Outdoors obsessions ebb and flow with time and memories
Illustrations by Angela Italiano
The Situk River runs for 20 miles cold and clear across the Yakutat Forelands to the Gulf of Alaska about halfway between the state capital in Juneau and the state population center in Anchorage, and in the spring steelhead trout the size of torpedoes can be found holding in the river’s deep pools and fast riffles. The Situk is not the world’s greatest fly-fishing stream. In too many places, the river is narrow between steep banks thick with brush. But it is a great river.
A long ago study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) called it “one of Alaska’s most productive salmon and trout rivers.” There are steelhead that return to its waters in the fall and migrate upstream into a series of lakes to overwinter and mature before dropping back down into the river to spawn in the spring. And there are steelhead that come to the river fresh from the ocean in April and May headed straight for the redds. And behind the latter come the salmon: The big kings, the fiesty cohos, the tasty sockeyes, and the pinks and chums that are generally found in such abundance everywhere in Southeast Alaska that anglers overlook them.
We always overlooked the salmon and went to the Situk for the steelhead. It was for years a ritual, a right of spring. The Great Alaskan Sportsman Show in Anchorage in March would invariably start the juices to flowing, and soon there would be a bunch of us at the Anchorage Daily News, then a sizable business operation, organizing a trip to the river.
There are several U.S. Forest Service public use cabins along the Situk in which anglers can stay, but we never rented them. We may have tried once. We may have entered the lottery to decide who gets a warm shelter, but I don’t remember. It was never a big deal because we sort of liked camping in the towering, Sitka spruce along the river. I can remember a lot of good conversation around the campfire there, though the anglers who took part are now all different people and in some cases far away.
One left Alaska for a job in Hong Kong and never came back. Another ended up in Hawaii. One grew up to become one of those managers made for Dilbert, a man who found a way to rationalize so much that was so bad that he became a sad caricature of what a man should be. Another remains a friend, but we do not fish together anymore. He never was much of an angler, but I was.
There was a time when I couldn’t get enough, and now I hardly pick up a rod and reel at all. Many times, this fact has caused me to wonder how and why rituals die.
It’s not like I have abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. I still kill 40 or 50 fat salmon per year, fillet them, vacuum pack them, and fast freeze them to keep through the winter. We don’t eat salmon the way the aboriginal people of Alaska did — the ready availability of food choices in the civilized world has spoiled us all — but we eat a lot of salmon. There is fish for supper two, three or sometimes more nights a week.
Salmon and rice is sort of a family staple. What can I say? It’s easy to fix, and I like it.
It’s weird, though, that there was a time when the gathering of the food was more important than the eating, and now it is all the reverse. It isn’t just the Situk outings that disappeared. Gone too are the ritual midnight runs to the Russian River in June to bag sockeye. There was a time when as many as half the salmon in the freezer might come from the fly fishery there, with the rest from the Copper River dipnet fishery. I loved those midnight runs to the Russian with a best friend now also gone away.
He moved to Idaho. Sometimes I wonder if it is the breaking of such bonds that changes everything, but I know that is not the case because there are rituals that stand unbroken. I still pursue waterfowl with a passion that seems sometimes boundless. On the worst of days in September and October, with the winds blowing everything flat along Turnagain Arm and the rain pouring down, the dog and I will tumble into the truck and drive 40 miles to the Twentymile or Placer river drainages to wade waist deep through flooded swamp grass until we are both exhausted in order to shoot a half-dozen mallards.
It makes no logical sense, and yet I remain as addicted to this now as when I started hunting ducks as a kid in Minnesota at the start of my teens.
Those were also the days when I fished and fished and fished some more. There was hardly a warm-weather day spent without a rod in hand. We rode bicycles to the river to fish. We conned parents into dropping us off upstream in a leaky duck boat so we could spend a couple days floating downstream to be picked up, fishing all the way and relishing every moment.
Back then, nothing made me happier than to stand on a dock jutting into an unfamiliar lake with few fish and cast and cast in the hopes I might at some point catch something. And if I did, pity my poor parents. They’d darn near need to shoot me with a tranquilizer gun to get me away from the water.
Later, after I’d gone away to college, I’d come home on weekends to fish largemouth bass in the early hours of the mornings with my brother. We’d often stay up all night rather than try to rise at 3 a.m., and be on the water before dawn was breaking the eastern sky, fly casting big poppers to grass banks waiting for a bass to come surging out of the water. I can still see the still channel with the undercut banks between Fishtrap and Alexander lakes. And that bass screaming out from under the bank to just clobber a big imitation frog popper.
Those were great times, and yet I have no desire to repeat them. It is the strangest thing.
Come spring now, I’d rather take off on my bicycle for a 90-mile ride from Anchorage to Hope than fish, when as a kid I tolerated riding the bike only because it was the fastest way to get to the Crow Wing River to fish. Then I was passionate about the fishing. Now, I am not so much passionate about the bike as free on it.
Maybe it has something to do with the difference between the world of the young and of the old. The passion came easy and constant in youth. Now, sometimes, there is mainly a desire to get away from the passions, to bury oneself in the escape of hard work. As this is written, I have a friend remodeling his house as he battles through a divorce. A very smart man, he finds escape in swinging a hammer, taping sheetrock seams, mudding and sanding and living in a war zone where day by day he can see concrete changes in a battle toward some obvious goal.
There was a time I might not have understood. Now, I understand fully. I can go out and happily bury myself on the bike in order to escape, in order to find that place where the body is working so hard it overpowers everything, that place where you can’t think because there is no energy left for it. When I contemplate the changes in life in this way, I’m left wondering if modern life murdered the fishing.
Humans, all of us, are these days overwhelmed by so many things happening so fast that our brains reconfigure themselves to prepare for constant activity. Faced with quiet time, we don’t quite know what to do. It makes us uncomfortable. Our brains want to engage something, anything, and casting just isn’t enough.
And yet, my fond memories of the Situk linger. Maybe one day I’ll go back. Maybe one day I’ll be able to get back if only I can get beyond the things screaming to be done now.