Finding solitude by a Yukon lake. Andrew Cremata

Fish This!

The inescapable evolution engine


Here comes society!
Why did you come to Alaska, or were you born here? Does it matter? Are we not all of the same construction?
We are the misfits. There is something about the Lower 48 that makes us turn up our noses, like hoi-polloi at a fancy society dinner when a ruffian enters dressed in an Iron Maiden T-shirt and ripped jeans.
More and more, people are finding their way to America’s largest state. They come to live, to work and to visit via RVs, cruise ships and busses. It’s as though the receding glaciers have given way to a mass of men, pressing down on this land with the weight of progress and economics.
“How does she (Alaska) maintain and not become like the Lower 48?”
“She is so rough, and so beautiful, you never know which girl you’re talking to.”
Those last two sentences in quotes were taken from a recent conversation with Larry Csonka. For the football uninitiated, Csonka is THE man. He made a living as a fullback, running off-tackle, into the heart of the NFL’s best defenses, brutalizing them with head-on toughness. He is one of the all-time greats.
He won two Super Bowls and was MVP in one. He was the driving force for the Miami Dolphins in 1972, the only team to ever go undefeated throughout the regular season and the playoffs. Undisputedly unbeaten, unquestionably resilient, he is in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Csonka was in Skagway to film a segment for his television show “North to Alaska.” The show focuses on fishing and hunting around the state, but the Skagway visit would highlight another of Csonka’s Alaska passions, history.
If you reread those quotes, it is obvious Csonka has a true love for his adopted home. He told me a story, from his rookie year in the NFL, which may have been the catalyst for his eventual move to the north.
Under the sweltering Florida sun, swimming in air thick with humidity, Head Coach Don Shula would work out the men on a wet, freshly mowed field. The shards of cut grass would cling to the skin, earning the moniker “blades.”
The workout had the desired effect; Shula was able to teach discipline and toughness. But in subsequent years, Csonka wondered why he still had to maintain the harsh drill routine. In the unrelenting South Florida sun, Shula’s words became a dulling metronome of daily drudgery.
“I kept hearing the music in the distance,” he said.

Larry Csonka, third from left, and his production crew pose with the White House B&B crew. Courtesy of At the White House

That music was the score of the final American frontier, incongruous with the daily monotonous grind. Csonka had vivid memories of a calendar depicting an Alaskan fisherman tangling with a lunker game fish on the other end of the line. He experienced the state first hand in 1969 while traveling to Vietnam with the USO.
As the music reached a crescendo in the ensuing years, Csonka’s mind made more winding trips to Alaska, and 11 years ago he obtained two sponsors to produce his own television show.
“I wanted to tread water while I was meandering around Alaska,” he said. Yes, he meant financially, but a subtle reference to “water” is something I know a great deal about.
It all comes back to the fishing.
It turned out fishing was a lure for both of us to move away from the suburban sprawl of Florida. But maybe it was something more; the desire to live in a pristine and untamed land.
And maybe it’s our knowledge of the fate of the country’s most southern state that makes us cringe when we consider the potential future for its most northern one.
Where once schools of redfish attacked smaller prey on the incoming tide amongst the south Florida mangrove shoals now lay condo high-rises with concrete seawalls to hold back the surf.
Where once one could wade into hidden brackish swamps to cast live finger mullet for snook now lay gated communities teetering upon truckloads of backfill.
I saw a magazine ad as a kid, similar to the calendar Csonka described; of a man fighting a leaping Alaska silver salmon, but what struck me was the isolation of the surroundings. Here at home we find that seclusion, peace of mind and a chance for things to be done right.
No shady land deals with developers. No sacrifice of the little guy to the unrelenting money machine. An opportunity to make a better life for our families while balancing the value of our resources.
In theory.
I was surprised to learn I had a lot in common with an NFL legend. I haven’t broken my nose repeatedly while running head first into immense linemen and linebackers, but living in the Lower 48 can be just like that; striving into a merciless cinder-block wall of progress until the pounding makes you wish for something peaceful, something quiet.
Csonka said many people contact him because of his television show, and the Alaska they relate to is not the “cookie-cutter, jewelry store” atmosphere of what many ports of call have become in the last decade.
“People that get in touch with me want more,” he said.
Our conversation drifted into the shallows of thought and we began to relate our personal fishing experiences. Csonka has fished all over the state, and he knows what he’s doing: I’ve seen him on some of the Sunday morning television shows.
Still, the details didn’t focus on the weight and length of individual fish, but those amazing, serene surroundings we crave on the edge of something more meaningful than nine-to-five jobs and contentious municipal elections.
But I still can’t help but wonder what the effects of progress will be? Will oil exploration, uninhibited tourism and the continued commercial harvesting of our bountiful waters leave behind a healthy landscape and thriving economy, or will it become a shackled wasteland of barren earth and poverty?
The answer is moot because the machine is grinding onward, and like it or not here comes social order to our beloved home.
More rules, more laws, more taxes, more people seeking jewelry stores and adventure tours, in search of something wild yet wondering aloud, “How do you live here?”
“How long can she maintain?”
How long can we?
The anticipation is killing me.