An Alaskan side road takes Dan Szczesny to a local, and secret, fishing hotspot where the fish swim right into nets.
From a mysterious fisherman in rubber boots with deep lines in his forehead, we catch word of a secret cove where locals pull the salmon, a place called O’Brian Creek.
I’m struggling to flame my Jetboil when he wanders by, amused by my failing efforts. I’m starving, and sick of the Nepali trail mix and apples we’ve been eating all week. I badly want to warm up my bagged potato soup, but I’ll eat it cold if I have to.
Meenakshi and I have been meandering through Alaska like gypsies this past week, camping when the sun got low enough to pass for night, rolling our SUV into parking lots or turn-offs. We blew a tire on the Denali Highway and had to sleep in the back one night, at 3,000 feet with a storm moving across and giant craggy mountains around us. Then, we blew the donut on the way back out and made friends with a native tow-truck driver who patched us up well enough to limp into Fairbanks.
Now we’re in the sparsely populated southeast part of the state, close to the Yukon and near the entrance to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, trying to eat something, trying to figure out where to go next, when we hear of this place where the prized Copper River salmon flows in prolific runs.
He has his own bucket of salmon, our fisherman, and we stand along the side of the road with him for a while and watch a large Filipino family pull fish after fish out of the river using long dip-nets. The men wade out there in a huge half-circle, sometimes up to their chests in the strong current, and pull the wide nets along. By the time they reach the other side of the circuit, they have two, sometimes three salmon, pulling and straining to get out. Those fish, mindless in their desire to spawn, just swim right into the nets. Once ashore, the women bash them with a wrench and the whole fish goes in a bucket. This goes on for hours, enough to feed that whole family the rest of the year.
“You should see this shore during the day,” our fisherman muses. “It’s like little Manila out there.”
Indeed, Alaska has one of the largest Filipino populations in the States. And this family, at least, has had a good day.
With midnight approaching, we scurry back through Chitina, a town of about 150 with its back broken, looking for renewal. Around 1900, Chitina sprung up from the ashes of an indigenous Athabaskan village after copper ore was discovered in the valley. Now, Chitina sits at a crossroads; the opportunity to be the main village of the newly founded national park could put the place on the map.
We find the dirt side road and rumble along toward O’Brian Creek, mapless and uncertain what we’re looking for. We pass by a couple RV pull-offs crowded with beaten-down campers and muddy children playing next to rusty grills. The road gets bad, and thin, and we swing around the side of a hill, rising straight up from the river below. There’s another pull-off at the top, carved right out of the dirt. We get out to have a look around, and then we see O’Brian Creek below us.
The creek has carved a path between two craggy hills, pouring down from up-valley and roaring into the Copper River. In the space between the hills is a rocky mud flat. And along that mud flat is a busy, active ant-hive of a fishing operation. Dozens of fishermen have created a surreal community, hanging on to the sides of those hills. ATVs tear hell across the rocks. There’s a couple port-a-johns, and incredibly, a shed-size shack that sells espresso. A few people are relaxing in front of fires, and tents are sprinkled along the cove here and there.
We’re unwilling to risk another blow out, so we park up on the rise and hoof it down to the flats, where we wander around in a daze. Across the swiftly moving river, the foothills of the national park seem to rise straight up out of the reddish water. In New Hampshire, where we live, this place would be designated a scenic area and protected. It would be a White Mountain highlight and appear on tourist maps and literature.
Here, it is a place of sustenance living, an achingly beautiful, but practical, dent in the river, pushed back from the current enough to allow fishermen to cast or dip their nets. All along the shore, women and men in various states of dress, from full waders and wetsuits to jean shorts and sneakers, try their luck. And this year, the spawn is not disappointing. The fish are practically jumping into the nets. One man is using his big red cooler as a cutting table, turning the fish into fresh filets almost as soon as they are pulled from the water.
Elsewhere, all along the creek as it pours down from the mountain, cutting tables are set up along the water. The fish are taken directly to the tables, where locals gut them and slice them into pink strips. Unlike the immigrants up river, these men toss the fish remains into the creek to either flow out into the Copper or get washed ashore nearby. At the junction of the two waters, thousands of seagulls squawk and fitter about, feasting on the salmon graveyard.
The sun is now, at least, behind the mountain horizon, and provides a calm, casual vibe to this odd and wonderful place. It’s nearly 1 a.m. Echoes of ATVs in the surrounding hills bounce down into the cove, and somebody deep in the forest is laughing too loud.
We head back up to our car and sit on a rock overlooking the river to watch the cove from above for a while. Before too long, another couple cars join us, and the fires down below begin to die down. It appears the day is at an end. The smell of blood and fire and mountain air drifts up to our perch and it gives me chills and peace, and sleep comes easy that night, there among the salmon ghosts.