"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.
A silent, sanguinary foe gathers its reserves and grows into a mighty invasion force, striking in the heart of winter when least expected....
As kids we were accustomed to practically living in the water in the summertime, but not when an eerie, rusty sludge marred the clear water with long, bloody streaks and smeared the beaches with its sticky slime.
We knew that harvesting shellfish wasn't allowed then, either. Once inoffensive, tasty sea creatures were now poisonous. We heard adults talking about "toxic algae blooms," "lips going numb," "paralysis," "vomiting," "death."
One of my little brothers, growing up hearing this talk, said to someone who offered him a locally harvested shellfish dinner: "Forget it! You think I want to end up with ESP?"
He meant PSP: Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, which is caused by a toxin produced by a dinoflagellate (a tiny sea organism). Shellfish can digest them without harm, but when humans eat the infected shellfish the result can be deadly.
Some think that you can tell if clams, mussels, etc., are poisonous by holding one to your mouth and seeing if your lips go numb, but the truth is PSP symptoms only arise after the shellfish has entered the digestive tract (sypmtoms usually occur within thirty minutes after eating infected shellfish).
The dinoflagellate that causes PSP is similar to but not the same as the one that causes a red tide. PSP can be found in clams, mussles, etc., in Southeast Alaska at any time of the year, whether or not there's a red tide. On the other hand, the red tide is made up of algae which produce a harmful neurotoxin that can cause permanent illness and seizures that can result in death.
My grandfather told the story of being stuck on a boat far from help when the entire crew was crippled by shellfish poisoning. He was forced to watch one of his companions suffer a horrible death. After hearing that story my mom refused to harvest any clams or shellfish at any time of the year, which was perhaps just as well.
The menacing, undulating red skin on the sea has always fascinated me. In my mind, as a kid, the color tied it to a "rock opera" we used to listen to all the time we were growing up in the wilderness. It was Jeff Wayne's Version of The War of the Worlds based on H.G. Wells' Martian invasion story, narrated by Richard Burton. Our uncle Lance had recorded it onto cassette for us and it became such a part of our lives that we sang the songs from it is as we played in the woods and on the beach.
"No, Nathaniel, no." My sister and I harmonized the part of Beth who believed in possibilities for the future despite the Martian devastation. "There must be more to life/there has to be a way...."
My brothers, on the other hand, loved to imitate the murderous Martians' chilling war cry: "Ullaaah" to creep out my mom.
As the story progresses and the Martians take over Earth, the description of a charred, post-apocalyptic world fit well with what we saw around us: The burned down cannery buildings and twisted and mangled machinery bleeding its rust into a Martian red beach.
It sank so deep into our psyches from repeated listenings that I think it's why, in my oldest brother's trapping log when he was a teenager, he counted not how many marten he'd gotten, but, rather, in a Freudian slip, recorded: "I killed two more Martians today."
I do wonder what future historians would make of this trapping log with its specific and accurate description of the area. How could they not conclude that the Martian Invasion had occurred in the remote fastness of the Alaskan wilderness? And that a teenage boy had taken on the red planet warriors single-handedly.
The eerie factor to the red tide has grown in recent years. Ever since 2015 we've found that the days without red tide are now the exception.
It used to be a rule of thumb, that we grew up reciting at the same time we learned "A before E except after C," that the months with the letter R in them, the cold months, were safe from red tides.
Now the red tide is surging against the logs of my floathouse in the middle of winter. The pictures I took of the red tide to accompany this account were taken this month. Red tide in January! It would have been unimagineable when I was a kid.
Every time I look out my French door and see the sinister red swirls, I can't help thinking of a silent, stealthy army gathering in strength to take over the planet.
And I keep hearing Richard Burton's voice: "Across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded the earth with envious eyes...and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us."
In my column this week for www.capitalcityweekly.com I describe my chimney misadventures in a story titled "Procrastination Doesn't Pay." It will appear Wednesday the 18th of this month.
At this time of the year we hear floatplanes flying low over us every day, in ever wider circles. They're spotter planes, sent out to search for the schools of herring that spawn in the spring, for the sac roe fishery.
An entire school of herring can spawn in a few hours in the intertidal zone, laying their eggs in seaweed, and producing an egg density of up to 6,000,000 eggs per square meter. The above picture may look like scrambled eggs, but it's actually a stretch of seaweed covered in herring eggs.
This year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the herring fishery early for this area, 4,600 pounds short of the quota they had established, due to the unexpectedly low number of herring spawning.
Overfishing caused the herring fishery to collapse worldwide in 1993.
"Beneath him on the endless slope and boundless floor of the valley, moved a black mass, creeping with snail-like slowness toward the south. It seemed as long as the valley and as wide. It reached to the dim purple distances and disappeared there. The densest part covered the center of the valley, from which ran wide straggling arms, like rivers narrowing toward their sources in the hills....This black mass was alive....Acres of buffalo, miles of buffalo! The shaggy, ragged herd had no end. It dominated slopes, level bottom lands, and the hazy reaches beyond." --The Last of the Plainsmen by Zane Grey.
I remembered reading this as a kid when one morning in spring I woke up to the sound of a vast herd out on the strait. And when I went to look, there was a river of black, moving bodies stretching as far as the eye could see up and down the strait. They were ducks, interspersed with seagulls. The noise was tremendous as they squabbled, splashed, and beat the air with their wings by the million as they gorged themselves on the enormous school of herring that had come to our shore to spawn.
The water had turned to a beautiful, milky, electric green and herring eggs coated every inch of seaweed as far as we could observe, sparkling in the sunshine. Sea lions roared and snorted. Humpback whales glided with majestic slow grace through the endless stream of ducks and gulls, spouting out their blowholes.
Little did we know as we stood on the rocks, in the last decade before the turn of the millennium, and watched the scene for hours, that it would be the last time we saw such a sight.
Like the buffalo that had roamed the American plains in their millions but then were decimated for their hides in the mid-to-late 1800s, the herring that were once so plentiful--I remember going to school in the nearby village and seeing the harbor flash solid silver, it was so clogged with herring--are now a vanishing species.