We arrive and leave in the rain. Sideways rain. The beach where we camp, where the Kenai River enters Cook Inlet, where the mighty salmon swim, offers no protection from the wind.
And lord was it windy.
I lay in the tent, with Elias and two wet dogs, listening to the pounding rain and fierce wind, a sound like radio static and grease crackling in a fry pan, relentless, endless, and not the postcard of sunshine and bare toes that I remembered from past years of dipnetting for reds, and thought: “What the hell are we doing?”
Camping in fowl weather is no fun as it is, for me alone or with friends, but camping with my child whose absence of body fat makes him prone to sudden chills and for whom a cold can turn to pneumonia overnight, and a ritual harvest can feel like reckless parenting. I can’t count the number of times Nick and I caught eyes and gave each other that look that says, “What were we thinking?” Especially when you add two dogs to the mix, one of whom barks and whines whenever we leave his sight, or if the rope he’s tied to won’t let him reach us-- pile us all into a four person tent, filled with wet sand, and its enough to make a grown man cry.
“Our tent is beautiful,” Elias says when he crawls in it for the first time, saving Nick and I from packing up and heading home. Elias, our eternal optimist, finds a smile in the havoc of a storm. Dressed in long underwear, fleece pants, and rain pants on the bottom and long underwear, a fleece pullover, fleece vest, wind coat, and rain coat on top, not to mention his favorite striped fleece hat, we let him venture out of the tent where his infectious laughter lightened our loads. He loved visiting the outhouses even if he never really used one, he tried to catch the seagulls, giggled like mad over the word ‘nuts”, and dug pits in the sand for us to pretend to fall into on our way to the cook tent.
All this in the wind and rain with a slow run of salmon along the banks.
We did see the sun one afternoon, and despite the slow run, we still came home with 22 fish, and some good-sized ones, but Nick spent hours in the water, and Thursday, the crappiest day of all, he only caught one.
I only caught one fish the whole five days. Granted, I spent more time with Elias and the pups than I did fishing but I spent some quiet hours in the water, waiting, surrounded by other patient fisher folks, Alaskans as diverse as they come, an eclectic group of people, all different ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds, all wearing the same uniform, waders or hip boots, rain jackets, and hats, all of us hoping the next fish lands in our net. And maybe we’d be one of the lucky ones to pull in a king. One woman caught a seventy-pounder and I couldn’t help but wonder out of the hundreds of nets waiting why hers? I mean is it luck or fate or timing or equipment or skill? Or is it just standing in the right place at the right time?
I caught my first and only fish within my first fifteen minutes of standing in the freezing water, during low tide, when Nick, Elias, and the dogs couldn’t be out on the muddy flats with me. This meant I had to kill it by myself. And it was a big fish, no king, but at least ten pounds. And beautiful.
I’ve killed fish before-- one or two--but never alone. Never without the moral support of Nick, or our friend Gavin, to talk me through it.
The fish flopped out of the net when I dragged it to shore so I dove on him, coating my fleece jacket with mud. Nick had given me a big rock to knock him on the head and a knife to cut his gills but they lay in the wagon twenty yards away. So I crouched there, in the mud, on my fish, feeling its warmth, unsure how to get the slippery fellow to the wagon. I decided to tangle him more in the net and drag him to it so by the time I reached the rock he was covered in silty mud but still flopping around, fighting to return to the Kenai, to his traditional migration back to the waters of his birth.
I stood over this prehistoric-looking creature and apologized for the rock and for my own inadequacies when it comes to performing a quick kill. I wanted to harvest this fish to make salmon patties and filets, to fill my freezer with meat, but I didn’t feel comfortable killing it alone. I worried I was doing it wrong. Making it suffer more than needed. Did I hit it hard enough or too hard? Did I cut the gills enough to let him bleed out or just enough to torment the poor fella? What the hell am I doing anyway?
I caught eyes with a robust woman named Kim who I met earlier while walking the dogs and she said, “You got a fish.”
“But I don’t know if he’s dead yet,” I said, anxious to pull someone else into this circle.
“Oh here,” she said and picked up a rock twice the size of mine, walked to the edge of the wagon, leaned over him, and whacked him good and hard.
“There, he’s dead now,” she said with a smile.
I thanked her, picked up my net, and returned to the water.
“Was that your first fish?’ the man next to me asked.
“No, but it might as well have been,” I said.
The next three fish that hit my net all got away. And I can’t say I let them but I cant say I tried real hard to pull them in either--I wasn’t sure I could kill another, not without someone to be my witness.
And that was the first day. And I never did catch another fish, even later when I stood next to our friends, one of whom’s sons volunteered to kill any fish I caught, and tried to will one into my net. None came. Audrey caught three as I stood beside her waiting. I grew cold and tired so I switched with Nick and the moment he grabbed the net he landed a salmon. Just like that. TJ says Audrey catches so many fish because she was born in Alaska. I think Nick catches fish because he was born with an abundance of patience. Gavin caught one, after a long null period, when he closed his eyes and thought, “I could take a nap…or maybe I should say a prayer to the fish god.” Bang, one hit, before he could even articulate his prayer.
I don’t know what makes a fish swim into one net over another but as I stood in the frigid water, hoping one may find his way to mine, I couldn’t stop looking around me at all the different faces, and thinking, we’re all doing this together. We’re all standing here with the same intentions, the same hopes. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m at a concert and thousands of people applaud for the same song. It’s a feeling of unity that’s hard to find in this disjointed time when it seems we spend more energy running from here to there than we do on just being here.
In this moment.
When we divide ourselves by our differences instead of remembering we all need to eat supper at the end of the day.
It was this feeling of being part of something bigger than myself that even the rain and wind couldn’t spoil. It reminded me why we’re here. For when we lose our connections to the sources that bring us life and instead spin in a frenzy of activities, consumption, and information, there is something irredeemably magical about a slice of time with such a pure pursuit as harvesting food for the table.
Even when it’s hard. Even when you’re wet and cold and dreaming of dry sheets and clean toilet seats. Even then. Especially then.
“It’s a pretty day outside,” Elias said as I carried him on my back, head bent to the ground to avoid the driving rain, “Look, Mommy, a boat.”
And later, when we sat on the shore eating the very same salmon we caught hours earlier in the waters before us, a rare meal this close to the source, Elias said, “Mmmmmm, we’re having a good dinner.”
Mmmmmm is right.
--Excerpted from Following Elias, originally published on Parents.com. Copyright 2009 by Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.