the life of riley

Fiction, 4/4/12

Every summer in mid-June the town of Oxbow, Alaska, located above Foggy Bay along the state’s southeast border, underwent a remarkable transformation. It was not simply that the mists parted like a veil, exposing the myriad islands and islets that dotted the bay; nor was it just the gradual warming of the temperature, the emergence of wolf’s bane, of bearberry, or the languorous lengthening of the days; neither even was it the heady optimism that permeated every exhalation, be it from man, spirit, or beast—no, these were phenomena observable in any number of coastal climes at a certain latitude, and whose annual occurrence was as momentous as a moonrise. To be sure, what happened every year in Oxbow had happened from time immemorial—at least, this was how the Tlingit elders always told it, but their voices were growing weak and their numbers few—but the arrival of summer brought to Oxbow a gift unmatched in all the world: Kechicham salmon.

The salmon that swam up the Kechicham River were like other species of salmon in many respects. For one, they were anadromous fish, spawning in the freshwater tributaries far upstream and swimming out to sea to mature. They cruised the currents for years—sometimes up to a decade—eating smaller fishes and invertebrates in the fecund North Pacific, until their genetic switchboards dialed up a route to their natal streams, to spawn. For weeks they followed faint traces of their homestream from impossibly far distances, and like hounds they tracked this scent doggedly to its source. In these respects, Kechicham salmon were like salmon elsewhere. They were born in rivers, reared by the sea, and driven by instinct to retrace their tailstrokes homeward. What made Kechicham salmon different was twofold. For one, they attained massive size: It was not altogether uncommon for a fifth-year female to reach four feet in length and weigh almost ninety pounds, as big as the biggest king salmon. For another, it was their numbers—numbers so staggering, in fact, that Oxbow possessed some of the most bounteous salmon runs ever recorded by man. The salmon, it seemed, felt moved to match the river’s power—to overtake it, even—forming a river of flesh that poured upstream from the sea.

Ernest Brownstone was born and raised in Oxbow, and like his father before him he gillnetted Kechicham salmon for a living on Foggy Bay. He was fifty-seven years old, six feet tall, with thinning close-cropped hair and a burgeoning paunch from a fondness for vodka. His massive, gnarled hands were more callous than flesh, hardened from decades of hauling nets and hauling big, thrashing fish. Yet Ernest stood straight and woke up before dawn and worked hard, long days when the salmon were running, because this was the life he knew. Ernest and his wife, Marjorie, had left Oxbow only once in the last fifteen years: to see their only child, Damien, graduate from college in Seattle. Damien studied computer science and from an early age had shunned his fishing roots, a fact that rankled Ernest not a little. That trip had been mostly enjoyable, but, because it had occurred in early June—right before the first runs—Ernest’s mind had already drifted back to the Kechicham.

Of course, Ernest wasn’t the only man keenly attuned to the Kechicham’s bounty. Every summer, coincident with the salmon migration, was an equally predictable migration of fishermen to the bay, seasonal workers who toiled for three or four grueling months on trawlers and gillnetters and made a small fortune in the process. These fishermen—and they were, almost to a man, all male—nearly doubled the population of Oxbow during those late summer runs. Ernest regarded this influx with a wary, jaded eye: They were his competition, after all, but the Kechicham runs always seemed to bring enough for everyone. As well, Ernest often would hire on a seasonal—or “seaz”, as they were called—whenever his boat was down a hand. He needed the help, the seaz needed the money, and it would all be over within a few months, anyway.

Ernest’s boat was a thirty-five foot long sternpicker, painted white with green trim, with twin 300-horsepower motors and a forecastle housing four bunks and a galley. The brailer nets below deck could pack in more than 15,000 pounds of salmon, and her capacious fuel tank topped off at 410 gallons of diesel, enough for four or five days at sea. She was built to hug the coastline maybe a quarter mile out, stringing a buoyed gillnet perpendicular to the shore to capture incoming salmon. Her name, painted on the stern, was T’á Al’óoni, Tlingit for “salmon hunter”. She had belonged to a Native fisherman in Oxbow whose home had been foreclosed; the boat was repossessed and auctioned off in Ketchikan. Ernest could scarcely pronounce the name but decided to leave it unchanged, less as homage to indigenous culture as a pragmatic cop-out on his part. He was a salmon hunter, a gillnetter, a man whose livelihood depended on the salmon’s safe passage home.

A safe passage, that is, until the home stretch, when they reached the gillnets at the river’s mouth. The adult salmon traced Kechicham’s scent from thousands of miles away and, preferring to follow the coastline over an open-ocean traverse, would reach the continental shelf as far south as Vancouver Island and swim up from there. Gillnetters long ago figured out this propensity and set their nets accordingly, prowling just off shore to catch the river of fish. The gillnets, buoyed at the surface and weighted at the bottom, were designed to preclude any chance of escape: six fathoms deep, sometimes a thousand feet long, the nets spanned the waterways from top to bottom, side to side. Any fish not small enough to pass through the mesh would be snared, usually by the gills. Because the mesh was almost invisible underwater, fish (and other creatures) swam right into it; the tapered heads of salmon and other streamlined fishes poked through but the body was stopped short. As the fish sensed the net around its neck, it backpedaled frantically, pulling the mesh deep under its gill covers, or opercula. A stuck fish with netting in its gills cannot properly breathe; it flounders and dies. Gillnets are essentially failsafe—the only problem is netting too many fish, especially the unsalable bycatch that is simply cut free from the mesh and thrown back to sea.

But despite its deadly efficiency, a gillnet is worthless if there are no salmon coming home. And though Ernest was loath to admit it, the legendary runs had been getting smaller from year to year—not just fewer salmon, but smaller ones, too, an overall shrinking of the catch. Ernest had not seen a ninety-pound Kechicham in almost ten years. He spent more and more time on the water and brought home fewer fish, a dismal correlation by anyone’s reasoning. T’á Al’óoni was barely pulling her weight—Ernest was earning just enough each season to keep the venture afloat, what with the rising prices of gasoline and all. But Ernest kept on fishing, because this was the life he knew.

On the first morning of the season Ernest drove down to the dock to meet his crew. Returning to the T’á Al’óoni for their fifth season were twin brothers Marty and Emmitt Mitchell, twenty-three, high-school dropouts from Oxbow who drank too much beer and were ignorant and racist. But they worked hard, and Ernest had grown to tolerate them. The newcomer was Riley Barnum, a freshly-minted college graduate from Bellingham who studied ecology. This was his last summer gillnetting, he had told Ernest over the phone during their interview, before he was to attend graduate school in the fall for sustainable fishery science in Anchorage. The boy had good deckhand experience, Ernest figured, though he’d probably have some high-falutin’ opinions about the state of the industry, as well. Ernest was a tolerant man—this was his nature. And the season was only a couple months long, a tolerable stint whatever the straits.

Balmy and overcast, opening day brought a typical Kechicham haul: three thousand pounds of salmon of middling size, gathered on a flat sea the color of slate. Marty and Emmitt had taken to ribbing the seaz for his accent, which, because he was from Kansas, had a Midwestern drawl to it. But Riley just took it in stride, and his proficiency with the work soon shut them up. All day Riley talked about fish. He knew almost everything known to mankind regarding salmon, it seemed to Ernest, but he was no pedant. His acumen revealed itself conversationally, in bits and pieces, and Ernest found that he enjoyed the young man’s drawling. Riley talked about his dream to visit Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, where the native salmon runs had proceeded more or less undisturbed for eons. He spoke ruefully of the large-scale fish farms in Chile and Norway, with their holding pens the size of small countries, and likened them to the cattle feedlots that spread malignantly across the globe. Ernest sensed a vital urgency in this young man, and he was amused by Riley’s endless verbiage and candor.

“So, if you’re, like, all about saving the salmon and stuff, why are you gillnetting here?” Marty asked halfway through the third day, which was shaping up to be a rather poor haul. Ernest had been wondering the same thing, actually, but thought it impolite to mention. Riley paused from untangling the nets and smiled. “See, that’s the thing. When I moved to Bellingham for school, I started coming up to Alaska every summer to fish, because it’s the best-paying summer job I can think of and because I find the work interesting, and really rewarding. Now, as my studies have, uh, narrowed down a bit, it seems like a conflict of interest, right?” He looked at them curiously. No one said anything. “But when all is said and done, I’m still a broke, indentured college student who needs cash as much as the next guy.” He smiled again, and, since no one could find serious fault in this argument, the matter was dropped.

On the fourth day the yield was even lower than the third—alarmingly, perturbingly low—and Ernest decided to head back to the docks a day early to refuel. He couldn’t remember if he had ever seen yields this paltry during an opening week. He gave his crew the next day off and told them to be at the boat four a.m. sharp Monday, to start anew. Driving back to his three-bedroom rambler outside town, Ernest tried not thinking about fishing because fishing was deeply upsetting him at the moment.

That night Ernest sat down to dinner with his wife Marjorie and told her about the catch. He also told her about Riley, and about the Kamchatka salmon and the fish farms in Chile and Norway. While he spoke, he took sips from a vodka tonic that he reflexively topped off with a bottle at the table.

“Marjorie, I don’t know what’s going on,” he sighed. “I spoke with a few of the guys at the docks, and they all didn’t catch squat either. I don’t think anyone has ever seen this before. It’s unheard of.” He stared at his glass, eyes unfocused.

Marjorie had seen this Ernest before, the anxious Ernest who drank too much and worried about the fish. She reached across the table and patted his hand, pulling the vodka glass away. “I’m sure you’ll find the fish next time around, honey—you always do.” Ernest did not respond, and Marjorie gathered up the dishes and took them to the sink.

On Monday morning Ernest met his crew and they motored out to a location further south to set their nets. The sky and the sea were the same matte shade of gray, and the rolling swells were five or six feet high, gently tossing the T’á Al’óoni about. They worked in silence to draw the nets in and untangle the few fish that had been snared. By the end of the day they had only three hundred pounds of fish—a travesty if Ernest ever saw one. On Tuesday they hauled in only a hundred pounds, and on Wednesday they caught not a single salmon. Ernest was apoplectic. They went to different locations, tried different depths, even fished through the night, all to no avail. At the end of each day, at the docks, a somber gathering of gillnetters and trawlers bemoaned the disappearance of their quarry. There was nothing anyone could do. Scientists had been contacted to try and discern the whereabouts of the Kechicham salmon, and the national media had caught wind of the story and were busy sounding the alarm (top headline: “Has The Kechicham Salmon Run Its Course—For Good?”), but all this did little to assuage the fishermen’s fears. Their livelihoods—their lives, some lamented—had vanished without a trace.

A week later, Ernest sat in front of his television and watched the eleven o’clock news. A vodka tonic rested near the remote. Marjorie had long since gone to bed, because as an elementary teacher she was required to be present and attentive in the early morning for her students, many of whom were the children of fishermen. On the television was a report about the Kechicham salmon, and the guest scientist announced that the disappearance was “a catastrophic, unprecedented event…an ecological disaster that will have untold consequences for years, decades to come…” Ernest turned off the program. He thought for a moment and finished his drink, getting up from his chair. From the bowl next to the door he grabbed his keys, and from the pantry he pulled down another bottle of vodka. He went to the closet for his Carhartt jacket. Also in the closet, tucked inside a Timberland shoebox, was a .357 snub-nosed magnum that he removed and put in his pocket. He sat down at the table to lace up his boots. On the kitchen counter Ernest found a memo pad and a pen. He wrote, “Dear Marjorie, Went to find the fish. Love you, Ernest” and then he walked out the door.

He drove to the docks and parked his truck. T’á Al’óoni was waiting for him in the darkness. As he motored out into the bay—and then beyond the bay, into the North Pacific—Ernest took pulls from the vodka bottle and thought about the last thing Riley had said to him at the end of their truncated season together, right before he took off for Anchorage: “It’s like Easter Island, right? The last tree gets cut down, the soil dries up and won’t stay on the ground, and the people starve, all because there was no endgame. People keep keeping on, business as usual, until some calamity alerts them of their wrongful, wasteful ways. But by then, it’s too late.”

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