"You're never going to get a girlfriend smelling like spawned salmon!" --Bjorn's mother.
I grew up in a rural SE Alaskan community populated with fishermen and hunters and as an adult I worked on a bear hunting guide boat. There is not a fishing or hunting story that I have not heard.
Fishermen and hunters, in my experience, like to tell stories. (Or, rather, as Bjorn Dihle brazenly admits in "Never Cry Halibut," they like to tell lies.)
They like to tell their tales in burnished, loving detail, waxing lyrical as they dwell on their guns and lures, the weather, their sweat, the condition of their feet in their boots after hours of "herculean" trekking and wading...and last, but not least, there is their avidly, gruesomely meticulous, if sometimes a bit mendacious, account of "the kill."
I have groaned in my spirit and wanted to gouge out my entire auditory system to escape these endlessly enthusiastic tellings and creatively exaggerated re-tellings of fishing and hunting stories.
So you'd think, figuring in my post-trauma in this regard, that I would find little to no enjoyment in a book devoted to Alaskan hunting and fishing tales.
You would be wrong.
For one thing there is Bjorn's absurdly self-deprecating sense of humor that can't help but draw me in--by its novelty, if nothing else. How many hunters and fishermen have I known who mock and ridicule themselves and their exploits? Indeed, it has been my observation that fishermen and hunters tend to see themselves and their exploits in grandiose terms deserving of being preserved in cuneiform writing carved into clay cylinders for future archeologists to discover and ponder over.
Oh, don't get me wrong. Bjorn can spend pages and entire chapters describing another hunt, or one more fish that somehow managed, apparently through sheer mismanagement, to get on his line. But he keeps me from drowning in dead-animal-deja-vu by including paragraphs like this one on page 115:
"There is a mysterious yet common phenomenon in hunting when an animal suddenly turns into a stump or rock. Many physicists have completed studies on these events, and still no good explanations exist on what causes them. Some theorists suggest time portals, wormholes to other universes, or global warming. I have my own idea involving complicated mathematical formulas proving that certain animals, most often ones I'm hunting, have the molecular ability to transform into stumps and rocks, but it needs more work before I publish it."
And then, to lure me continually onward, are the scraps he throws in of his interactions with his longsuffering girlfriend, and my editor at Capital City Weekly, MC.
Bjorn takes barbarous credit for having turned MC from the mild-mannered vegetarian path of goodness and light to the dark side of becoming a predatory carnivore. Her fall from grace is painful to read, but adds a bit of Shakespearean--at least Star Warsian--grandeur to the book. He writes of her new, post-righteous life on page 25:
"She was still proud of the seventy-pound halibut she'd caught with my dad a few weeks prior. Though she'd once been a vegetarian, her Facebook profile picture for the next seven months would be of her and a dead halibut."
Bjorn details how he managed to infect her with the fisherman's belief that lying about one's exploits is natural and good. "There's nothing wrong with liking to fish or exaggerating a bit," she says on page 108. "Remember how you convinced me to date you?"
He reaps bitter fruit from what he has sowed, however. Nowadays when he comes home after a hard day of futile hunting he recounts (p. 113): "MC asked if I had any luck. I shrugged, and she mumbled something about our imaginary child not having enough to eat to make it through the winter." Ouch! Here we observe the ultimate stab at a hunter's pride and prowess. To not be able to feed your own progeny (imaginary or not) by your animal-killing skills is the cruelest cut of all. MC's meat-eating, downward spiral into untrammeled savagery is complete.
Even more than his sense of humor, though, what shines through is Bjorn's love of far flung lonesome places. I recognize it because I've always loved being alone in remote areas. There's a mystery to it and a feeling of closeness to the earth, animals, and all creation that grounds you. Alaska has an abundance of places that offer this experience and in "Never Cry Halibut" Bjorn explores many of them, alone and with family and friends, ranging from Southeast, the Interior, the Aleutians, and the Arctic, giving us fascinating snippets of Alaska history along the way.
For instance, in the chapter titled "Adak Caribou" he writes: "The lure of Adak, its 275 miles shaped by solitude, violence, and change, extended well beyond hunting opportunities. Its history alone was spellbinding. For thousands of years, Aleut people lived on the island, paddling kayaks and umiaks up, down, and beyond the thousand miles of the Aleutian chain. Vitus Bering's tragic but amazing voyage in 1741 to Alaska led to a tsunami of Russian fur traders and devastating effects on the Aleuts."
He addresses the little known, outside of Alaska, part that the Aleutian Islands played in World War II: "In June of 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded neighboring islands Attu and Kiska, resulting in the first time enemy forces occupied American soil since the War of 1812. Aleut people were relocated to Southeast Alaska for the remainder of the war. A brutal, often forgotten fifteen-month battle known as 'The Thousand-Mile War' ensued. Adak rapidly became the site of a US military airstrip and base as well as being the main staging point to take back Attu and Kiska."
I loved this chapter, and only wish Bjorn had spent more time detailing what is probably one of the most remote, large ghost towns in the world, the military outpost that at one time supported six-thousand people, that was abandoned in 1997.
Bjorn and his brothers, father, girlfriend, and nieces approach the dangers of wilderness hunting and fishing--including many heart-pounding run-ins with brown bears--with typical Alaskan sangfroid. It's not a foolhardy attitude by any means, just a watchful, accepting stoicism illuminated by the joy of the experience. And while this book is full of accounts of animals being competitively stalked and killed, there is never a moment when Bjorn and his family and friends don't act respectful of life, and grateful for the food the animals provide.
The book is not written in a linear/chronological fashion; instead it's a series of standalone anecdotes, generously illustrated with photos, ranging from his childhood to the present, including his off-the-wall experiences with reality TV shows and as a wilderness guide (with hilarious insertions of emails he pretends to send to various, dignified institutions on subjects such as fashion and a proposal for a new Alaskan reality TV show). This format makes for some repetition, but it works especially well for enjoying the book a nugget at a time whenever and wherever you can.
If you want an entirely accurate, well-written, evocative, and humorous account of what it's like to hunt and fish and survive in the most remote areas of Alaska, this is a book you don't want to miss.
NOTE: All photos except the first one courtesy of Bjorn Dihle.
It's that time of year...my sister is in the midst of non-stop snow shoveling and ice chipping, whilst I languish in the hot Miami sun :) This is Megan, Tara's sister, posting from sunny Florida, to let you all know that Tara is swamped with winter maintenance and won't be able to get to any emails right away, but once the snow lets up she will get back with all of you, thank you!
The ringtone of the emergency boat phone woke me sometime after midnight.
It's an ancient flip phone that we take with us when we go anywhere in the skiff, but I keep it at my house beside my bed in the event of a family crisis since my parents don't have a signal in their bedroom. I sat up instantly, wide awake, my mind flashing from one family member to the next. When I saw the caller ID was my older brother Jamie, my heart sank. My nephew Sterling (Jamie's oldest son) and his entire little family, were in the process of moving South--had something horrible happened?
It was actually a momentary relief when Jamie said laconically, "There was an 8.2 earthquake in the Gulf, off Kodiak. A tsunami warning has gone out."
When the size of the earthquake and the position of it registered I realized we'd definitely be in the path of any tsunami from it. My first thought was, "Oh, great. Now I won't be able to make the dinners for my parents' 50th Anniversary."
My sister Megan had ordered the makings for a lobster tail dinner, while my second youngest brother Robin, who is renowned far and wide for his incredibly scrumptious coffee-rubbed prime rib roast, was sending out the makings for a second dinner. After all, a 50th wedding anniversary deserved to be recognized twice!
I already had the dessert Megan had sent in my freezer, but the makings for both dinners were supposed to come out in the mail tomorrow on our once-a-week, weather permitting mail day.
After I got off the phone with Jamie, I tried getting enough of an Internet signal to find out what was going on with the earthquake. The official tsunami warning was on my tablet but I couldn't find a usable signal. I called my sister Megan in Miami. There's a four hour time difference between us so it was pushing five in the morning her time and she's an early riser--but she's well aware of the time difference and would know something was wrong with me calling at the hour. I could hear the expectation of something bad in her calm voice, much like the time I'd had to call her when Robin was in a near-fatal car crash.
While I talked to her I slipped on warm clothes and put things in my two emergency backpacks that were already stocked with survival supplies and important documents--we'd been through tsunami warnings before. My Maine Coon, Katya, wasn't in the house, but I trusted that she'd get to high ground in time to avoid being swept away.
I went over to my parents' house to wake them up, though I hesitated. We had a tsunami safe spot, the only high spot on the tip of this peninsula where we live, but it was quite a trek up a rocky, seaweed strewn beach, around and over a tangle of drift logs, a long walk and then a steep climb up to Tsunami Hill. Both of my parents have mobility issues and I didn't think either of them would be able to make it through the obstacle course of the drift logs, let alone the rest of the way. So should I just let them sleep? Odds were the tsunami warning would be a false alarm, like all the others we'd gotten over the years.
But the size of the quake and the position of it were just too ominous. I decided they had to make the choice themselves of whether they'd try to get to our tsunami safe spot or not.
I woke them up and gave them the bad news. My mom, for one, felt the same relief I had. She said she thought I was waking them up at that time of the night to tell them something bad had happened to one of their kids. Her mind went immediately Megan and her daughter Aroon for some reason--maybe because of the worries we had when Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Miami a few months back.
When I told her the even worse news, that if there was a tsunami they wouldn't get their anniversary dinners, she laughed and then added wistfully, "And no dessert!" She shared that she and my dad had been brooding about the dessert they knew was in my freezer for the last week. When you live out in the bush, locked in by winter, these are the sorts of things that can quickly develop into an obsession. It sounded like they'd been planning a commando raid on my freezer to liberate the dessert before their anniversary.
Both of my parents were matter-of-factly certain that they wouldn't be able to make the Iron Man trek to Tsunami Hill. My mom insisted that I go, though. I knew it was a mother's need to keep her children safe, but she cunningly added, to get me to comply, "That way someone will survive to help me and Dad." I couldn't fault that logic.
I contacted my sister again to get more information before setting out into the cold night, and to relay to Jamie who lives in the nearby village. He had a woman and two kids staying with him and had to worry about the need to get them to high ground in time. My dad was working the other phone, too. At one point we heard that the city of Seward, the first place that would be hit by a tsunami, had been evacuated and/or already wiped out. Megan's next news to me confirmed that there was definitely a tsunami. A tsunami buoy in the Gulf of Alaska near the epicenter of the quake had detected a thirty-five foot change in sea level.
Again, my first reaction was relief. "A thirty-five foot tsunami headed our way? Good. Now I don't have to climb Tsunami Hill." The hill was only thirty feet high--at low tide. And the tide was coming in. I might as well stay with my parents.
We figured out that their house would probably be the safest. Mine was closest to the trees and would be crushed into splinters by the weight of my parents' house and their large workshop. I carried my backpacks over there and heard that the wave was due to hit us four hours after the earthquake. We worried about all of our friends in Alaskan towns that were right on the ocean, like Sitka and Craig. At that time the warning was going out for the entire West Coast of the U.S. and I worried about friends and family in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Around three a.m. the tsunami warning was canceled for our area. As it turned out, despite the massive, shallow quake--later downgraded to a 7.8, followed by hundreds of aftershocks--only a few small waves, under a foot high, were generated. The tsunami buoy that registered the 35 foot wave was actually so close to the epicenter that what it recorded was seismic energy affecting the seafloor rather than the surface.
Katya seems to have suffered the most from the false alarm. She has some post traumatic issues from returning home in the middle of the night to find me gone, all the lights on, and the hated, horrible backpacks out (which usually means I'm going somewhere). In the nights since the tsunami warning she's taken to lying on my boots so I can't leave and glaring at me. When I try to reach for them she swats at me, or lightly bites me. Unbeknownst to her they're actually my summer boots--my winter boots are a couple sizes too big so that I can wear bulky, warm layers of socks in them. But whatever gives her peace of mind is fine with me.
At any rate, the anniversary dinners were back on!
Robin rubbed his roast the next evening, despite a sleepless night and a long day at the Shipyard in Ketchikan where he works. He packaged it up, put in some wine, garlic cloves, mashed potato mix, and--being the bush kid he is--threw in a bunch of flashlights. You can never have too many flashlights in the bush. He got up at four a.m. to get the package to the floatplane airlines to make sure it got out on the mail plane that day, and we'd be able to cook it as soon as we got the mail. He was assured that the weather was good and the plane would be on its way that morning.
However, our community is so tiny--only about twelve year around residents--that the sole floatplane company that handles the mail for this entire outlying region, routinely puts us on the back burner. We rarely get our mail on the scheduled mail day. Sometimes that's due to bad weather, but far more frequently it's because the airlines will put other community's needs, and paying customers, ahead of our mail. Which was exactly what happened this time.
Both anniversary dinners, having survived a tsunami, were now sitting in storage. (We weren't even sure that Megan's dinner had made it to the airlines. My parents called them, and then the store she ordered it from, but no one seemed to know where it was.) The next day the floatplane came out, but by then the tide was out and our skiff was high and dry and wouldn't float again until after dark. We wouldn't be able to pick up the mail from the post office. Jamie picked it up for us, having to break through ice with his skiff to get to the post office, but after he took the mail back to his place the tide went out on him, too. The dinners were a little bit closer to us, but were still in transit. We were most concerned about the pre-rubbed roast--it had been traveling for longer than most roasts are intended to travel--or marinate.
But finally the roast made it to us, a couple days before my parents' anniversary. Rather than wait until the day, we cooked it almost as soon as it came in the house. Marinating it for that long in the coffee rub turned out to make the roast even more succulently tender and flavorful than usual--and that's saying something! I've included Robin's recipe below. But I'm not sure you'll enjoy it as much as we did without the tsunami warning, floatplane hassle, and tide issues!
ROBIN'S COFFEE-RUBBED PRIME RIB
This recipe is for an 8-pound prime rib roast cooked to medium rare.
Combine the following:
1 cup instant coffee ground to a fine powder
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon Lawrey's season salt
1 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon sage
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
Pat the roast dry and then liberally apply the coffee rub to the entire roast with your hands until the rub stays dry. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes as you preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.
Put uncovered roast in a skillet or roaster [we put a rack in and film of water under it] and surround with garlic cloves. Cook for 20 minutes.
Remove roast and re-seal using some of the remaining rub any place that has peeled back. Replace in 350 degree oven. Check every 30 minutes for peeling back outer shell and repair with rub. Cook until center of roast reaches 120 degrees.
Remove from oven and let sit for 10-15 minutes. Roast interior will continue to cook. [Ours was a little too rare and we had to put it back in for another 10 minutes.[
"Cut huge chunks of flesh off and enjoy the juices running down your chin as you devour it!" --Conan the Barbarian (a.k.a., my brother Robin.)