"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.
I'm sure you've been wondering what I've been up these days. There's a supermoon with super high, nineteen foot tides, so I'm taking advantage of my new walk system to shore to be out there at night making sure the vermin don't stage a coup in these parts. I hear squeakings all the time to that effect. My main fear is that the martin, mink, and otters won't keep up their side and the vermin will run amok and reach plague proportions.
My person is out there working on log projects all day, and sometimes at night, taking advantage of the full moon. I don't think she appreciates, however, that there shouldn't be any slacking during a supermoon. I make it a point to wake her all throughout the a.m. hours, encouraging her to get out there with me and keep the vermine hordes at bay. She yells at me. Obviously, I need to put more work into her upbringing.
Of course, as hardworking as I am, I also require that my hotwater bottle be filled for those times when I have to re-charge my verminator batteries. I let her know, quite loudly sometimes, in the middle of the night, when this is necessary. On the plus side, I've, after much hard work, trained her to tuck me under the blankets of my of my own bed on those colder nights. I have hopes that eventually she'll be a fully trained, fully functional verminator assistant.
I'll keep you updated on how it goes. Happy supermoon to you all (except the vermin)!
According to a friend: "We all think that living in Alaska is one big party (except when the rabid otters are on the march)." When I told this friend that I was going to do a blog about otters, he immediately sent me an email titled "Beware of Otter" and warned, "Just don't get too close to them without having your gun and a sturdy knife and your aerosol otter-repellant spray with you! Those critters are nassssss-tay!" And my brothers regularly assure me that there will be a Revenge of the Land Otters apocalypse at some point in our near future.
How did the delightful river/land otter wind up with such a bad rep?
I think it's mostly due to the Tlingit tales of the Kushtaka, a half-human, half-otter hybrid that terrorized the early Native Alaskans with its shapeshifting and kidnapping ways. (For more on the Kushtaka, see the category "Myth Busting.")
Some famous totem poles propagate this otter scaremongering as well, such as the "Man Captured By Otters" and the "Fight with the Land Otters" totem poles. A story that accompanies one otter pole tells of four Tlingit boys who catch and barbecue some salmon. (They dig a shallow hole and place heated rocks in it and cover them with skunk cabbage leaves. The fish, wrapped in more of the leaves, are placed on top to cook. We've cooked trout this way and it's delicious.) Sounds charming, right?
The story goes from folk to Brother's Grimm in a hurry, so be forewarned. Not content with simply eating the salmon, the boys decide to throw some live salmon onto the hot rocks and mock and ridicule them when they wriggle. By doing so they break a fundamental law: no living creature should be ridiculed or tortured.
Their bad deed does not go unpunished. One the way home the boys' canoe capsizes and they're kidnapped by vengeful land otters who haul them off to their den. The villagers come looking for them, and when they find them they build a fire in front of the otters' den and throw urine on the fire, presumably to smoke them out. The fire gets out of control and the boys and most of the otters are killed. But enough otters survive to, we can only suppose, exact some bloodchilling, horrible revenge upon the villagers in the future.
The end. Sleep well, kids.
My introduction to otters was much less Grimm. It was a family film called "Tarka the Otter." I barely remember it now, having seen it when I was about seven when we lived in Thorne Bay (at the time, the largest logging camp in the world), but I remember the friendly feeling I had toward all otters after watching it.
Since then I've seen them cavorting on docks and logs, entire families playing with jovial good will. A few summers ago, I had a close encounter with one that convinced me that while they might feel some (perhaps justified) condescenion toward humans, they aren't as vicious as their reputation would have you believe.
While I was upstairs in my floathouse, I heard what sounded like a dog ease in through my cat door and thump inside. Surprised, since there are no dogs here, I looked down from my loft and saw a huge otter standing on its hind legs in my kitchen, casually looking around like he was thinking about buying the place if the price was right.
My Main Coon Katya got up from where she was sleeping and slunk halfway down the stairs to subside on a middle riser and stare at him. They eyed each other, neither making an attempt to escalate the stand-off. Finally, Mr. Otter gave a kind of insulting shrug, obviously not impressed, and oozed out the cat door.
This summer while my sister Megan was visiting, we took a hike around the outer rocks that protect our small bay and stumbled upon an otter den, complete with several rooms. Like the worst sort of tourists, we plunged right in and checked out the bedroom area where the dirt was tamped down in a circle, snapping pictures. It segued into the bathroom, which in turn led to the slide down to the water. The kitchen area was strewn with abalone and sea urchin shells which we picked up to admire and photograph.
Out on the patio with the fantastic view of Clarence Strait, Megan found a guest hanging out under a sea urchin shell. The slug looked up at her quizzically, like we do when the tourists climb onto our front porches and peer in through our windows.
The den was obviously home to quite a large family and Megan and I began to wonder what would happen if they returned while the two Goldilocks were there making free and easy with their belongings and home. We decided to keep on hiking.
While we were oohing and aahing over some bubble feeding humpbacks in the distance, Megan suddenly pointed. "Look, it's an otter!" She gave a slightly nervous laugh. "How long do you think it's been watching us?"
We thought guiltily of our trampling through the otter den. "I'm sure they won't hold it against us," I said, thinking about the otter who had barged into my house sans invitation. Turn about was fair play. Right?
Besides, otters are nice, intelligent, friendly folk. And despite what the totem pole tales and my brothers say, there's no such thing as a revenge otter.
Note: Special thanks to my dad for the final image.