmon runs dismal and destroyed. All over the world--England, France, the East Coast--places that had amazing runs have screwed them up, polluted and killed them off. Their amazing salmon are gone.
Our fishery is finally coming back for Kotzebue Sound and our region. A lot of boats are on the water again. Millions of dollars were made right here this season, and a lot of pride, a lot of hard work expended—out in fresh air and wind--work that’s good for people, and sustainable if we protect it.
A road and giant open-pit copper mines are proposed at the headwaters of the Kobuk River, too. I hope that never happens--for the salmon, and caribou, and people of this region—but if it were to happen, I definitely would want companies in charge who say Yes to salmon. Right now they’re busy saying No.
The funny thing is, so many people I know and have known, friends, including many who work at Red Dog, Prudhoe Bay, Donlin, and other resource extraction jobs around our state, generally can’t wait to get off work to head home to hunt, trap and fish. We Alaskans have that in common. Really, who among us is against salmon?
That is why this issue is sad—not because salmon aren’t worth fighting to protect; they are, and we can protect them—but because these powerful corporations, with their attack ads portraying this as an us-against-them conflict, are unearthing another kind of pollution, a poison even more dangerous to our state, and to our nation. They’re using us against us.
I won’t fish forever. My tendons are shooting pain from over-use for too many years. But I hope other salmon fishermen will continue on down the decades, and our kids, Alaskans, will continue to have amazing fish to catch, and eat, and share this country with. I certainly have been fortunate to have lived with so many salmon.
I’m grateful for people like Melanie and others who work so hard to protect them, and glad this fall I can cast one tiny vote for a fish that’s done so much for me. I’m glad it’s ballot Measure 1, and Yes--often I can’t keep those numbers straight when it comes time with the little pencil in the little voting booth, or I can’t decipher whether no means yes, or yes means no. In 2018, a complicated time in a complicated world, it’s nice to have one thing as clear as being an Alaskan saying yes to salmon.