Fish This!

One more summer...


It’s an unfortunate time of year for seasonal workers. Things are about to get back to normal in Skagway. Quiet and peace will fill the air, and the streets will be free of clueless visitors. Most of the shops will close, and neighbors will smile more often. Questions from strangers concerning your personal history on arriving in Alaska, and what you think about Sarah Palin, will cease. And as the first of the fall silvers make their way to your smoker, the ferries will be full of part-time locals with eyes focused south.
When I first came to Skagway in the summer of 1996, blue skies filled the season with light and warmth. Locals wore shorts and sipped on iced lemonade along the boardwalks of Broadway. I remember fishing at Yakutania Point, sweat rolling into my eyes. Even autumn boasted clear skies and raging northern lights. Maybe the weather had something to do with my desire to return.
Weather can make a difference in thoughts and attitudes, but our weather seemed stuck on miserable throughout the summer. If your first impression of an Alaska summer was formulated in 2008, you might be considering a different locale for summer employment in 2009.
If the weather got you down, you might want to consider taking up fishing as a hobby. This was undoubtedly the best summer of fishing, both around town and to the north. While other communities in Southeast Alaska lamented the slow fishing and harsh Fish and Game regulations, Skagway saw the largest return of king salmon since the inception of the hatchery projects. And who can complain about the wind and rain when a 30-pound king is tethered to their fishing pole?
I made a point to travel to the Yukon at least a few times a month since April and was skunked only once. Not only that, but the weather was frequently sunny and warm. I even managed to get horrible sunburn on my right ankle, which taught me a valuable lesson about wearing socks when sleeping in a hammock on a sunny day.
I know, not all seasonal workers have access to a car for traveling to the Yukon, but there is little excuse to missing an early morning trip to Lower Dewey for a few pan fried brook trout.
Autumn in Skagway is my favorite time of year, especially November. This is the time for flounder fishing on the Ore Dock while watching sea lions swim by for a curious glance. Flounder arenít big, but they are plentiful. Many agree they are the best eating of all the fish from our local waters.
Still, it’s a little early to get nostalgic about things that haven’t happened yet. This is the time for reflecting on our summer, or lack of it.
It may seem like the balance in Skagway was a little out of whack. We still had the tourists, too many hours of work, and the hectic tourism pace, but we never really had the rewards of sunrays and the heat they bring.
Hopefully we all found something to help tip the scales back in our favor. For me, that balance has always been attained near the water. There is an art and symmetry to angling, something one can know. There are mysteries in the sculpted form and painted patterns of all the many fish, mysteries one can never know.
There is energy, life, blood, and death when every fish is caught. There is sustenance, pride, memory, and respect for the gift that was given.
A few weeks ago I spent the weekend at my favorite spot in the Yukon. There were family and friends also enjoying the quiet of the wilderness and tasty meals cooked in the campfire. On Saturday afternoon a steady rain began to fall. It fell the rest of the day and throughout the night.
On Sunday morning it stopped for a while, so everyone broke down camp and packed their things away. When it began to rain again, all that was left outside were a few chairs and coolers scattered around the fire.
It would have made sense to drive back home, but the look in everyone’s eyes said they weren’t ready. And neither was I. “Maybe it will stop,” I said.

Niki Tiegland and Chris Williams relax by the fire at Conrad. A seal goes after some returning pinks at the mouth of Pullen. AC

That overwhelming desire to stay is hard to explain, but our dollar-crazy tourism sell-out summers have a weird and unholy effect on the brain. It was need for balance that kept us out in the rain on that wet Sunday morning, but our craving for peace paid off when the deluge stopped and the sun peeked out.
There by the fire, playing cribbage and sipping beer, I thought about the previous morning. I was chest-deep in the lake, there was no wind, and the sun was just starting to come up. The bottoms of the clouds lit up, and at that moment I had my first bite of the day.
I tussled with the lake trout for a few minutes as we both alternately lost and gained ground. When the fish was at the shore, he managed to twist free and swim away.
No worries. There is always another chance at perfection.
This is true for Skagway too. If this were your first summer in Skagway, the decision to never return may be a bit short-sighted.
There is one way to look at it; the weather can’t get any worse. But there is no place for sarcasm when there is only one cruise ship day left in this year of 2008. Maybe the truth is it’s too early to leave. Lingering into the depths of fall might alter your opinion of this little Southeast Alaska town.
After returning to the Lower 48, you may find Skagway was your balancing force. Traffic, corruption, murders, and burglary make tourists seem pretty mellow by comparison. Now imagine a quiet November morning, an otter snorts a hello in your direction as you make your way onto the docks for a couple hours of flounder fishing. No cruise ships to block the view, just perfect peace inside a warm winter coat.
If you chose not to damn the wind and cold and get out and enjoy your summer, the memories you didn’t have will be the ones you most remember. If done right, one more summer could change your whole perspective.