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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fish Camp

Air Date: Week of

The days are long and the salmon are running in Alaska, so it's time for Living On Earth commentator Nancy Lord to make her annual migration to her favorite place on earth; an isolated stretch of beach that the rest of the world has passed by. Nancy Lord is the author of "Fishcamp: Life On An Alaskan Shore." Her essay was produced by Living on Earth's Peter Thomson.


CURWOOD: The days are long and the salmon are running in Alaska, so it's time for Living on Earth commentator Nancy Lord to make her annual migration to her favorite place on Earth, an isolated stretch of beach that the rest of the world has passed by.

LORD: Every summer, my partner Ken and I leave our Alaskan town and fly to a more remote, roadless area, where we spend 3 months fishing for salmon. Every year we eagerly anticipate our return to what we call Fish Camp, a stretch of beach where we have a small cabin, and our skiff and nets... and which feels to us, more than anywhere else in the world, like home.

(Small plane engine)

LORD: We have a little float plane that we land on a lake. Then we hike a trail through the woods and down a creek bed to the beach.

(Footfalls, splashing water. Ken shouts, "Oyesumi nasai!")

LORD: There are bears around, so we always make a lot of noise to let them know we're there. I usually just yell out, "Ho, bear!" But Ken shouts, "Oyesumi nasai!" It means "good night" in Japanese, but I guess he thinks it sounds fearsome.

KEN: (Shouts) Oyesumi nasai! Here we are.

(Sounds of surf and birds)

N. LORD: Our setting here isn't all that impressive, by Alaskan standards anyway. The water is gray and silty, and there are a bunch of rumbling oil rigs offshore. We don't have any tidepools or all that much sea life aside from the salmon. We do have seals, and a few sea lions in spring, and beluga whales that swim by in pods of 100 or more, really close to shore. We've also had quite a few brown bears in recent years. We tend to avoid one another, but now and then we meet on the beach. There are always eagles around. Just about all the animal life here depends on the salmon runs, the same as we do.

We have human neighbors, too -- but not too many and not too close. One lives about a mile and a half up the beach, the other about four miles the other way. We're a small community; we borrow things back and forth and look out for one another. I think of our community in a larger sense, though, more in the Native American sense of everything having its import. Even rocks. There are the ones where we set our nets, another one we walk to every evening. We touch it and walk home again. We have an intimacy with particular drift logs, and clumps of beach greens, and seeps of spring water. They're all part of a sparse place. That's what we have: rocks and sand and mud and water and sky, all very elemental things.

We know the plants, too. Early on, a neighbor taught us the saying, "The sockeyes come when the fireweed blooms," so all summer we watch the fireweed grow and bud. And when the first blossoms burst, we start looking for the sockeye, or red, salmon. It's the most valuable of the 5 species we catch.

(Nets moving, clanking sounds)

N. LORD: On a fishing day, we pile our nets into the skiff so we can set them out over the stern. We have setlines along the beach, strung between buoys perpendicular to the shore line.


N. LORD: We tie one end of the net onto the line, then motor out so the net goes out over the stern, and then we tie off the other end. The corks on the net go clank clank clank clank clank as the net sets.


N. LORD: We don't make a lot of money fishing, but we like the simplicity of what we do. And we like spending our summers in a place we're so fond of. When the fishing's slow, we just clip the bow line to the cork line of the net and sit and wait for fish to hit, and we get into the lunch box and eat and watch for seals. Sometimes we take a nap.

(Clanking sounds; fade to surf and birds. Fade to a bell ringing, a door opening)

N. LORD: When we come to the beach there's something that happens with time. Those of us who live in Western cultures tend to be very conscious of time, and we focus on being busy. My winters are like that. But in summer, the beach has its own time. There are two Greek words for time: kronos, which means chronological time, and kairos, or sacred time. At the beach we live in kairos time, when we live by tides and the work that needs to be done without looking at our watches. When I mend a net, I do it because it's part of the life here, and I don't rush. If you're restless or in a hurry, you're not going to be happy here. But if you fall into the rhythms of the place, you can enjoy just watching the birds for a long time, or listening to the water, or just being.

(Surf and birds)

N. LORD: In years past, the fish we catch here were mostly frozen and sold to Japan. But now, some of our fish are being shipped fresh to American markets. I like to think of people in Montana or Ohio grilling salmon in their back yards, very much like the way we cook our own over a driftwood fire. I hope they appreciate as much as we do the good taste of a wild salmon that grew up in Alaska's clean, cold water. I hope they might also think of the place where their salmon was made and of the people who exist in that place, too, by the bounty of the salmon cycles returning year after year.

(Surf and birds)

CURWOOD: Nancy Lord is author of Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore. Her audio essay was produced by Peter Thomson.



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