New book features Alaska salmon stories

Jul 14, 2016

Nearly every Alaskan has a story – or several - about salmon. Non-profit The Salmon Project set out to collect dozens of those in “Made of Salmon,” a new collection edited by longtime Alaskan Nancy Lord.

Five species. Hundreds of rivers. Thousands of stories.

Smokehouses fueled with cottonwood and little charcoal smokers. Mariners navigating ocean currents and river channels. Fly fishing or setting a net.  There are thousands of variations on one theme in Alaska, but salmon are the unifying thread. In her forward, The Salmon Project’s Executive Director Erin Harrington describes the relationship at its most elemental.

“Salmon and Alaskans,” she wrote. “We have danced with one another for millennia. For thousands of journeys around the sun, for more than three million spins of the earth, for hundreds of thousands of turns of the seasons, we have shared a rhythm. Each year, a great number of the hundreds of millions of salmon that mass and swirl in the currents of the North Pacific point their noses homeward and return to us. And we, in turn, move toward riverbanks, lakes, the ocean shoreline. We point our bows toward fishing grounds and travel to meet fish on their return. As they surge toward us, we surge toward them. They help shape the rhythm of our lives.”

The book captures those rhythms, with stories from the fishing grounds in Bristol Bay and Kodiak, Stikine and Copper rivers, and stories about the hotels where management decisions are made, and kitchens where salmon is cooked up.

Three generations of Naknek set-netters, including "Made of Salmon" contributing author Melanie Brown in the center, stop for a photo during a June opener.
Credit Courtesy of Melanie Brown

Naknek set-netter Melanie Brown is one of the contributors, who writes about memories of her great grandparents cooking salmon and showing her the ropes of fishing. Now, Brown is passing that torch to her own children, who fish with her at the family’s set-net site. Brown said she enjoyed thumbing through the book, and discovering other people’s salmon memories and connections and stories.

“I really like Seth Kantner’s piece,” she said. “It’s really a vivid picture of his home stream. It’s nice to envision that. Other people doing something similar to what I do in Bristol Bay with salmon. It’s just nice to feel that universal thread.”

Kantner, who lives in the far Northwest part of the state, writes about the things a subsistence-focused community learns as a commercial industry takes shape: roe maturity and quality, what the yen means for salmon prices, words like smolt, escapement, test-net, sonar, aerial surveys. PAUSE He touches on some challenges that resonate in Bristol Bay, too: Area M interception, bad prices, the fear of mines, decreasing local participation in a fishery. And, he captures the universal feeling of being in a salmon place. He wrote:

“Now on the big river, rain begins to patter down, splashing on the rocks around me. In the falling dusk, I turn to walk across the bar and wade the shallows back to my home on the hill. Tonight, I don’t feel any of us have done anything spectacular here – only been lucky, inhabiting a spectacular place at a spectacular time. One we’ve shared with salmon.”

For Brown, salmon are a source of income from summer work, and a passion to protect the rest of the year. They're also a source of sustenance, and she said her family and her ancestors have lived on salmon for hundreds of years - it's likely what brought native people to Bristol Bay thousands of years ago, even.

“I think it’s easy to take things for granted, but when you make a concerted effort to sit and focus on what you hold dear,” Brown said. “It’s a really, really good exercise to check in with what’s really important and what really matters in your life. And salmon, I know I say this a lot, but I feel like I’m here because of salmon. I don’t think I would exist if it weren’t for salmon. Salmon are a thing, but they are also a value to me. An important value.”

The idea of salmon as a value comes up again and again in the book, which contains everything from haikus and short scenes to entire essays. In her piece about growing up in a fishing family, Emma Teal Laukitis summed that up.

“How does one thank the source of her existence?” Laukitis wrote. “In my dad’s words, we catch god and we eat her. We do that with gratitude.”