Photo by Grace Harcz
I woke up at 1:30 AM to ensure that I would not get left behind. I was told, “Wheels are rolling at 2:00 and we will leave without you.” I got the coffee ready, packed some snacks and geared up in borrowed waders. I was going on a “fishin’ mission,” and I didn’t actually understand quite what that would entail. The fishing world was one that I hadn’t entered up to this point in my life, but when in the Kenai Peninsula during summertime, you go fishing.
I never had interest in fishing before. Lack of exposure coupled with my vegetarian ideals left fishing, in my mind, to the savages that enjoyed killing animals. Like many ideals of my youth, my thoughts on eating meat has changed over time and I have recently found myself partaking of the delicate flesh of these fascinating animals. If I eat it, I should be connected to it. Fishing is a great way to make that connection with a food source. With this justification almost squared away in my mind, I fished with subtle apprehension all morning knowing that if I caught one, I’d have to kill it.
The sockeye were returning from their long venture to the sea and back to spawn. They come in waves, or “runs” as they call it in the fishing world, and the first run had started to dwindle out by this time. Not much action had been reported on the river but people were still catching fish. Everyone snagged up a few, except for me. I felt a little disappointed but also slightly relieved that I didn’t have to use the long metal rod that had been deemed the proper bonking tool to take the life of a fairly large animal. I returned to camp feeling tired and still unsettled about my thoughts on fishing.
Later in the day, after a good little nap, I made plans to get out on the water in a boat of some sort with my friend, Grace. We started discussing kayaking spots and by the end of the conversation we had planned another fishin’ mission. It had nothing to do with kayaking and everything to do with some fishing redemption. I had a fishing license that was good for 24 hours, meaning we had until 2:00 AM to make things right. We decided to take out the mini cataraft, head back to the river and get us some fish.
The plan was to leave after dinner. By the time we got the shuttle situation all worked out, we were on the river around 9:00 PM. Two ladies, two rods, some wine and tequila (for good measure) piled into the smallest raft I have ever been on (outside of a swimming pool). We pushed off down the turquoise colored Kenai River, both feeling a little tired. No one said it but I know we were both thinking, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” We passed the wine and Grace passed the oars as I began my first rowing lesson. I got us through the bridge, around the white caps of Schooner’s Bend, and by some miracle avoided all the sweepers that were beckoning us in. My hands blistered quickly as I pushed us down the river, eager to get our lines in the water.
As we approached the popular fishing spot, men were lined up on either side. I became keenly aware that we were outnumbered. We were rowing ourselves down this river to catch some fish because that’s what we wanted to do. We didn’t need any assistance. I felt some pride well up inside of me but most importantly I felt a new sense of freedom and independence. I didn’t feel like I was tagging along with someone, or that I was trying to break into a world that I didn’t fit into. I was literally “steering the ship” and hanging with one of my girlfriends. Her guidance and advice was well suited for me and easy to comprehend. There is something about learning from another woman that leaves one without excuse on picking up the technique.
Once we settled on our fishing spot, we quickly got to work. Within 15 minutes of being there a curious juvenile black bear appeared just off shore. Knee deep in the icy river, I watched the bear poke around and thought to myself: now would be a bad time to land a fish. Then I heard Grace call, “Fish on!” She fought that fish toward the shore, all while shouting, “hey bear!” At one point I heard her say, “you’re a naughty bear.” Her playful heart was on full display and I saw no sign of fear. The bear slowly wandered back into the woods and caused no problem for us. It was my first Alaskan bear encounter and I’m glad it was on the less exciting side of the scale.
Soon after Grace’s first fish, I snagged mine. We were both squealing and laughing so hard as I fought that fish. It felt unreal. I had cast out relentlessly that morning and gotten skunked. My wrist was sore but my will was strong. I was determined to catch something on this second trip, but when it happened I was shocked. I landed the fish with great excitement but I knew what I had to do next; I had to bonk that fish. I had to kill it.
I had some time to think about this moment before the moment had arrived. I knew I would be eating some salmon this summer, and that I had already enjoyed some thus far. I felt connected and thankful for the fish. Knowing that it would provide sustenance for myself and others, I said the fishing prayer that was taught to me, and gave it a good solid bonk (or two).
We high-fived, we hugged, we took tequila shots to cover all the bases of celebration and got our lines back in the water. Between the two of us, we walked away with 9 sockeyes in an hour and half of fishing. The night did not end there.
It was past midnight and we had to row to the take out; and figure out how to get the cat raft strapped to the top of a small Subaru. The two of us struggled hard to get that raft into position. There was a time when we both thought, “Shit. This might not work.”
It was 1:30 AM by this time, with no one around to ask for help. We bucked up and somehow got that thing strapped on. It was one hulk of a move that allowed us to thrust that thing on top, sideways. Once rotated into position, we felt pretty proud of ourselves. Wondering if this was legal/safe, we drove ever so slowly down the highway with our hazard lights on, nervously munching on snacks.
As we drove back, I felt myself glowing in the satisfaction of a night well spent. There seemed to be a certain magic about this fishing trip and I truly believe that it was due to my fishing buddy. It made me think of Rachel Carson, marine biologist, conservationist, and author and how she fought to encourage a youthful spirit. I saw that in Grace and her love of fishing. She is an example of an adult who hasn’t lost that childlike magic and wonderment of the natural world.
Carson says, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” The key to happiness in adult life is instilling a sense of wonder in a child that will, “last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.” I want to remember this magic, cherish it, and instill it in others.
Back at camp, the two of us got to work. Grace fileted while I chunked and packaged our fish. The boat was back in place, borrowed gear was returned and our fish filets were safely stowed in the freezer by 3:30 AM. It really felt like a dream. Most of that may be attributed to the lack of sleep and the wee hours during which it all went down. However, there was a buzz of energy going through us both during the whole experience. I went to bed exhausted, but also feeling like a new part of myself had been awakened. I replayed what Grace and I had accomplished together and how capable I was to be a part of that. All my life I was meant to be rowing down rivers, snagging salmon, connecting to my environment and food source. I was capable of taking care of myself in this way, but I hadn’t known it until now.
Perspectives can shift and ideals should be tested. In a world full of so many interesting people, I am thankful to have an open mind and an open heart that will welcome others in. As we continue to learn how to navigate our way through life, our relationship with the natural world changes. I never thought the words of Li Po would resonate so deeply inside my heart, but now I find them to reveal a new truth I can hold on to:
“Since water still flows, thought we cut it with swords,
And sorrow returns, thought we drown it with wine,
Since the world can in no way answer to our craving,
I will loosen my hair tomorrow and take to a fishing boat.”
Photos by Grace Harcz