"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.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)