Ice and I have established a mutual understanding, a social contract, if you will. As long as I photograph it and admire it respectfully from a distance...it won't hurt me.
It wasn't always thus. There was a time when I loved seeing our floathouse, once surrounded by water, encased in ice. I'd run, slip, and slide on it in my rubber boots on my way to school. I loved that what once was liquid and impossible to stand on, now I could defy the physics of friction with the crisp breeze in my face. With this attitude you'd think I'd be headed for life as a skating prodigy.
The scene where my Olympic dreams were (unknowingly) shattered took place in a tiny, one-room school in the Alaskan bush when I was a bright-eyed, pig-tailed, rosy-cheeked 7-year-old.
It was a stormy day so our teacher, who ruled over all grades, K-12, decided that we would do P.E. class inside. She set up an obstacle course that involved a balance board, hopscotch, and climbing over desks.
It was right in the middle of my epic assault on the desk when a schoolmate, apparently with visions of future Iron Man glory, shoved me so he could scale the desk. I fell to the floor, hitting at exactly the right angle to break my tailbone.
At the time I didn't know that this was where my chance to medal at Nationals ended. At the time my greatest dismay was over not being allowed to go on a family trip to visit my Uncle Rand and his girlfriend Linda at their isolated cabin up Wolf Creek. My entire family was headed out in the skiff on an adventure into the wilderness, but I couldn't go because it was feared the rough skiff-ride would be too painful and cause more harm.
Instead I stayed at school all alone except my grandmother, who was teacher's aid and in charge of Halloween decorations. I was put to work crumpling strips of orange and black confetti paper and glueing them to pieces of construction paper cut in the shape of an owl.
Feeling completely abandoned and in pain, bitter tears rained down on the paper making it soggy and hard to glue as the windows turned black and the school generator rumbled, keeping the electric lights going as they glared down on paper witches and goblins tacked around the chalkboard. To this day I hotly despise Halloween with the heat of a 1,000 suns.
Tangent: As I grew up I came to wonder at the peculiarity of parents teaching their kids to never take candy from strangers, but then turning around on one arbitrary day of the year to escort their kids to stranger's doors and take candy from them. This observation, by the way, did not improve my opinion of Halloween.
Now returning you to your regularly scheduled program: It wasn't until a few years after the tragic Waterloo-Desk Affair that I had an opportunity to tap into my champion-skating potential. My sister and I were visiting my Uncle Rory and Aunt Marion and their two small daughters LeAnn and JoDean at their log cabin in Saltery Cove one November. During the course of our visit the lake above the cove froze and we all went on a skating party.
I don't know how it happened, but I found myself off by myself. At first I exulted in the freedom of moving over the ice with the brisk breeze in my face. But as I did a Bielman--okay, it was a simple turn--my foot shot out from under me and I landed hard on my backside.
There was no pain. In fact, there was nothing at all, just me lying spread eagle on the ice staring up at the wintry, overcast sky. I could see the tips of the evergreen forest that encircled the lake. I don't remember hearing anything and I couldn't speak.
I also couldn't move.
I flashed back to the boy shoving me and then me falling on the floor curled up in pain. I'd been surrounded by people then and hadn't been allowed to feel fear.
Now, though, all alone and completely immobile, I wondered how long I would lie there before anyone found me. And then what? Would I be able to move ever again?
Fortunately, after ten to fifteen years--okay, minutes--I found feeling returning and I was able to get back up and very shakily and carefully make my way off the ice. I decided, the moment I was on firm land again, that Olympic figure skating glory was overrated and I vowed to never step onto the ice again.
Today I restrict my interactions with ice mainly to photography, as you can see in the accompanying photos.
"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!
Tara Neilson (ADOW)