Bristol Bay by Keith Wilson

Travel Essay: The tide waits for no one. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Dad say it, but it’s true. It’s time and tide, as the old adage goes, that wait for no man, but time and tide are synonymous, and they wait for no woman, child, flower, furbearer, or fish either. I was never a stellar student, but I paid attention to the interesting parts, and as I understand it, gravity between the sun, our planet, and its moon pushes and pulls the ocean in a rhythm as reliable as night and day, summer and winter, spring and fall. It creates ebbs, floods, neap tides, and spring tides in a pattern that the rotation of a clock, the breath in a pair of lungs, or the beating of a heart could never match. The tide shifted on our planet before life existed, and it will be here long after we’re gone.

Life on our planet began in the ocean. It was the tide that washed it ashore. Then wind pushed microbes and flora above the shoreline, so seeds spread and bacteria colonized. Amphibians crawled onto higher ground and evolved into reptiles. Reptiles became birds and mammals. Snakes slithered after frogs, frogs fed on flies, and ravens scavenged for scraps. Great apes picked fruit dangling from trees. Species fed on one another, existing in a complex food web.

Meanwhile, life in the ocean developed its own similar system. On the surface, fish leap and splash, whales spew faithful geysers, and birds swoop to scoop plankton and minnows. Beneath the surface is unfathomable and alien. It teems with great white, black-eyed monsters, mammalian torpedoes speaking in sonar, water-breathing exoskeleton spiders, and egg-legged monsters with the ability to change color and texture. In the darkest depths and deepest canyons, anglerfish navigate with flashlights protruding from their foreheads. There are catsharks, seahorses, and lizardfish with illuminated skin. Mountains range from the North to South Pole, and life thrives at every level from the floor to the surface.

What separates land and ocean is the shoreline, indistinct and formless. The border between ripples and solid ground is ever-moving, ever-changing. It was only a matter of time before one of the land animals decided to push the boundaries. Some of the apes stood upright and walked on two feet and became people. We could walk and run farther than other bipedal species, and we used the ability to exhaust our prey and have abundant sources of meat, allowing our brains to develop, and with this development, we felt an ownership of land, trees, minerals, other animals, and even each other. We were obsessed with lines, and we drew borders between property, nations, and states. Pushing beyond the shoreline was inevitable.

At first, we waded, careful not to be caught in a current or eaten by something with big teeth. Then we built rafts, kayaks, and canoes. We built baidarkas, boats, ships, and submarines. Vessels moved between continents, and people conquered and eradicated each other, using waterways as their transport. We scoured the ocean, harvesting shrimp, shellfish, sharks and sardines, decimating populations. To people, the ocean was an endless void. Even now, after having left more footprints on our planet than any other species, we have explored less than five percent of its floor.

The tide, however, washes away all footprints. It washes away a skeleton just as it washes away a tree branch. It washes away a village or a city the same as it washes away sand castle. The Atlantic, Arctic, Indian, South, and Pacific Ocean, and all the smaller saltwater seas, are one mass of water, ebbing and flooding into each other, and as ice caps melt, high tide rises even higher. The Pacific is the largest portion of it, covering more of our planet’s surface than all the continents combined. On the Pacific, there was once the land of Beringia, a conglomerate mass of what is now Russia, Alaska, and land between them. It was a barrier between the Pacific and the Arctic, but as the water level climbed, it was reduced to an isthmus — the Bering Land Bridge.

Before a time of seafaring, people hiked the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia to the Norton Sound, following mammoths, muskoxen, and antelope. Then the water level was too high, and the tide never again was low enough to allow forging from one side to the other. Surrounded by the rising water on either side, the Bering Land Bridge narrowed until the Pacific met the Arctic, and the land between Russia and Alaska was drowned by the Bering Sea. As the tide ebbs and floods against the shores of Russia and Alaska, Beringia is but another part of the ocean floor where there has been no footstep for thousands of years.

People on the Alaska side migrated north and gave themselves names like Inupiat, Suqpiaq and Inuit. Others migrated south to become Tsimshian, Cherokee, Annishinabe, Shawnee, Shoshone, and Sioux. Farther south were Apache, Anasazi, and Aztecs. Even farther south, were the Maya, Inca, and Aymaran. People spread in all directions across the Americas, separating into groups distinguished by customs, clothing, language, and the places they hunted and gathered, their ancestral land as much estranged as the deepest parts of the ocean.

Some people, however, stayed pressed against the Bering Sea, like the Yup’ik, the Unungan, and some of the Athabascan. The Unungan settled along the Aleutian Chain, a string of tiny islands once the tallest peaks of Beringia. Maybe these people on the Bering Sea were left behind by people who migrated south to establish cities larger and more technologically advanced than cities in Europe — but I think they stayed to keep the Bering Sea and the treasures brought by the rhythm of the tide for themselves. They learned to harvest their sources from the Bering Sea with driftwood baidarkas, harpoons, hooks, and grass ropes. They hunted whales, clubbed seals, and caught trout, smelt, and herring. They had no system of numbers, no units of measurement, and they never had to worry about catching too many fish. Life was simple and beautiful.

The Bering Sea narrows into a corner above the Alaska Peninsula and below the Kuskokwim mountains, where the difference between ebb and flood transforms the shore more drastically than sunrise, sunset or the changing of seasons. This corner is  an arm of the Bering Sea called Bristol Bay.

The most abundant harvest from Bristol Bay is the salmon, dispersing into freshwater rivers, forging to the headwaters. Every summer, millions of them gather to Bristol Bay from the Pacific to fulfill their final purpose. First, they mill and swirl in the saltwater like the spiral of a hurricane or the slow tick around a clock, each one waiting for the right condition, the right temperature, the right moment in the tide. In schools and surges, they swim upriver, led by an acute sense of smell toward their natal lakes and streams. Beyond the brackish water, they forge against the current for miles, abandoning their desire to eat, moving straight ahead toward their fate. Then they spawn, they die, and so continues a pattern in existence before the first twine was woven, before the first baidarka was built, and before the first human hand ever touched the water.

It was a group of Yup’ik people who established the village of Naugeik at the mouth of one of the rivers flowing into Bristol Bay. They named the village after their word for a muddy place, as the tide climbs to cutbanks on either side of the river, distilling the sand into swirls and flows of thick, brown ebbs and floods. They were the first people to catch the salmon there, filet and cook them, or dry them over a rack in open air before saturating them in smoke of slow-burning birch and alder brush, beads of oil dripping from deep red meat with a strip of skin and its golden luster shining in the sun.

Russians invaded in boats, mispronounced the name of the village, and it was put on the map as Naknek. They claimed all of Alaska as their property, and later they exchanged it with other invaders who had claimed another mass of land far to the south. They traded it for bits of paper and metal called currency, an invented ebb and flood of numbers to measure value. Some of that metal had brought people rushing to other parts of Alaska like Nome and the Yukon, villages turning into towns of roughneck saloons and bearded sourdoughs, but in Bristol Bay, it was the promise of currency in exchange for salmon.

People from everywhere arrived in places like Naknek, Egekik, Togiak, and Dillingham. Like the Yup’ik, Unguan, and Athabascan before them, they learned to work with the ebb and flood. They depended on the tide to launch sailboats, release nets, and catch millions of salmon. Canneries were erected, ports were constructed, villages sprouted into towns. Salmon were caught by the millions, gutted, shoved into cans, and shipped on barges along the coast and across the ocean.

The village of Paug-vik, on the north side of the river, now called the Naknek River, was soon connected to King Salmon by a dirt path in the tundra. King Salmon was the site of an Air Force Base put in place as defense from Japan during World War II, near Naknek Lake. With the advent of air travel and the King Salmon Airport, more newcomers flocked to Paug-vik than to Naknek, and Paug-vik was soon known as Naknek. The first Naknek, once Naugeik, became South Naknek, and the three towns together are the Bristol Bay Borough.

Meanwhile, down the continent, across the Pacific, and across the Atlantic, salmon populations were disappearing. Most people didn’t know or care, but some people wanted to prevent it from happening in Bristol Bay. Some of these people combined thoughts and called themselves the Alaska Territorial Fishery Service. Like invading Russians, they were self-proclaimed. Unlike invading Russians, few people believed their claim. First, Alaska had to be called a state. Then they could be granted their imaginary numbers and they could be taken seriously.

When the Alaska Territorial Fishery Service became the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, their rules were established and their suggestions were put into practice. Now, based on escapement, nets are allowed in the water during a designated time coinciding with the rhythm of the tide. It’s not perfect, but it’s an instance where people have learned not only to accept the ancient pattern of the tide and the annual influx of salmon, but to work with it, and to limit the harvest and enable the salmon’s return again and again. Alaska has one of the last, most sustainable fisheries on our planet.

At the ebb on the Naknek River, the water is not much more than a trickle through ever-shifting mudflats. Skiffs and subsistence nets slope downward with the beach. Canneries reach out onto docks on top of crooked, splintering pilings. Drift boats tie together as a line of vessels stretching out into the channel. Flocks of seagulls gather, flapping and squawking, pecking at guts and grime from processors. Skiffs lay in the mud with the flukes of their anchors stabbed into the flesh of the beach, waiting for the flood to take them back afloat. As the water ebbs, pilings are like trunks of trees rising. Tributaries as thin as fingers trickle down the mud into what’s left of the channel.

After the water has disappeared into the forever of the ocean, there are the moments of slack tide when no twigs, leaves, clumps of grass, or bubbles move on the surface. These moments are brief moments of stillness, but soon, as though a table were tilted, the tide begins to shift direction. It moves faster and faster, and white water gushes in over the mud flats, boats rocking and thrashing as the waves chop like  madmen with axes. Pilings sink back into the water. The flood is here again.

Outside the mouth of the Naknek River is the Naknek-Kvichak District of the fishery, where commercial fishermen are permitted to fish. Salmon swim into nets anchored between two buoys, placed there by setnetters. In the deeper water, they collide into nets floating behind driftboats, gilled and ready to be picked. Aluminum and fiberglass hulls smash each other for the optimal spot at the border, where fish swim thickest. Cork lines splash with heads and tails on the surface. Corks bob from hits below it. Millions of salmon are caught, delivered, processed, and disbursed to small family operations, Pike Place Market in Seattle, restaurants in Tokyo, street vendors in London, and all corners of the continents.

Above the water, above the cutbank, most traffic downtown is comprised of cannery workers on foot, between meals at Peter Pan, Red Salmon, Silver Bay, or whatever cannery employs and houses them. They linger along the paved shoulder of the Alaska Peninsula Highway. They travel in packs, assorting themselves by the places they call home. There are Japanese workers with their notorious knee-high gray rubber boots, Ukrainian teenagers with dreadlocks and bandanas, white trash with neck tattoos and face piercings, mustached Mexicans blaring music from smartphones, and lanky West Africans as dark as an Alaskan night never gets.

Fishermen linger out of Naknek Trading with plastic bags of Kraft Macaroni, cans of Bush’s Baked Beans, and bananas as brown as the beach. They head back to their boats, back to their camps, back to their bunks at the cannery before they can fish again. People stumble off the steps of Fisherman’s Bar, Hadfield’s, and the Red Dog, hoping the money they’ve made this season hasn’t disappeared into the Barmuda Triangle.  Boxes of leftover pizza leave D&D Restaurant in cars, onto the backs of fourwheelers, held down by bungee cords. The aroma of grease and scraps attract tagless dogs wandering town like the silent homeless population they are.

By the end of July, the numbers of salmon taper and fade to the occasional splash or bob of a cork. Then there are none. Boats fill the boatyards and canneries board their windows. Seldom is a car on the road, and foot traffic is no longer people but the occasional dog or brown bear wandering for scraps. Off in the distance, a sudden shout or a gunshot might echo across town without question. The gate in front of every cannery closes, and Naknek is still, like the river in the moments between the change between ebb and flood.

500 or so people, half the population of the Borough, stay in Naknek, picking berries, hunting moose and caribou, chopping firewood, and winterizing pipes. Many of these people are direct descendants of people from the Land Bridge. Many of them are not. No matter the ancestry, all people in the Borough watch yellow leaves fall from birch and alders as cold air creeps its way across the tundra like a ghost, leaving it brown and dead in its wake. The days get shorter. The nights get darker. The air gets colder. It will be months before the salmon return again. It will be months before the masses arrive into the King Salmon Airport and flood Naknek. Meanwhile, out in Bristol Bay, the Bering Sea, and the depth and expanse of the ocean, the tide ebbs and floods as our planet and its moon orbit around the sun.


BIO: Keith Wilson says, My upbringing was in Naknek, a remote Alaskan fishing town on the coast of Bristol Bay, where I return every summer for the salmon season. I have been working as a commercial fisherman for 23 years, but I have also worked as a teacher in both the public school setting and as a TEFL teacher in Guatemala. I love skiing, biking, and running, the latter of which I have coached.


PHOTO: Arlo Todd ()


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