There’s nothing more balls-out Alaskan than a seven-year-old driving a $30,000 side-by-side. As I’m hauling a bloody, sandy load of fish up the Kenai beach, feet sloshing in my waders from an unidentified pinhole leak, the kid in question comes screeching past me, ITP Mud-Lite tires throwing up sand, with a motley assortment of his underage associates riding shotgun. The kid’s on a mission, and as he slows the Can-Am Defender to a stop to let me pass, his equally pint-sized friend shrieks, “What’s the DEALIO? Why we STOPPING?”
Every winter, grey whales migrate 12,000 miles south to the warm waters of Baja California to breed and give birth. They then make the trip back up north in the summer to feed on Alaska’s northern abundance of fish and plankton, growing strong in the chilly waters of the North Pacific. And every year, Alaskans make the same trip – boarding budget airlines and smearing on cheap sunscreen in the dead of winter to cavort, carouse, and conceive children on the beaches of Maui, Cabo, and Palm Beach. But the summer – that’s fishing season.
The south beach where the Kenai River meets the Cook Inlet resembles nothing so much as a Mad Max movie set between takes. Almost every kind of four-wheel-drive vehicle is represented here: dented Suburbans, lifted Tacomas, F-150s hauling trailers, Kias, Hondas, Datsuns, Suzukis, they all begin to blend together in a cacophonous blur of revving engines, spinning wheels, and flying sand.
To gain access to the south beach, you have to pay the gate fee (a number which seems to increase every year, but today it’s $22) drive off the dirt road, and then carefully (but speedily) follow the tracks that have been left for you by some other driver down the beach for perhaps half a mile. Too fast, and you’ll lose control – too slow, and you’ll lose momentum, necessitating a tow from some diesel driver hiding a smirk.
But he’ll haul you out if the situation demands it, and the guy standing next to you will help give your fish-laden freight sled a push if your four-wheeler can’t get it going from a dead stop, and the nurse taking PTO to limit out on reds will offer you a bloody baseball bat to dispatch your catch as it flops around on the sand, and the National Guard dudes to the left and right of you smoking Marlboros and drinking King Street IPAs will jump on your salmon if it jumps free of your net and looks to be headed back to the river. I know, because I saw it done a hundred times over the course of two days – a thousand little acts of rough kindness.
The beach is the “level playing field” politicians always seem to reference – everyone here is in pursuit of one thing. Every ethnic group is represented, and a hundred different tongues float through the air in a rich tapestry of noise. For every white anarchocommunist with dreads reading Utne, drinking vegan matcha and paying lip service to a “totally free agrarian society,” there’s fifty people sweating it out in harmony with each other on the Kenai beach, waiting to sprint towards the sand and try to haul a red, flipping and splashing, into their battered Yeti cooler.
In concept, dipnetting is simple. Every year, in the late summer, millions of red salmon make their way back up the Kenai to spawn. It’s your job to intercept them, by standing in the water with a large, long-handled net, waiting for a fish swimming upstream to run into it. It’s a style of fishing so simple a child could figure it out (and many do, under threat of parental punishment) and so effective that it’s limited to residents only, for personal subsistence. Everything you catch here goes into your freezer, smoker, or soup pot.
As you wait in the water, shivering, dodging boat wake from the bowpickers coming and going, you catch little snippets of conversation.
“A friend of mine … he was on a flat bottom river boat, most beat up fuckin’ thing I ever saw, maybe 15 feet long, like that one out there… he was on the boat with a friend and they were going across the inlet maybe ten years ago… and all of a sudden, a beluga jumps out of the water right in front of them – SCREAMING – and right behind it? Killer whale… from where I’m standing to the truck…”
The four-wheeler isn’t a requirement, but it certainly helps when, after six hours of gill-popping and net-hauling, you’re dog tired but there’s 150 pounds of fish to be hauled uphill to the car. All around, Yamaha Grizzlies, Honda Ranchers, Can-Am Outlanders, and Kawasaki Brute Forces zip around, pulling sleds and trailers and sometimes, whole families from car to beach and back again. My own rig, a mid-90s Suzuki King Quad that I’ve dubbed the “Cockroach” for its beat-up plastic fenders and perceived “unkillable” status, sits waiting to pull my fish to the car, or me to the outhouse, as the case may be.
“I take a sip of beer – fish is gonna hit. I light a cig – fish is gonna hit. And then I’m gonna have to haul it out and I’ll spill my beer or drop my cig, but if I don’t have either, there’s no fish. So I can’t have fuckin’ SHIT, is what I’m getting from this.”
As I’m staring up and down the beach, taking in the scene and observing, Bateman-like, all the different brands of ATVs, my net shakes, and I shove my Montucky Cold Snack back into my wader front pocket. (The guy drinking a Coors to the left of me voiced his desire for a wader with a cupholder, and I’d have to say I agree with him.) I slosh out of the water, throw the net up onto the bank, and extricate my catch. He’s good and stuck, gilled in the nylon dipnet fibers, and as I untwist the net and pop his gills, sending a spurt of blood and slime down my arm, I can’t help but feel a little sad, as I assume many do.
Like me, all this chromey little fucker wanted was to get laid – in fact, he was spending the last of his energy to get up the Kenai to shoot a load on some eggs, and then die, in a fugue of post-coital bliss. Instead, however, he’s flopping his last inside a bloodstained Igloo cooler. There, but for the grace of God… something, something.
“Listen man, you don’t want to take off straight up the hill, because that freight sled, all it wants to do is dig into the sand. Start the wheeler off sideways, let her pick up some speed, and then turn up the hill. She’ll haul a fuckin’ grizzly bear if you start it right…”
The tide changes, the current quickens, and it becomes harder and harder to hold my net straight out in front. The guy next to me, playing Alabama Shakes on a waterproof speaker attached to his wader strap, looking vaguely Unabomber-esque in a hoodie and sunglasses, is similarly struggling. At this point in the process, things will generally shift from a static netting line, to a mass walk upstream and drift downstream, working with the current in a loop of several hundred yards. So I and thirty or forty other beleaguered, soaked fishermen haul out, trudge up the beach, into the water, and back downstream, pulling out to repeat the process when we hit the line of stationary holdouts, stubbornly fighting the current, or when we get a fish. It looks simple, but after the twentieth or thirtieth loop, dodging net handles, fingers bleeding from popping sharp salmon gills, feet soaked and blistering inside ill-fitting wader boots, it feels like nothing short of a sub-Arctic Bataan Death March.
So why do it? Why submit to this kind of early-morning fishing low-grade torture – it’s loud, not particularly glamorous, and crowded. For the price of gas and parking, you could float the river and at least get a nice view out of the whole deal.
We do this for the same reason people go to Costco – sacrifice luxury and aesthetic for a bulk acquisition of highly desirable, organic, wild-caught protein. Maybe that metaphor’s a little crude, but it’s the truth. The Kenai, for all the criticisms that can be levied at it by fishing snobs, is highly effective at producing red salmon in bulk for the personal subsistence fisherman.
But I think there’s a little more to it than that, some sort of deeper instinct that drives people down to the river en masse in July. They go, the people that have been doing this for years, even decades, for the same reason elephants migrate and that ducks fly south for the winter. Go where the food is. The lizard-brained freelance columnist, driving a beat-up Chevy Suburban, can figure that one out as easy as any would-be Izaak Walton, kitted out with a bamboo flyrod and a raised eyebrow.
A disheveled looking mom runs past me as I’m assembling my net. “Have you seen a little boy run past here?” she asks, frantically, and I haven’t, I’m sorry. But not 30 seconds later, a big guy in an Alaskan Amber sweatshirt, gingerly holding the hand of a small boy, walks by and calls out to ask if “anyone’s missing a kid?” I point him in the mom’s direction, and soon, there’s a reunion on the beach. The dipnetters look out for their own.
Jacob Hersh was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. He recently graduated from Washington State University with a degree in political science. He’s back in Alaska taking a year off before he attends law school. He’s been described as neurotic, emotionally distant, and unhealthily obsessed with national politics – all by the same person.