Standing at the mouth of Kenai River in the water, I looked over the surface and locked eyes with two bobbing seal heads coming up for air. They were looking for the same thing I was: Sockeye Salmon. Since I was five my family has made the yearly ritual of driving three hours south to subsistence dip net. It’s become such a ritual that it’s how my parents celebrate their wedding anniversary each year. Last year was the first year we didn’t dip net on the same weekend and it wasn’t until my grandmother called to wish them a happy anniversary that they realized they had both forgotten.
We plan this trip a year in advance with another family. Between the two families, we each have a job in the process, some of us are brave souls that suit up in neoprene chest waders that feel like a snug sausage casing to battle the combat fishing that dip netting can become. Others run the fish from the beach to the cutting table which as the tide goes out this distance can seem like you are crossing the Gobi Desert. Then there is the slime line, and this task is where I spend most of my time. Posted up on the beach we remove the head, tail, and gut the fish. Once back at camp, the ulus (Alaskan Native knife) come out and we use our carving skills to fillet the rest of the meat. The younglings don’t get left out either, as an introduction job into the process, they are given a spoon to scrape off any left-over meat from the carcasses, makes for amazing tacos, burgers and salmon hash.
After four days of engulfing yourself in fish slime, guts, and scales, the resemblance of a fish and the smell is uncanny. It doesn’t matter how many times you wash your hands or hard you scrub the only thing I have found that will transform me back into a human that doesn’t smell like a fish hold is the Fisherman Soap. My dad asks me before we head out, “Did you bring a bar?”. We all use it, even the ones who go into the water and for the most part don’t touch the fish. The ground coffee neutralizes the fish smell, and the other wonderful smells of having your skin tight body suit, it helps to wash it all away leaving you with a pleasant lemon, lemongrass essence that is heaven to your nose and those around you.
So why would someone put themselves through this, let alone spend their anniversary doing this? What a great question, and one my brothers and I have asked for years growing up. Who in their right mind would purposely go on a family excursion filled with little sleep, to wear sausage casing fitting clothing, exposing only your face to so much sun to the point of becoming unrecognizable and leaving smelling as if you had slept in a cannery for the weekend? The answer is my parents, they wanted to be able to provide us with something that was readily available that not everyone in the world has access to. They wanted to teach us skills and have the appreciation of where food comes from. Their love and sacrifice showed my brothers and I more than an “unheard-of family vacation”, it showed us a way of life that is worth going back for year after year.